I’ve been fortunate enough to do walking food tours in several different cities such as Hong Kong and Marrakech. And while both of those were truly incredible, I’ve never tried as many different dishes as I did during my recent walking food tour of Istanbul.
I joined Istanbul On Food for a full day tour, and together we walked approximately 5 kilometers with stops for food about every 400 meters. This was a day of serious eating, and I could not have been happier! I’ll highlight my favorite dishes and the ones I found most interesting in this post, but there’s no way I’ll be able to go into detail on every dish. For that you’ll have to book your own tour!
The day started as every walking food tour of Istanbul should start, with a traditional Turkish breakfast. I am a serious fan of the Turkish breakfast, which is made of up several different types of cheeses, honey, olives, fresh breads, and thinly sliced salted local meats. Our breakfast also featured a local spread that tasted just like Nutella! It was a crowd favorite for sure.
My favorite cheese was clotted cream of water buffalo served with local honey and fresh bread. I could have easily eaten the entire serving. I didn’t ask, but something tells me it can’t be good for you: nothing that tastes that good can be.
One of the cheeses we sampled was a goat cheese that had been aged for four months in the carcass of the goat! I was glad we were told this after we had tried it, because otherwise I may have skipped it. But it was actually delicious.
And of course no Turkish breakfast would be complete without tea. The Turkish people love their tea, and it shows! To me, it seemed like the locals were constantly either drinking or ordering tea.
As we finished breakfast and continued along our walk, we learned that there is not one Michelin star restaurant in all of Istanbul. This thoroughly surprising me, because I consider Istanbul a foodie paradise.
As we meandered through the streets of Istanbul, our guide Korhan explained some of the history of the city and the fascinating culture and traditions of its people. For instance, I didn’t know that when travelling, many locals prefer to only eat Turkish food. This has nothing to do with food snobbery, but instead acts as a method for assuring food has been prepared following Halal preparation methods, which is a requirement of their Muslim faith.
Looking for what else to see and do while you're in town? Check out this Istanbul itinerary for more great suggestions!
Also, we learned that a Muslim person will never order a steak served rare or medium, but only well done. This is because their religion does not allow for blood in the food. To me, these intriguing tidbits are a major benefit of joining a walking tour. Not only will you be guided to the best, most authentic places in town, but you will learn things that you would not have known otherwise.
One of our next stops was for a selection of authentic Turkish dishes from one of the most famous restaurants in town. We were served a selection of casseroles, dips, and spreads. Korhan warned us not to fill up too fast, as we still had many stops to go. I wish I had taken his advice more seriously.
As we ate we learned more about life in Turkey- including the fact that the average Turk eats three times their body weight in bread per year. No wonder I love this country so much!
The next stop was for a dish I already knew I would like- the famous Iskender kebab. But we weren’t having this dish from just anywhere, we would be sampling the original from the shop that actually created the famous food. What makes the Iskender kebab different is that it’s served open-faced and drizzled with melted butter and yogurt. The thinly sliced meat is made using ninety percent lamb with ten percent fat. So delicious, but definitely not for anyone counting calories.
At this point in the tour, we crossed the bridge to the Asian side of the city. Before my first visit, I had assumed that the Asian and European sides were dramatically different, but that’s not the case. The sides are very similar, but the Asian side has the benefit of being less visited, and thus less touristic.
One of our first stops in Asia was for the world-famous Turkish delight. I don’t usually enjoy the varieties served at home, but I loved the unique varieties found in the shop we visited this day. There were hard candies, marzipan, and more types of Turkish delight than I could count. My favorite were those covered in rose petals and the pomegranate with double roasted pistachios.
Korhan explained a popular Turkish saying to us, “eat sweet, talk sweet.” It is because of this that candies or Turkish delights are often served during meetings with friends.
At the following stop, we tried a dish that is truly delicious if you can wrap your head around what you’re eating- a sandwich made of intestines. It may not sound great, but the locals love it, and if I hadn’t been told what it was first, I probably would have loved it too.
I actually did enjoy the flavor and seasonings on this sandwich. Locals will line up and wait for this specialty!
Up next was another stop I knew I would love. We tried mussels served two different way from a street vendor– fried, and stuffed with aromatic rice and squeezed lemon on top. When I’m in Turkey, I eat stuffed mussels pretty much daily, so it was no surprise I loved these. The fried mussels were new to me, and I loved them. I still favor midye dolma— the stuffed version.
