Fishermen on Galata Bridge Istanbul

Sometimes I use this space to publish unedited rambles about all of the food I’ve eaten in a specific country. Unfortunately, I’ve lost this habit. Sometimes, the food in a particular locale doesn’t inspire (see: Mongolia, Russia). Other times, I get lazy (see: China). Yet the bounty and diversity of Turkish food has inspired me to start over. So here we go…

So much of Istanbul’s character stems from it’s sea-straddling geography. With the Aegean Sea below, the Black Sea above and the Bosphorus running all through the middle, there are few places in the central city where you can’t catch a whiff of a clean sea breeze. Fisherman line the length of the Galata bridge, finishing at a pier with a fresh fish market. Everything smells like seafood, and all of it smells good.

Through my months in Northern Thailand, I grew a slight aversion to seafood, which was often frozen and formed into species-mashing patties that thawed into curry-ruining gelatinous orbs. The markets often smelled like seafood, but with that foul, “fishy” undertone that deters so many from the sea’s treats. Aside from a nice fried river fish, I rarely chose to eat seafood beyond the condiments and curry pastes whose fishy ingredients were so integral to Thai flavors you wouldn’t have identified them as seafood; they were a mere sliver of the multi-faceted whole.  Within a few months, I’d completely forgotten my past as a pescetarian, always opting for vegetable dishes or poultry when possible. My somewhat unconscious seafood avoidance lingered through my travels in China, Mongolia, and almost through Russia, where I had a brief fling with what could be described as arctic sushi.

Then, I met my friend Lara for dinner in Istanbul. She took me past the fish market and to a little seaside restaurant where we ate seafood with bread and cheese and melon and the special anise-flavored Turkish liquor. Just like that I remembered the joy of fish and made it my mission to explore Turkish seafood culture.

Grilled Octopus Tentacle

Grilled Octopus Tentacle 

You might think of mezze–one of Turkey’s dining styles–as a version of tapas or perhaps even dim sum. Diners sit together for hours choosing dish after dish, eating, drinking, smoking, and talking, then cycling through the whole process again. Sometimes you’ll have a main course after a few rounds of smaller plates, and these grilled octopus tentacles were our main on our last hurrah dinner after a week in Istanbul. I was expecting the arms of cephalopod to have a chewy texture similar to an overcooked calamari ring, but this sucker (get it? sucker? because of the suction cups?) was tender and buttery despite having spend enough time on the grill to develop a rich and smokey exterior.

Turkish Mussels with Lemon

Istanbul Stuffed Mussels

One of the (many) great things about having friends across the globe is having a personal travel guide when you visit a new place. On the first day in Istanbul, I noticed several streetfood vendors sat behind lemon-lined tables full of mussels and sold their wares to fishermen and passersby, chucking the glistening black shells into buckets that grew worryingly full by sunset. Having recovered from a recent bout of food poisoning, I figured these mussels wouldn’t be a great choice and moved on to other items. However, Lara remembered my interest and ordered them at a mezze restaurant in Karaköy with walls of bright turquoise tiles, white linens, and a spiral staircase. I ate them all. Though the preparations vary, generally a freshly steamed mussel sits beneath a dollop of a warmly-spiced pine nut, rice, and current mixture. The mussels pictured above were so fresh, their texture was like butter.

Turkish Salted Raw Fish on Red Onions

Lakerda: Salted Raw Fish on Red Onion with Fennel

Lara continued her culinary guidance by selecting a plate of pickled raw mackerel for the table after I mentioned our experience with frozen raw fishes in Russia. These nuggets of lakerda, not much larger than a piece of sashimi, were pleasantly surprising in their saltiness. I loved the texture of the raw fish with the crunch of the onion and the fennel flavor. The pairing of lakerda with cold, anise-flavored raki liquor reminded me of eating frozen white fish with vodka in Russia or sashimi with sake in Japan. Some concepts just work; I need to figure out a Texas edition of the raw fish and cold liquor combo!

Turkish Street Vendor Grilling Fish in Istanbul

Street Vendor Grilling Fish

Though I have a separate post in the works about Istanbul’s street food, I thought I’d include these tasty fish sandwiches in the seafood section.  A daily fish market operates around rush hour near the Galata ferry pier that serves home cooks and restaurants alike. When I saw a vendor choose some whole fish from the market, then filet it with the vendor’s tools before carrying it to his grill station, I thought I NEED to eat those.

Turkish Grilled Fish Sandwich Istanbul

Turkish Grilled Fish Sandwich

The fish ended up in a sandwich, and I did eat one of those sandwiches. And it was delicious and satisfying in that way where humble ingredients combine to something greater than the sum of their parts. The sandwich consisted of a simple grilled white fish filet with a spicy rub in some white bread with grilled peppers and a fresh tomato, onion, and parsley garnish inside. It’s all topped with an extra sprinkle of salt and a squeeze of fresh lemon and wrapped in paper for you to enjoy right there. And, as a bonus, the whole thing cost only 5 Turkish Lira, or less than $3USD.

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13 Responses to Everything I Ate in Turkey, Part I: Seafood

  1. Katie says:

    Wow. Just…wow. Looks amazing and beautiful and tasty! All of it! What a change from Mongolia, huh?

  2. Tom says:

    Your life makes me jealous. I’ve been to Turkey as a little kid but didn’t really appreciate it for what it was (don’t blame me, I was 5), but it’s a place I definitely will return to!

  3. Susan says:

    It was probably very different all those years ago, too. Turkey is a young, quickly-changing country.

  4. Erica says:

    Ahhh more delicious Turkish food that I didn’t know I’d missed out on! I was in ignorant bliss before I started reading your Turkish food posts… now I’m trying to plot a way to get there again.

  5. Hi from Turkey Susan
    you are very lucky so you saw and say in Turkey. İt is great country. Especially İstanbul is really great also alanya, izmir, and the capital city that ankara:)

  6. Wow Susan!! I’ve always wanted to get to Turkey during my travels, but this just put that priority so much higher!! Especially the salted fish! Your photos are fantastic – thanks for making me hungry!

    • Susan says:

      Yeah I didn’t even do any of the normal tourist attractions while there because I couldn’t stop stuffing my face… And then I would have to go lie down.

  7. Ash Clark says:

    My favourite city in the world, and this article took me right back there! All those delicious smells! Im with Ian ^^^ mouth is watering so bad now!

    • Susan says:

      Istanbul outranks Berlin in your opinion??

      I am trying to cure fish the Turkish way here in Texas with horrible results…I want it so bad!

  8. I know what you mean about the aversion to seafood in CM… I didn’t eat any for about a year then when I met my boyfriend starting trying more things cause he knew where to go and what to order. The other night we even had raw oysters Thai style – with a little lime, garlic, roasted chili sauce and fried onion.

    • Susan says:

      The best seafood I had in CM was prepared by my friend’s Thai boyfriend! I never, ever could count on my own ability to order something good on my own.

      Where did you have the Thai-style oysters? I have a batch of BP-dispersant-filled Gulf oysters in my fridge that could probably withstand a Thai treatment…

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