Sunday, 26 February 2012

On location: Istanbul

Meat-heavy meze and kebabs: I had to admit, although the sights of Istanbul captured my imagination, the sustenance didn't really have the same effect. I was certainly looking forward to touring Topkapi Palace, getting snap happy in the Hagia Sophia and taking a ferry across the Bosphorus from Europe to Asia, but the prospect of finding enough pescetarian-friendly fodder for 3 days was decidedly daunting.

The guidebooks did little to allay my fears; the Guardian fared better: thanks to its helpful 'top 10' guides, I discovered the Istanbul Eats bloggers and their tips for dining in the city. Vegetarian food barely got a mention, but fish restaurants seemed plentiful, and I learned that intrepid diners can fill up on a sandwich stuffed with the grilled catch of the day down by Galata Bridge, which is packed full of fishermen from dawn until dusk. Thankfully, Turkey's most cosmopolitan city seems to be cottoning on to serving meat-free fare, partly in order to cash in on the tourist trade. I was also pleased to note the availability of vegetarian options in the city's meyhanes (traditional restaurants specialising in meze).

The Blue Mosque

A rare find in the tourist haven of Sultanahmet (where the palace, Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia are all located), Rumeli is a restaurant free of tiresome touts. It doesn't need any: it's simple menu of well-prepared Turkish and international dishes speaks for itself. The setting is cosy and intimate, with exposed brick walls and an open fire offering some welcome respite from the February chill. My vegetable kebab (17 TL) turned out to be a plate of various grilled vegetables and rice, while A's shish kebab (26 TL) at least featured a stick to hold it together, conforming to our expectations of a kebab. Both were delicious and reasonably-priced for the area, although the meat was significantly more than the vegetarian dish. We we also served a complimentary basket of bread and some olives.

Vegetable kebab

Rumeli is at Ticarethane Sokak 8, Sultanahmet. Open daily.

Topkapi Palace

A lokanta is where spending-savvy Turks choose to lunch. With a counter filled with constantly replenished hot dishes, customers at these budget restauants choose by sight from the meat, fish and vegetable dishes on offer, which are then served to them at their table. Frills are minimal at Sefa, although this Sultanahmet spot was a cut above some we saw. We were reassured by the fact that we were the only tourists dining as we tucked into our plates of admittedly rather lethargic-looking lunch. Appearances were deceptive: all my vegetarian dishes were simple but flavoursome, with the garlicky mushrooms and spinach served with yoghurt particularly good. A well-priced way to fill up at lunch time (50 TL for 2 including drinks).

Sefa is at Nuruosmaniye Caddesi 17, Sultanahmet.

Apple tea

Fürreya Galata Balikcisi

Under the gaze of the Galata Tower in gritty but trendy Beyoglu, Fürreya Galata Balikcisi is a pocket-sized dream- providing you like fish, that is. The petite restaurant is modern and welcoming, with a short, well-priced menu of fresh fish and salads. We opted for the fish wraps (9TL) and a Mediterranean salad (9TL); both were light and tasty. The fish was flaky and perfectly-cooked, encased in flatbread and was well-complemented by some caramelised onions.

Fürreya Galata Balikcisi is at Serdar-i Ekram Sokak 2, Beyoglu.

View from Beyoglu

Krependeki Imroz

Apparently an evening in one of the meyhanes (meze restaurants) on Nevizade Sokak is a quintessential Istanbul experience. Squeezing through the hubbub of this Beyoglu backstreet early on a Sunday evening, I could see that these establishments aren't short on atmosphere: almost all were packed. We grabbed a table at Krependeki Imroz and were soon greeted by a grinning waiter brandishing a tray of bite-sized portions, covered in clingfilm. Our confusion gave way to comprehension: we were supposed to choose from this 3D menu. Unfortunately, most of the items on the tray weren't sufficiently discernible, so we asked for a print menu instead. We opted for 6 fish and vegetarian meze between 2: the calamari, vine leaves and borek were all hits, the fava bean mush less so. It may have been traditional, but its texture wasn't exactly appealing to our uninitiated palates. Portions were quite generous, making it a good value dinner.

Fava beans: no, ta

Krependeki Imroz is at Nevizade Sokak 16, Beyoglu.

Street food

If you're eating on the run or trying to save your lira, street food is where its at. Almost every corner has some sort of edible offering; kebab stalls huddle around any kind of transport hub and carts selling corn on the cob and Turkish pretzels speckle the streets. It was well worth parting with a couple of lira for some corn, which I elegantly devoured while waiting for a tram; one lira for a sesame-covered pretzel-meets-bread roll was also money well spent. Hungover and hungry in Uskudar on the Asian side of the city, a kebab stall saw us right: A's doner kebab was better than a greasy English offering, and my rice with chickpeas was just the carb hit I needed. We didn't get the chance to test out any of the grilled fish on offer by the water's edge, but it certainly smelled good. A makeshift barbecue in a backstreet may not sound like the best place to sample the catch of the day, but judging by the number of locals tucking in, it might well be.

You can read more about my Istanbul experiences here on my travel blog Tales of a Brit Abroad.


  1. Would love to go here some day, but it does sound challenging - lots of "good to know" information.I hate to admit it, but I am an "uninitiated palate" when it comes to textures. I could probably deal with myself, but not my family here.

  2. Thanks, I'm glad you found it helpful. I think as long as you're prepared most people would find something they could enjoy. As for the textures, it was only the fava beans that were odd to my palate!

  3. Kate, in addition to your excellent suggestions, next time in Istambul you should also visit Gulluoglu, a pastry shop that has specialized in baklava and other desserts made with phyllo for more than 100 years. Some say it has the best desserts in Turkey.

  4. I'm SO glad you found so many options for your dietary needs, Kate. While I'm not vegetarian, I DO love vegetarian food and eat it often. :-)

  5. Thanks Riccardo, that pastry shop definitely sounds worth a visit! And Krista, you'd have loved all the great food I'm sure :)


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