This is another benefit to going with an organized tour rather than on your own- good guides not only know when it is the best season to have the mussels, but also which vendors are the most hygienic.
With so many stops, we were bound to run into one I didn’t care for, and this next stop was it– the pickle shop. I tried everything they offered just to be sure, but pickles (along with beets, olives, and fennel) fall into the small category of things I don’t care for. Of those who liked pickles, everyone agreed this shop had some of the best they had ever tasted.
Speaking of olives, our next stop was for a street vendor selling a wide range of local varieties. If you liked olives, you would have been in your happy place. Even though I know I don’t care for them, I make a point of always trying them to see if I can prove myself wrong. And although I won’t say I completely changed my mind, I did find an olive I didn’t hate- a citrus variety that tasted of lemons. It was less bitter and salty, and a bit sour. It’s a start.
Our next stop was for baklava and what no walking tour in Turkey would be complete without- Turkish coffee. The baklava was layered, flaky, sweet, and sprinkled with chopped pistachios. This was a perfect version of the classic dish.
The Turkish coffee can take some getting used to if you’ve not had it before. Apparently, Turkish coffee isn’t so much a type of coffee as a method of preparation. In fact, the beans aren’t even sourced from Turkey! The preparation method involves simmering, rather than boiling, finely ground coffee with water and sugar if you like. The traditional method simmers the mixture over charcoal. The coffee grounds are allowed to settle in the cup before drinking them. There is an art to drinking the coffee and knowing precisely when to stop sipping before you end up drinking some of the coffee grounds. On this day I learned I still have some practice to do before I’ve mastered this art! The bitter coffee paired perfectly with the sugary sweet baklava.
The next stop was for lahmacun and sour cherry juice. Lahmacun is a type of flatbread you might be tempted to compare to pizza (but not without risking offending a local!). Although lahmacun toppings can vary, one characteristic that sets it apart from pizza is that the pie does not have a sauce. It generally contains minced meat, is served with parsley and fresh lemon, and is so thin that it’s often eaten folded up like a burrito.
Along with the lahmacun, we were served a delicious slightly sweet and more than slightly sour cherry juice. Apparently Turkey is the world’s largest producer of sour cherries.
Next up was something I loved and something I was told you learn to love if you spend enough time in Turkey. What I loved, the tantuni, was very similar to a fried Mexican soft taco. The drink served with it was something else I’ve tried before, but if it’s an acquired taste (as many claim), I’ve not yet acquired it. A cold salted yogurt drink known as ayran, after tea, it is the second most popular drink in Turkey. Maybe I just need more exposure, because people go crazy for this drink, they absolutely love it.
The last stop of the tour would find us finishing on a(nother) sweet note, but this one had a twist and was one of the most interesting dishes I’ve ever had on a walking tour. We had Turkish ice cream paired with another traditional Turkish dessert: chicken pudding. Yes, you read that right- chicken. pudding.
First, the Turkish ice cream. If you’ve never had it before, it’s not like any other ice cream you’ve ever tasted. It melts slower, and it’s stickier, almost elastic. These features are the result of the resin of a gum tree that only grows on one Greek island. The milk used for the ice cream is goats milk. There are many places that make a version on the authentic dish, but again, this is why it pays to go with a company like Istanbul On Food. We were served several varieties of the classic recipe.
Alongside the Turkish ice cream, we tried a dish that was a first for me, the chicken pudding I mentioned before. I love chicken, and I like pudding, so I wasn’t as scared of this dish as some, but I was definitely curious.
This dish is a Roman recipe that dates back at least 1500 years. Milk, sugar, and finely shredded white chicken meat are added to rice flour to make this dish. When you try the dish, you actually don’t taste the chicken at all. The dessert is not overly sweet but is instead more creamy or milky. The consistency is thicker than pudding. It was actually very delicious, and I will definitely try it again.
As I write this post weeks later, I appreciate this tour not only for the huge variety of dishes that we tried (I’m still full) but also for how much I was able to learn about Turkey and Turkish people. This wasn’t just a walking food tour of Istanbul, but also a chance to learn more about one of my favorite cities in the world.
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Which dish looked best to you? Is there one dish you absolutely wouldn’t try? Let me know in the comments section below!
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Disclaimer: Although I was a guest of Istanbul On Food, as always, all opinions remain my own.