The assumption that falafel is a Turkish staple is a misunderstanding of global proportions. Perhaps this mix-up is due to its appearance on the menu of what seems like every Turkish restaurant outside of the country. Yet for years falafel has been largely absent from Turkey.
We have often pondered why this was the case: The chickpea is a fundamental ingredient in Turkish cooking, after all. And hummus has made its way from the southern province of Hatay – which shares a border and culinary traditions with Syria – to the meyhanes of Istanbul and Izmir. But for whatever reason, falafel never made the jump; it used to be very difficult to find proper falafel in Turkey, although it remained popular over the border in Syria.
All that changed a few years ago, when millions of Syrian refugees fled north to escape civil war. Fast food stands sprouted up in the pockets of the city where large numbers of the refugees settled, and now the fried chickpea treat is ubiquitous, though often underwhelming and overshadowed by shwarma. In order to help you thwart mediocrity, allow us to present our favorite falafel spots in the city.
We’ve been around long enough to remember when Taksim’s Falafel House was the only proper place in town to go. Before then, you might have encountered what a vegetarian restaurant decided to call falafel, but was in fact misguided lumps of ground chickpeas and parsley fried in a pan or baked, bearing no traces of the magical snack that we know and love. Opened in 2006 by the Palestinian father-son team of Azzam and Yousef Alherbawi, Falafel House was and continues to be the gateway to falafel for many Istanbulites and has adhered to a high standard that has remained unchanged ever since.
Their fresh, made-to-order falafel features a shimmering green interior composed of spices imported from Jordan and Palestine, and the accompanying tahini and spicy pepper sauces are delightfully creamy and tangy. Situated in the Talimhane quarter adjacent to Gezi Park, Falafel House’s business has been buttressed by the growing numbers of Arab tourists who stay at the hotels in the area.
The Beyoğlu district is experiencing a startling downturn, and we’ve been dismayed to watch businesses close and peer down dark and empty alleys that were bustling only a couple of years ago. Falafel Zone is located on one of the few backstreets that has managed to retain its vitality due to the loyal patronage of its solid local businesses, which include a cozy rock bar, a dependable kebab shop and Üçüncü Mevki, an old favorite of ours that serves some of the best home cooking around.
Falafel Zone’s glorious tahini sauce boasts a spice bouquet with quantum physics-levels of complexity.
Falafel Zone’s friendly yet mysterious owner (who declined our request for an interview) maintains a vegan friendly menu and serves tasty falafel alongside a glorious tahini sauce boasting a spice bouquet with quantum physics-levels of complexity. (Unsurprisingly, the owner declined to reveal his recipe.) He delivers to the bar next door, which serves beer that is as cold as its neighbor’s tahini sauce is delicious.
The Aksaray neighborhood is home to a stunningly diverse array of ethnic cuisine. It was here in 2012 when we first encountered an Iraqi man selling falafel from a small cart. We’ll never forget the unique taste of the tantalizing pickle sauce, nor its nuclear yellow/green hue. The empty lot upon which he set up shop has since been replaced by an underground parking garage, and the Iraqi gentlemen and his falafel are sadly nowhere to be found, though dozens of other establishments have popped up in the area since, most notably Gazze Felafili.
The menu features a number of Syrian and Palestinian specialties, but the main focus is the falafel. The line is usually intimidatingly long but a wrap (for a measly 3 TL) is absolutely worth the wait. We like to get ours topped with hot sauce and lemon slices. Yes, with the peel and all. Though we were a bit taken aback at first when we saw the architect of our bulging dürüm delicately place thinly sliced lemon wedges on top before rolling it up, we decided to roll with the punches. We’re glad we did – the zest of the lemon harmonizes wonderfully with the savory, spicy and tangy flavors.