Food in Istanbul

My favorite sight has been the mother-daughter pair I saw on the Bosporous ferry.  They were hugging each other on the bench and had virtually the same profile features, yet the mother carried full traditional dress and the daughter wore a mini-skirt and was otherwise dressed comparably.  They loved each other dearly.

How you interpret these women is central to how you view Istanbul.  One intuition is that they are quite alike, another is that they are quite different.

And the food?  You can eat the traditional dishes, in simpler settings, or you can pay extra to eat them — slightly modified — in more gussied up surroundings.  The key to eating well here is to go simple and to look for the best and purest versions of straightforward dishes.  World class raw ingredients are at your disposal, if only you don't let anyone ruin them.

It's not hard to find the good stuff.  Thousands of street restaurants offer seafood (the fried small smelts are my favorite, then the sea bream or "levrek"), eggplants, fava beans, doner kebab, fried mussels, salads with cheese and tomatoes, lamb brains, fried and baked potatoes, Turkish ravioli (harder to find), spicy kabob with sumac, and other delicacies.  It is common for the small restaurants to specialize, an indication of quality.  A meal in these places, with one small portion, will cost six to ten dollars but you can (and should) order more.  Turkish sweets are the dessert and I prefer something with pistachio.

The rest is a sideshow.  Avoid all restaurants near the main sights or near clusters of tourist hotels.  Avoid most of the places — even Turkish ones — on the main thoroughfares.  Look for the neighborhood side streets with clusters of these small restaurants, just off the larger roads.  If you order small dishes, you can visit two or three restaurants in one meal, no problem.

My favorite small Istanbul restaurants have been the soup houses, especially the tripe soup (NB: you don't have to like most tripe dishes to enjoy these creations).  You ladle in some liquid garlic sauce, paprika, a bit of chili pepper, and a green herb of some kind.  Some of these places are open for breakfast.

Unless you've bled this city dry and sampled all the major dishes (which would take a long time), the return to going upscale, or seeking innovation, is not overwhelming.  What happens is that you're either paying higher prices to be in the company of attractive Turkish women or to impress attractive Turkish women who are already in your company.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, but the basic market model here is segregation of restaurant type.  If it's food you're after, don't pay more for the culinary twists.  The food will remain recognizably Mediterranean but it won't be the classic treatment you are looking for and which to you is still original on the fifth day of your trip.

If your restaurant has a good number of attractive Turkish women in it, perhaps you made a food mistake.  Or should I say a money mistake?  Or what kind of mistake?  The cuisine still will be good.

The good here is very good and the best isn't that much better. 


I've been living in Istanbul for five years now. I live in 4. Levent, which is on the other side of the metro from Taksim, the center of town. I find that Mantı (what you call Turkish ravioli, I think) is easy to find in more residential places like where I live. Also, there are a number of very good Ottoman dishes you should try, my favorite being the heavenly Hunkar Beğendi, which is lamb over an eggplant puree.

Once problem, if you're a fan of beer, is that there is not much variety to speak of there, but that's really more of a problem for me as an expatriate than for the tourist.

If you want to eat the best kebab, find yourself a Günaydın. It is the best food available in Ä°stanbul for a reasonable price. Also, a little strangely, they have the best steaks.

Evidently you missed Tavuk göÄŸsü. You're lucky!


I think the two women - mother and daughter - are very similar and maybe the same but in different stages of their lives. The key is that they understand each other. I would guess the mom wants her daughter to dress that way but realizes it will change under other pressures, such as her husband wanting her to dress more conservatively, societal pressures, and of course age. I think most girls under 21 dress openly in Turkey, about half cover up by their thirties and almost all cover at retirement age.

If I find myself in a restaurant full of attractive Turkish women, whether I've made a mistake will be determined by events much later in the evening.

Alvin, you are not right with your observations. I am a turlkish woman, with a family who never dressed conservatively and never will. Same is true for me, my friends and their families. And let me tell you, we turkish people tend to have large families and have pretty large circle of friends. So yes that is a lot of people I know closely. Then there are those I have been able to observe in my life of living there for 30 years.... So that makes a lot of women that does not fit in your category.

Istanbul is interesting--I went during Ramadhan. Being observant, I was first surprised that there were many people who were not.

But then looking more carefully, I realized you couldn't tell who was observant and who was not just by looking at them. The girl with uncovered dyed blonde hair, wearing a sleeveless dress sitting next to her hijab-wearing friend were both waiting for Iftar (breaking-fast meal), while some of those who you would think were not urban sophisticates, and thus much more likely to be observant, were sitting outside at McDonalds, chowing down on Big Macs.

Religiosity and dress are very different things and it is very refreshing to see this.

The food was very good of course.


I'm surprised you haven't discussed music more in your blog. There is excellent music in Turkey. in a wide range of venues. I oddly had the best time in random bars where they couldn't believe that you didn't want to clap along or borrow a tambourine so that you could participate. This happened to me several times during my one month visit, but it has never happened to me in the states.

I hope you're reading Pamuk's Istanbul again, Tyler! That book and the city are forever linked in my mind - when you walk along the residential districts in the hills heading toward Besiktas, you're obligated to gaze with Pamuk's melancholic longing toward the beautiful Bosporus. Is there another book in the "about a city" genre that I should pick up? Mehta's Bombay book is very good, but he'd been away from the city so long that it felt a bit like a book by an expat. Why can't I read Borges' Buenos Aires, or Murakami's Tokyo? This is an underrepresented genre.

Is it me, or are Turkish women really beautiful?

And not just a few Turkish women, but I have met many really beautiful Turkish women.

I mean, I don't want to commit a bias here, but maybe the distribution Turkish women are to the right of the mean, perhaps with little variability.


I wonder if Tyler can explain why he must go to Turkey to get high diversity of food ingredients that are fresh prepared in different ways.

Doesn't economic theory argue that the free market and wealth will result in lots of creativity and diversity?

Isn't the argument that factory jobs leaving the US based on the wealth effect will lead to many diverse and creative jobs opening up?

Yet the description of food in Turkey suggests it is more creative and diverse than in the US. In the US, creativity and quality in food comes in the high priced places, with well dressed women, not in the cheap holes in the wall.

Too bad, that in Istanbul we do not have the variety of kitchen food processors, but at least we can inform ourselves over the net.

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