No matter how well you know a destination, there’s always something to be gained by experiencing things with locals – which is how we came to do an Istanbul market tour with a local food writer.
We’ve strolled through Istanbul’s markets countless times on trips before, but we’ve never really known which is the best shop for spices or which is the best store for cheese. Sure we’ve seen which stores the locals frequent, but always wondered ‘why is this one so special?’ We decided to do an Instanbul Market tour to find out.
We signed up for Context’s Markets of Istanbul walk with Aylin Oney Tan, a culinary writer and food columnist for Istanbul’s national daily newspaper, Cumhuriyet, to see if it made a difference to our experience of the local markets.
Spices, Pickles and Sweets on an Istanbul Market Tour
We begin our Istanbul market tour at the Mısır Çarşısı, the Egyptian Market or Spice Bazaar at Eminönü. The market is on every sightseers to-do list, because it’s in a beautiful atmospheric building with vaulted ceilings, but unless you’re staying in an apartment you probably wouldn’t come here to go shopping.
We’ve walked through here dozens of times before and been irritated by the spruikers who seem more interested in your cash than your interest in Turkish food, so we were delighted to visit with Aylin to find out where we should actually shop.
KURUKAHVECI MEHMET EFENDI
While we were waiting for Aylin (who of course was waiting for us at another entrance!) we had already noticed the long line of locals queuing here for freshly ground coffee, so we were pleased that when she arrived she confirmed that the coffeemaker is a favourite of locals.
As it’s the holiday season, she predicted the shop would probably run out of coffee soon. We made a note to return, but ran out of time, however, we discovered the coffee in our local supermarket in Cihangir. Worth remembering if you can’t get here.
Aylin also showed us an excellent place to buy grinders and brass coffee pots to make Turkish coffee adjoining the store.
Just inside the entrance to the market, we begin what will be a long morning of tastings (don’t eat anything before doing this walk!) at Malatya Pazari, the place to head for dried fruit, especially traditional favourites such as apricots and figs.
They’ve also found more innovative uses of the dried fruit, such as ‘Kayisi doneri’ (the doner kebab of fruit!), and dried fruit ‘leather’, a kind of edible ‘parchment’ made from mulberries, prunes, and apricots that can be wrapped around other ingredients.
Aylin also points out dried courgettes, okra, and aubergines that locals reconstitute with water and stuff with minced meat or rice and serve with a yoghurt sauce; the dried aubergines have a more leathery texture and smokey flavour, she says.
And she introduces us to pulverised wild cherry kernels, used in sweet and savoury baking, which have an almond flavour, and saf yerli sahlep, the root of wild orchid, used in Turkish ice-cream.
While Aylin points out Baharatci at #41 for its original antique fittings (old spice boxes and antique scales), she takes us to her favourite shop, Ucuzcular at #51 where the owner, Bilge, stocks a colossal range of herbs and spices, along with Iranian saffrons, teas, essential oils, and rose water.
They also create their own innovative blends, including an Ottoman Spice Mix (saffron, red chilli flakes, marjoram and thyme) and Janissary Spice Mix (farm-grown sweet red peppers, sumac, and oregano).
Aylin’s favourite cheese and honey store is crammed with shoppers when we pass by but we squeeze inside to try some cheeses and cold cuts.
Their pastirma (pastrami in English, basturma in Arabic) is famous, as is their tulum, sheep cheese in dried goat skin, and beyaz peynir, a feta-like cheese.
They also sell balik yumurtasi mumli – ‘bottarga’ – which Aylin tells us that Turkish people only eat on its own, not with pasta as the Italians do.
On our way to the dock to catch a ferry to the Asian side, Aylin runs into one of Istanbul’s most popular patisseries, Saray, to buy some tavuk göğsü, a creamy Turkish pudding made of finely shredded chicken breast, that’s said to be the ancestor of the blancmange.
