If you’re headed to Turkey, put this fantastic Istanbul food tour on your itinerary!
Yummy Istanbul Food Tour
Every time I start thinking about the food in Turkey, I start drooling. I can’t pronounce any names of the dishes or identify most of the ingredients, but I can tell you that no one offers up the same satisfactory culinary experience as the Turks. And because it’s mostly vegetables and olive oil, you can eat as much as you want without feeling guilty!….right? Right!
Turkey is a huge country with a long history, and its food reflects that. Every region has its own special dishes and flavors and ways of cooking. Only in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, can you explore every cuisine that the country has to offer all in one place. And food is as integral to life in Istanbul as the Bosphorus itself. That’s why, for a foodie, an Istanbul food tour is an absolute must-do.
Going on food tours is one of my favorite things to do when traveling, but I always have a few requirements when choosing what company to go with. It has to be run by locals, have a great reputation, and showed the wide variety of the city’s (in this case, Istanbul’s) food scene. Enter Yummy Istanbul.
Yummy Istanbul Food Tour
Yummy Istanbul is a small, family-run business that offers a variety of different Istanbul food tours. There are two full-day tours that cover a large portion of the city, as well as two evening tours that focus on specific neighborhoods. We chose the longer Taste of Two Continents tour, which showcases foods and markets from both the European and Asian sides of the city. No matter what tour you go with though, you won’t leave hungry!
Each of Yummy Istanbul’s guides is a local who knows the city well and is passionate about its history, culture, and, of course, its food. They keep each tour group small (maximum 8 people) so that the experience is more intimate and personalized than if you were with a large group.
The Spice Market
We met our tour guide, Leyla, early in the morning at a coffee shop near the Bosphorus. But unlike other parts of the world, Turks don’t start their day with coffee, so that was not the first item on our Istanbul food tour agenda; instead, we started with a shopping trip to the Spice Market.
Breakfast is the most important meal in Turkey and usually includes a huge spread. So, like most locals, Leyla took us shopping at the market for our first meal of the day. It’s called the Spice Market, but you can find just about any food product you’re looking for there. Leyla had ordered food ahead for us, but as we wandered through the market, we tried blueberry marinated olives, mountains of cheese, simit (a popular Turkish bread), and lots of Turkish delight!
Once we had gathered up all of our food, we stopped at a hole-in-the-wall tea shop to eat our Turkish breakfast. Turks drink more tea per capita than any other country, so we started off with some pomegranate tea. Then we had “menemen” (saucy eggs), multiple types of sausage, cheeses, more olives, more simit, hazelnut spread (think Nutella, but 100x better), and a clotted cream with honey thing that I simply could not stop eating.
Like a bunch of hobbits, we then stopped for second breakfast. Not that I complained about that, considering second breakfast consisted of one of the most delicious bowls of soup I’ve ever had. The soup is served at a restaurant called Lezzet-i Sark, located near Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.
This corner shop is best known for its Beyran, a special type of lamb soup originally from the southeastern part of Turkey. The meat is cooked for 8 hours on charcoal until it is tender and smoky, then combined with rice, garlic, and pepper paste for a spicy and savory breakfast. Did I lick the bowl? Yeah, yeah I did.
Istanbul famously sits on the dividing line between Asia and Europe, with the Bosphorus Strait separating the two sides. Because both parts of the city have their own histories and culinary influences, the next part of our Istanbul food tour involved a hop, skip, and ferry ride over to the Kadikoy neighborhood in Asiatic Istanbul.
The first stop on the Asian side was at Kebapçi Iskendar. Aside from the original Turkish delight store, this is the most important food location in Istanbul. Why? Because in 1867, a Turkish man named Iskendar invented the doner kebab. Today, doner kebab, meat vertically skewered on a rotating spit, can be found all over the world, but it started at this particular restaurant. Kebapçi Iskendar is still a family-owned business and is currently run by the grandchildren of Iskendar.
There’s no menu here, just one product: doner kebab. When you do that one thing perfectly, there’s no need to offer anything else, is there? And it was perfect – the meat was perfectly tender and served with roasted peppers and a cool yogurt sauce to balance out the savoriness of the kebab.
