A Walk in the Turkish Food Markets

September 13, 2012 16 Comments »

As we wandered through the market I was finally able to ask all of the questions that had been consuming my brain in Turkish markets. What’s this? How do they make that? What is this used for? When do people eat this? And the list goes on and on.

hills of spices in the spice market
Peaks of spices at the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul

Whenever you explore a new country’s cuisine you are exposed to new foods and preparations – and most people shy away from food if they don’t really know what it is. This is the beauty of having Hulya guiding us – all of a sudden these food mysteries are solved and I want to try everything.

We started our food-centered Istanbul markets walk with Hulya at the entrance to the Spice Market on the European side of Istanbul. Here she introduces us to the main flavors and spices in Turkish cuisine – mint, oregano, cumin, all spice, and chili flakes – you’ll find this in most Turkish dishes. We slowly made our way through the crowded arched halls of this historical market slinking through slow tourists like a snake. We stopped in her favorite shops and tasted dried fish, teas, and Turkish delight.

saffron spice turkey
Unveiling the rare and expensive sumac

Hulya is an expert in Turkish cuisine and flavors. She’s written a book called “Dilim Gülümsüyo!” on the food culture of Turkey and is working on more spicy books!  She also teaches cooking classes and today she is leading my educational walk through the European and Asian markets in Istanbul giving people a taste of the cuisine that is new and sometimes intimidating.

We entered a spice shop and huddled in the corner where they brought us little glasses of apple tea and one of the employees took us on our own personal ‘spice trail’ having us taste a variety of ground spices with a little wooden stick. We end with the queen of all spices –  sumac.  This red and slightly tangy spice is a staple in all Middle Eastern cooking. We learned that it was used before the Romans introduced lemons to the area. But most importantly – it’s as valuable as flakes of gold and the price reflects it!

Spice market istanbul
The Spice Bazaar archways

Even though it was a food walk and I knew that we would be doing some food tasting – my stomach was not prepared for just how much we were trying. Every place we stopped we tried a sample. When we were in the deli trying a platter of different meats and cheeses it hit me that this was going to be a long afternoon of stuffing my face. I wondered if my stomach could keep up with my eyes and enthusiasm.

food tasting with Hulya
Hulya passes around more food

Learn about Istanbul’s diverse neighborhoods

Just when I thought I could eat no more, we got a reprieve from eating and instead focused on traveling to Asia. Ahhh – Istanbul the unique city that spans continents and today we would be eating on both continents. Hulya handed us each our ferry tickets and brought some dessert to go – chicken pudding – just in case we got hungry on the 20-minute ferry ride! Soon we were moving through the busy boat traffic of the Bosporus enjoying the views of European Istanbul getting smaller and smaller.

ferry ride istanbul
Goodbye, Europe…

While on the ferry, we passed by the railway station, Haydarpaşa Station, on the Asian side and Hulya announced – this is where Asia ended – yet this is not where the eating ended. In fact, we were only halfway through the walk when we landed in Kadikoy, the main outdoor market on the Asian side of Istanbul. Kadikoy is lined with fruit vendors, specialty gourmet shops, bakeries, and restaurants. It’s a fabulous place to be if you are a foodie or you are hungry!

Discover the food of Lebanon

Hulya picked up right where she left off – and continued to feed us full of food and culinary information. We stopped by cafes and pickled food stalls, talked to fishmongers, looked at the architecture, and learned more about the strange food that looked so foreign to our eyes. We went to a Turkish Delight and candy shop that reminded me of an old small-town drug store with men in white aprons behind the dark wood counter and jars of colorful candies right at eye level tempting and teasing you.

colorful candy jars
The candy man…

She even had us wait outside while she quickly ran into a bakery and emerged again with 5 little white bags. I could smell the aroma dance out of the bag and tickle my nose…mmm…bread. She handed each of us a bag – whatever baked mystery was inside the bag was still warm. Hulya simply said, “This is something for you to try for breakfast tomorrow.” So now we weren’t just eating today on this walk – we were eating tomorrow too!

Haydarpaşa Station

Haydarpaşa Station – where Asia ends…

And how do you end a market and food walk all afternoon – of course you go to dinner. We had a table at Ciya – one of the best-known restaurants in Kadikoy which serves up a variety of Turkish cuisine from all regions. Hulya ordered for us ensuring that we were able to get a taste of a number of different regional cuisines and drinks. She talked throughout the dinner about how various foods and dishes had evolved and the frequency of specific ingredients among all the regions. It was sort of like having a curated dinner – a unique experience no doubt!

Among my favorite dishes was Visne Kebabi made from sour cherries, meatballs, and pita – the flavors were out of this world! In addition, we tried a trifecta of drinks from a tart sumac drink to ayran (a salty yogurt drink), and mulberry juice. Other favorites were the bulgar balls with yogurt sauce as well as the fresh oregano salad.

bulgar balls
Bulgar balls with yogurt
turkish drinks
A sample of Turkish drinks

However the most surprising was the plate of desserts – where my Ceviz Macunu (walnut) was proudly displayed. Not only did I eat and enjoy the boiled sweet walnut, but I also loved the sweet eggplant and special Ramadan dessert güllaç. Güllaç is a traditional Turkish dessert that dates back to the Ottoman Empire and was even once a part of the circumcision ceremony menu for Sultan Süleyman.

Güllaç – layered yumminess!

As we finished our dinner it seemed as if the rest of Istanbul was just starting their iftar dinner as many of the tables around us broke their daily Ramadan fast and the restaurant was quickly filling up. It was a day of food glorious food and thanks to Hulya I now knew what to purchase at the market and order off the menu in Istanbul…and I also probably gained 5 pounds!

The Good:

• The dinner at Ciya was separate and optional.
• A complete variety of tastings from all parts of Turkey
• There was no pressure to buy in any of the markets – Hulya made it clear that it was our choice.
• Bathroom breaks were planned for and included.
• She sent us home with breakfast – lovely!
• Hulya was a fabulous leader who clearly knew the topic of Turkish food.

The Could Be Better:

• The tour could have used a bigger warning for just how much you were going to eat to ensure that you didn’t have lunch beforehand!
• The only thing I feel like we missed out on a bit was the fish stalls at the Galata bridge – since we were getting the ferry near there, it would have been nice to add a walk through that section to talk about the fishing around the bridge which I was always curious about as I stayed in Istanbul.
• It might have been nice to have a bottle of water for everyone on the tour since it seemed that we were eating so much.

Would I recommend it?

Yes. If you are interested in really understanding and trying new foods while in Turkey – then this is a great primer. I felt the $77 USD price tag for the 4-hour tour was worth it if you really want to learn about cuisine. What sets Context walks apart normally is the quality of the information that you receive and I feel that this walk was no exception – definitely high quality. I would suggest doing it early on in your stay so that it educates you on what to get and try for your remaining days. The tour really does take all of the fear and unknown out of trying new cuisine and gives you the confidence to know what to order for the remainder of your stay. It was my favorite thing I did in Istanbul!

More Information:
Website:  www.contexttravel.com/city/istanbul
Tour: Istanbul Market Tour

Back to Blog

16 Responses to "A Walk in the Turkish Food Markets"

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Back to Blog