8 things I learned about food in Istanbul

meal at Buyukada
© K Martinko – A meal I stopped to enjoy while biking around the island of Büyükada – beets in yogurt sauce, seaweed salad, and eggplant with spicy peppers and tomatoes.

All of which could be summed up in one statement: Turkish food is fantastic.

I found myself in Istanbul, Turkey, unexpectedly last week. A trip to Sri Lanka got derailed when the horrific bombings happened, and rather than hop on a plane back home to Canada, I opted to take advantage of the fact that I was already halfway around the world. I picked Istanbul off a world map because it fit my budget, visa requirements, and exoticism quotient.

My plane was delayed and I didn't land until 11 p.m. By the time I walked through the immense new airport and found my shuttle bus, it was nearing midnight. I knew I'd be dropped off at Sultanahmet, the main square where the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque are located, but I was nervous. I've traveled enough to know that city squares, no matter how famous or religious, are not good places to be after midnight, especially when you're a woman alone – and my phone had run out of data.

Soon I noticed that the streets were lively and well-lit. Despite being so late, there were people eating outdoors, fruit vendors hawking their goods, tea and hookahs being shared at low tables on the sidewalk. I had nothing to fear about that walk and quickly learned my first lesson about Istanbul, that it's a city that never stops eating.

For the rest of the week, I ate like a queen. I tried everything I could get my hands on, following my nose, my eyes, my curiosity, and recommendations from Turkish friends. I observed and learned things about the way food is presented and enjoyed that will have a lasting influence on the way I cook at home. Here are some of those lessons.

1. Breakfast is a big deal.

Turkish breakfast© K Martinko – A leisurely breakfast I enjoyed with friends in Balat on a Saturday morning

Turks take their first meal of the day very seriously, which made me one happy traveler. The standard seems to be fresh vegetables like tomatoes and cucumber, hard and soft salty cheeses, fresh bread, egg omelets, and olives (several types). There is strong Turkish coffee and/or black tea.

2. You will never go hungry on the street.

simit seller on boat© K Martinko – A man sells 'simit' on a ferry in Istanbul

The street food is fantastic – freshly baked sesame bagels, simit, that come either plain or layered with Nutella, the famous grilled fish sandwiches that are served up on every street corner near the water, rice-and-herb-stuffed mussels, hot roasted chestnuts and corn-on-the-cob, gelato and oddly gooey Turkish ice cream that never seems to be get any smaller as you eat it (a Willy Wonka invention?), steamed burgers, kebabs, flaky borek pastries, and, of course, tea.

3. Barley is a superstar.

It intrigued me that, over the course of a week, I never ate rice once. I am so used to rice being a staple everywhere else in the world and at home; and yet here I got barley on my plate instead. It was delicious, usually served as a side dish with herbs and small pieces of pasta cooked into it. Note to self: Buy more barley.

4. You can never have enough herbs.

meal at Çiya© K Martinko – My decadent lunch at Çiya... and yes, I ate every mouthful of it.

I had the pleasure of dining at Çiya, a restaurant in Kadiköy, on the Asian side of the city, that was featured in a Chef's Table episode. It was a stunning meal that I'll never forget, especially the herb salads that the waiter spooned onto my plate. Made of chopped parsley, thyme, pomegranate, nuts, tomato, seeds, and other mysterious but clearly magical ingredients, they were fragrant and powerful, yet refreshing. Herbs appeared on many of my dinner plates during that week, and it's excellent motivation not to let parsley bunches wilt in my fridge ever again.

5. Meat is not central.

steamed burgers© K Martinko – One of the few time I ate meat during the week was when I sampled the famous steamed burgers, described to me by several Turks as "late-night post-drinking food."

I had a couple meat kebabs and a steamed burger during the week, but overall I ate very little meat. The reason for this is that many meals are served mezze-style, with small assorted plates of vegetable dishes, and meat is treated as just another one of the sides. The vegetables are so delicious, treated with such care, that I hardly noticed the absence of the meat. Salty seaweed salad, beets and zucchini in yogurt sauces, stuffed artichokes, and eggplant were staples. And speaking of that...

6. Eggplant has such potential for awesomeness.

mezze at Refik© K Martinko – A delicious mezze spread at Refik restaurant in Beyoglu

This has to be the most misunderstood ingredient in North America. Nobody knows what to do with it here, and yet as soon as you go to the Middle East, it's a shape-shifting superstar. It shows up on every table in new disguises and is always mouthwateringly delicious. Where and how can I learn to cook eggplant like this?

7. We need to start drinking tea like Turks.

cheese and spinach borek with tea© K Martinko – Cheese and spinach borek with tea for a late-morning snack

As soon as I wrote that header, I realized this could be a much bigger post, along the lines of 'Why we need to drink coffee like Italians,' but here's your sneak peek. The Turks drink black tea all day long, buying it from small sidewalk vendors or cafes for a quick pick-me-up. A guide told me that Turkey takes the prize for highest per-capita consumption of tea in the world and I believe it after seeing how often people drink it.

The tea always comes in tiny glasses with no handles, which is extremely hot unless you hold it by the rim. Some people add sugar, some do not. The small quantities mean you get the satisfying hit of warmth and caffeine, without filling up. On a cold evening walk across Galata Bridge, my friend Emre insisted that we buy some tea to warm up and it worked like magic. I was also given a glass of steaming oregano tea to aid with digestion following my feast at Çiya.

8. Food tastes better with a view.

There are spectacular views everywhere in Istanbul, thanks to the hilly geography and the fingers of sea that give nearly every neighborhood a waterfront. Even when you're not within sight of the sea, the streets themselves are full of life, surging with people, musicians, vendors, and a million stray cats. It's not hard to eat alone and feel incredibly satisfied when there is so much to take in all around.

chestnut vendor© K Martinko – A chestnut and corn vendor outside Topkapi Palace

8 things I learned about food in Istanbul
All of which could be summed up in one statement: Turkish food is fantastic.

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