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
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.
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.
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!
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
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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