Turkish food is basically the Mexican food of greater Europe. By this I mean it’s tasty, inexpensive, and just a touch exotic when your charmed life errs toward the boring side. It’s also a hard habit to quit. Though I’m now into the reaches of western Europe, I keep stopping for kebabs (a subject I’ll write about soon on Vagabundo), not ready to move back to potatoes and sausage of Central Europe after a brief hiatus from the loads in Russia. So in the spirit of the cheap street food dinner of Ottoman origins I’ve eaten in central Europe, I thought I’d write a bit about cheap eats and street food in Turkey.
Stuffed Grape Leaves, Tomato, and Cheese
In the states, I called grape leaves stuffed with rice “dolmas,” but if you ask for “dolmas” in Turkey you’ll get a blank stare. These are grape leaves, Turkish name unknown and irrelevant to English speakers ordering at Turkish restaurants. You can order a plate of grape leaves with a soft, white cheese as a part of a mezze spread, or you can do as I did and have them as an appetizer. Though versions of the stuffed grape leaf appear across the Balkans and into Greece and Russia, their origins are Ottoman, and thus Turkish. I took this fact as an excuse to gorge myself on a few plates, and even experimented with canned version on a train somewhere between Istanbul and Bucharest, Romania.
Mercimek Corbasi or Lentil Soup with Lemon and Fiery Oil
One thing I loved about Turkey was that I could always source a quick, warm bowl of nutritious lentil soup for not more than a couple bucks. Truth be told, legumes were probably the number one food I missed during the Thailand time. The Ottoman version of the soup that counts itself a member of many a culture’s cuisine is often light and brothy, served with a wedge of lemon and a dash of spiced olive oil. I imagine this would make a great breakfast soup.
Simit Sesame Bread
I would describe simit, the Turkish fast food breakfast bread, as a cross between a bagel and a German pretzel. They’re a ring-shaped bread with a dense, sesame-covered crust and chewy insides. Though they give your jaw quite a work out, the bakeries that make them smell divine and sometimes give free samples. Contrary to the photo above featuring simit sandwiches, people generally eat simit plain, maybe adding some cream cheese or jam to make a breakfast.
Chicken Döner Kebab Plate
Probably Turkey’s most famous culinary export, the döner kebab remains a delicious and cheap street food eat across Istanbul and the country. As you probably know, döner kebabs are gobs of meat stuck to a long, vertical spit that rotates to expose portions to a long vertical grill. Slices are shaved off the mass as they are done into thin, crispy bits that are eaten as part of platter or as a sandwich. They’re cheap, filling, and delicious. Tomorrow I’m publishing a lengthy article about döner kebabs on my column at Vagabundo Magazine, so I’ll hold off on the nitty-gritty here.
Güveçte Sucuklu Kuru Fasulye or Stewed Navy Beans with Tomato
I didn’t know Turkey was famous for its bean dishes until I got there, and then it seemed obvious. So many dishes feature beans soaked in tomato or served with parsley, olive oil, and garlic. After 9 months in Thailand, my bean deficit was raging and I ate whole bowls of beans meant to be shared among friends by myself. My favorite preparation of beans that I ate in Istanbul had to be these stewed navy beans (güveçte sucuklu kuru fasulye) that were clearly cooked from scratch and served for a dollar or so outside the main train station. I love hearty dishes like this that are so full of nutrition, fiber, and protein, yet do not require any meat whatsoever to attain great flavor. These are the dishes that can save the world.
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