Friday, 25 October 2013

Istanbul: my best meals there (and the food scams)

I had eaten Turkish food before, in this or that other restaurant during the year and a half that I lived in London. It was good food, prepared simply, but healthy and fulfilling, but I knew in Istanbul there were going to be many other options. I have no idea if the food I tried in Istanbul was genuinely Turkish or a mish-mash of various influences, but it was certainly very tasty and inexpensive.

Spices in Arasta Bazaar, Istanbul
Spice delight

It was a pleasant surprise that I could tune into the cuisine of the city so easily. I like meat and I don't mind spicy food, so every restaurant in Istanbul harboured a perfect selection of  succulent dishes. This is a şiş kebab with bulgur, grilled  peppers and tomatoes, plus onion salad.  It was served to me in a small restaurant in Nurusmaniye Caddesi, near the Grand Bazaar, and as it often happens in Istanbul I also got a complimentary apple tea and a dessert (baklava covered with crushed pistachios). The restaurant was called Buhara Ocakbasi and I later found out that it is listed on the Lonely Planet. I came back another evening, and I was not disappointed. The food is a bit spicy as you can imagine, but it's healthy and fresh.

Sis kebab, with rice, peppers, tomatoes and onion salad
My sis kebab
This is instead one of my lunches, a  choice of meze (appetizers) that included many kinds of spread (tzatziki, hummus etc.)  some crudités and dolma (stuffed vine leaves). I also loved that puffed bread, it was hollow inside! The area was Çemberlitas, a very touristic area I agree, but I was sightseeing there and it didn't make much sense to change neighbourhood. It was a very satisfying lunch, anyway, and if anyone wants to tell me that I should have taken a ferry just for lunch I will answer that my stomach was grumbling just too much!

A selection of meze

Another good meal I had was this spicy beef stew casserole with peppers and tomatoes, served with rice and some delicious bread. 

Stew with rice and peppers

Didn't you know that some food in Istanbul is spicy and hot? As if you couldn't tell from these chillies for sell near the spice bazaar...

Chillies, Istanbul, Spice Bazaar
I thought I was in the south of Italy for a moment!

Another unforgettable thing from my Istanbul trip are the sweets. When you visit the spice bazaar you are constantly pestered by vendors that want you to taste this or that other sweet. Not that I complained! Many people find Turkish sweets too sugary, and I can only have two or three of them before going into overload. My favourite kind of lokum (Turkish delight) is with nuts, because it is a mixture of chewy and crunchy. It was also served to me by the Turkish Airlines staff as a treat as soon as we took off. And by the way, Turkish Airlines serves some of the best on-flight meals you can imagine. 

Turkish sweets
Turkish sweets for sell

And of course the spices: it's one of the reasons why Istanbul is famous. They make colourful piles and are one of the most photographed things in Istanbul. Some I had never heard of, like sumac, others are also common in Mediterranean cusine, like oregano.

Spice Bazaar, Istanbul
Spice stall in the Spice Bazaar

About food scams and the like

It seemed obvious to me, especially while walking in the Spice Bazaar or simply talking to locals, that there are a few food scams most tourists are unaware of. While it seemed pretty obvious to me that things like the Ottoman spice mix or the Viagra tea you can find in the Spice Bazaar are made for tourists and don't actually exist in Turkish cuisine, other scams are harder to decode. For example, I have been told that apple tea is an invention for tourists and it's actually instant tea, yet the waiters in the restaurants denied it and kept offering me this apple tea no local actually drinks. When I stopped for a drink at a stall near the second-hand book market at the edges of the Grand Bazaar, I asked for regular black tea instead. It also comes in beautiful tulip-shaped glasses, and it is served with sugar but no milk.

Spices in Arasta Bazaar, Istanbul
Spices in the Arasta Bazaar

Another scam in Istanbul is that involving saffron. While trying to buy Iranian saffron, the spice seller confessed that what is labelled "Turkish saffron" or "Indian saffron" isn't saffron at all, but turmeric or a very cheap and tasteless Spanish saffron which you would be insane to buy because you can probably find better quality in your local supermarket back home. Good-quality saffron should be red, not yellow when you buy it. It only becomes yellow when you cook it. Good-quality Iranian saffron comes in little plastic packages and it's rather expensive (I think I paid around 25TL I think, but you can bargain). You can see the pistils inside.

Want to know something more about food scams and conspiracies in the Spice bazaar? Read this interesting article by Delicious Istanbul.


  1. Yummy that looks delicious, I'm not really into sweets but I love spicy food. I also love markets were you can buy all different kind of spices. Good tip about the saffron, I did not know that, thanks.

    1. I'm happy I was useful. Browsing the markets it's one of the joys of visiting places like Istanbul. I am never tired of it!

  2. I must've gained a good 3 lbs. from eating that puffed bread alone - it's so good! And I totally agree that Turkish Airlines has the best food I've had on a plane - hands down. They have a chef on all of their long flights. But even on their shorter flights - the snacks and sandwiches were always so fresh and good. I bought sumac at the Spice Bazaar and still haven't used it. I believe its frequently used in salads in Turkey.

    1. My flight was only 3 hours I believe, maybe three hours and a half, and I still got a complete meal. I was tempted to buy a random spice and then use it someday in kitchen, but there were so many things to buy that I settled on scarves and two pairs of sultana pants that are still my favourites for the summer! :-)

  3. I am glad that I am eating lunch whilst reading this. The food is so colourful and looks very tasty. I'm not keen on spicey food though, was it easy to find non-spicey options?

    Thanks for the insight to all the food scams.

    1. Hi Guy, welcome to my blog!
      Yes, it was easy to get non-spicy food. They have things like lentil soups, salads and fish which is not spicy. Some of the meatballs are also less spicy!

  4. Haha, that's quite interesting ! @ Indian Saffron. It's very true. Authentic Indian saffron is grown in Kashmir, the northmost region of India.

  5. I love the colors in all these pictures! Awesome post Stefania!


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