Although we’ve seen them in shop windows a million times before, we’ve never tasted it. The chicken flavour can barely be discerned; it just gives the pudding a stringy texture. I like it. Terence, not so much.
If you’ve only stayed in Sultanahmet and elbowed your way through the Egyptian market, or even if you’ve been to Beyoğlu and visited the Balık Pazarı (Fish Market), you’ll sigh aloud with relief at discovering Kadıköy. This is where the locals shop.
There are no tourist trinkets and souvenirs at the spice shops, in fact there are very few tourists at all, and prices are considerably cheaper than they are on the European side.
You could spend hours browsing the outdoor stalls, admiring the beautiful produce of the fruit and vegetable vendors, fishmongers, and butchers – and visiting the specialty shops, and the latter is what we do with Aylin. If you love great produce – you will love this market.
HACı BEKIR ŞEKERCISI
We start our Kadıköy market walk at one of Istanbul’s most esteemed sweet-makers, which is famous for its lokum or Turkish delight. Aylin says she also likes their cinnamon and clove sherbet sugar that can be drank like hot tea or enjoyed cold in summer.
The elegant store – complete with antique shopfront, old-fashioned glass counters, and black and white tiled floor – is crammed with shoppers, so we move on.
Aylin points out this famous chocolate and pastry shop, but we move onto another kind of sweet store…
This beautiful historic candy shop sells every conceivable kind of Turkish sweet imaginable, including unusual flavours of lokum and an array of preserves and jams, including my favourite, rose jam, but it’s their traditional teeth shattering boiled lollies that Aylin calls ‘rock candy’ that she says the locals come for.
Lined up on the counter in tall glass jars you can try before you buy, so we try a few. They’re all very moreish, but we especially love the bergamot and mastic (pine resin) flavoured.
We buy a selection in a decent sized bag, and it costs the equivalent of a couple of euros!
MEŞHUR ÖZCAN TURŞULARI
Our last stop is a pickle shop, and while the store also sells verjuice (verjus), vinegars, pastes, sauces, and olives, and an excellent pomegranate molasses according to Aylin, it’s the pickles that they are renowned for.
Anything that can be pickled is pickled: along with the usual gherkins, peppers and carrots, there’s everything from cabbage and cornichons to unriped melons and beets.
Naturally, we try a few, along with their sweet and spicy red pepper pastes, which Terence buys for The Dish.
Our Istanbul market tour finishes with a tasting lunch, annotated by Aylin, at one of Kadıköy’s most popular restaurants, Çiya.
While Çiya is the kind of place we would normally avoid – celebrity chef, it’s in all the guidebooks, two big tables of tour groups out front, and no atmosphere – it’s a completely different experience going to an eatery like this with a knowledgeable guide.
While there’s a lot of food that anyone who has eaten Middle Eastern food would be familiar with – hommous, stuffed vine leaves, olive salad, etc – and personally, we think the Syrians and Lebanese do a much better job of making hommous and mouhamarra, which is far tastier in the Levant – we did try a range of traditional buffet dishes that we’d never tasted before.
There’s a delicious pickled cabbage dish in yoghurt, which was far more scrumptious than it sounds, and the most sublime, succulent kebabs we’ve ever tasted in our lives. We didn’t know it was possible to make kebabs taste this heavenly.
In hindsight, had we have known what was going to be dished up, we would have skipped the appetisers, asked for a small buffet tasting, and would have happily had tried a few more kebabs. Trust us, these are kebabs worth flying to Istanbul for!
Although we’d shopped Istanbul’s markets before and were familiar with a lot of food we saw and tried, there were plenty of things that were new to us, some things we’d known about but hadn’t tried, and ingredients we hadn’t known the uses of before.
An Instabul market tour with a local, particularly an in-the-know local who is a specialist in her field, certainly made a difference to our experience.
We’d highly recommend you do the market walk – whether Turkish cuisine is new or familiar to you – but do it on your first day. That way, you’ll know exactly where to shop when you stock up your kitchen on the second day!