In addition to tasting the famous doner kebab, we also got to try “sherbet.” This is a sweet drink made from blood raisins. And if you think “sherbet” looks a lot like “sherbert,” you’re right; sherbet came first, as it’s the Arabic/ottoman term for the dessert-like drink. But when the Europeans started making the milk/egg/fruit juice dessert that we’re familiar with, they used the same word that the Turks did for their dessert but added an extra “r.”
Next on our Istanbul food tour, we wandered through the Kadikoy market, which is where you can find just about any kind of local product you’d ever want to find. Our guide told us all about the local fish, produce, meats, and nuts that are commonly used in Turkish cuisine and what to look for when buying these items.
While touring the market, we made what was the oddest stop (at least, for us non-Turks) – the pickle juice shop. Yes, pickle juice.
Pickles are extremely popular in Turkey; a meal is considered incomplete if there isn’t some kind of pickled vegetable on the table. But what really sets the Turks apart is that they don’t think pickles are just for eating – pickle juice is one of the country’s most popular snacks. Like Little Debbie’s in the United States, pickle juice is the favorite after-school treat for Turkish kids. For adults, it’s a popular hangover cure, promotes good digestion, and is a refreshing way to cool off in the summertime. In other words, no authentic Turkish food tour would be complete without a sip of pickle juice.
Özacan Tursu first opened in 1935 as only the third pickle shop in Istanbul. There are many more than that now, but this remains as one of the most well-known. Today it’s still family-owned and is run by the grandson of the original owner. As for the pickle juice itself, I was definitely skeptical but I actually liked it! Would I drink it every day? No. But I can see how it might just hit the spot every now and then.
The last stop on our Istanbul food tour was a full sit-down lunch at Ciya Sofrasi. Tucked into Kadikoy Market, Ciya Sofrasi is down-to-earth, unassuming, and cheap, but has become a pilgrimage stop for foodies visiting Istanbul. It’s frequently named one of the most important restaurants in Istanbul and was even featured on the TV series Chef’s Table. The reason for its fame is that Ciya Sofrasi, rather than specializing in one type of Turkish cuisine, serves dishes from all over Turkey. The chef, Musa Dagdeviren, has spent his career traveling to villages in the Turkish countryside and collecting recipes and cooking techniques in order to preserve them for future generations. He then showcases many of these at Ciya Sofrasi and in the many books he has published with his wife.
Our guide made sure we got to experience just how much variety can be tasted at Ciya Sofrasi by ordering a never-ending stream of dishes. The plates kept coming, I kept eating, and I thoroughly lost track of just how many different types of dishes we were trying. All I know for sure was that it solidified my opinion that Turkey is the best country I’ve ever been to for food.
There were stuffed artichokes, stuffed peppers, various types of eggplants, lamb soups (yes, plural), a plethora of dips, pillow bread (like pita but puffier), multiple falafels. If it can be cooked and served, I guarantee it was on our table at some point during that lunch.
Dessert was also very typically Turkish, but very unusual for us foreigners. The Turks like to pickle everything, but what they can’t pickle they jelly. So our dessert plate consisted of jellied pumpkin, walnut, eggplant, watermelon, and baklava with clotted cream. I’m not going to trade out my chocolate desserts for jellied eggplant any time soon, but like the pickle juice, it was surprisingly tasty.
This Yummy Istanbul food tour was the absolute perfect way to learn all about Turkish cuisine, some of Istanbul’s history, and how food is still a critical part of life in the city today. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and friendly and clearly passionate about everything she was teaching us.
A 6-hour food tour might sound like a long time, but Istanbul is so massive and has such a rich and extensive culinary history that you need that much time just to scratch the surface. Plus, I can’t think of a much better way to spend 6-hours than eating some of the most delicious food Turkey has to offer! But if you don’t have 6 hours to spare, Yummy Istanbul does offer several shorter, 3-hour tours. If you’re spending any time in Istanbul, this is a great way to introduce yourself to the amazing food scene that Turkey has to offer.
*While Yummy Istanbul offered me a discounted food tour, all opinions are my own.
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