Join Culinary Backstreets

Sign up with email


Already a member? Log in.

Log in to Culinary Backstreets

Trouble logging in?

Not a member? Sign up!

We’re especially fond of Istanbul’s vibrant – and sometimes plain wacky – street food scene. Here we present three of our favorite street foods and the best places in the city to get them.

#1, Sabırtaşı’s İçli Köfte
For years, in one calm spot just beyond Galatasaray High School on İstiklal Caddesi stood the beatific Ali Bey, an angel in a white doctor’s coat offering salvation in the form of golden-fried içli köfte. Though he has passed on, Ali Bey left his post and his streetside stand – as much a part of the İstiklal streetscape as the red trolley cars and belle époque apartment buildings – to his son, who fills it with the same panache, white jacket and all. And thanks to Ali Bey’s wife, Fatma Hanım, the sublime içli köfte lives on, too.

Known as kibbeh in the Arab world, içli köfte is a savory snack consisting of a bulgur wheat shell that holds a filling of ground meat, onions, parsley and spices. These little torpedoes are handmade upstairs by Fatma Hanım, who spends most of the day at a large table with her daughter-in-law working the stuffing into the casing before passing them on for final preparation. They chat and laugh as they work, their hands moving by what appears to be instinct alone – a scene more reminiscent of a rural family kitchen than a dining room with a view of one of Istanbul’s best-known streets.

Though the içli köfte are also served boiled – in Sabırtaşı Restaurant, five flights up from the streetside stand – we prefer the ones served on the street: fried to perfection, crunchy but not too greasy on the outside, moist on the inside. Unlike many of Istanbul’s içli köfte, which often look and taste like a fried mini football, Sabırtaşı’s are a refined delicacy. It’s as if each grain of bulgur and every bit of filling were specifically designed to rise into a spicy, steamy, heavenly waltz across the palate as the fortunate snacker breaks the crunchy seal of the outer crust.

#2, Kızılkayalar’s Wet Burger
The sign may read “Wet Burger” (“Islak Burger” in Turkish), but there’s a lot more to say about Kızılkayalar’s moist mini patties than that. How about “Heavenly Slider,” “Binge Drinker’s Delight” or “The Best 2 Lira Ever Spent in Taksim Square?”

The Kızılkayalar experience starts from a distance, usually late at night. It begins with a whiff of garlic detected well across Taksim Square; then, through the bustling crowd, eyes lock onto the bright lights of the steam box holding the burger bounty. Hungry customers are finally tugged in, like a tanker on the Bosphorus, by the steady foghorn voice of the Kızılkayalar hamburger man bellowing, “Buyurun, buyurun!” (Roughly: “Come and get it!”)

Make no mistake, the burger is wet, having been doused with an oily, tomato-based sauce before being left to incubate in a glass-lined burger hamam. There, it becomes even wetter, the once fluffy white bun rendered a greasy, finger-licking radioactive shade of orange, both chewy and slick on either side of the garlicky beef patty. Like an order of nachos at the movies, the wet burger is a sinful pleasure that flies in the face of our otherwise high culinary standards. But at 2 a.m. on a Friday night, nothing is as good as a Kızılkayalar wet burger – except for another one.

#3, The Galata Cucumber Man
We’ve never learned his name, and he goes into hibernation every winter. But we eagerly await the reappearance every spring of the vendor we know simply as the “cucumber man of Galata,” a chubby fellow with Coke-bottle glasses who sells what may be the city’s simplest, yet most satisfying, street food: peeled and salted cucumbers, a fresh, green rebuke to all those starchy and fried snacks out there.

Beginning in late spring, when the weather starts to warm up, the cucumber man parks his rickety little cart in the plaza in front of the Galata Tower, where he stays until the weather turns in the fall. His method is simple: take a chilled cucumber, peel it, slice it twice down the middle so that it splays out like a flower, and salt it generously. It may sound basic, but on a hot summer’s day, the cucumber man usually has a good crowd that gathers around his cart clamoring for this refreshing bite. (Though he started out with cucumbers, more recently he has branched out and begun selling carrots and apples, too.) At 50 kuruş for a cucumber, it’s a snack that’s hard to refuse.

  • June 19, 2015 Zongzi (0)
    In typical Shanghai fashion, good things come to those willing to stand in the longest […] Posted in Shanghai
  • May 22, 2015 Shanghai’s Top 5 Street Foods (0)
    Shanghai is a street food lovers' paradise, with carts slinging dumplings, pancakes, […] Posted in Shanghai
  • July 18, 2014 Fangbang Lu (0)
    Editor's note: We're sorry to report that the vendors and restaurants at Sipalou Lu and […] Posted in Shanghai
Yigal Schleifer and Jonathan Lewis

Related stories

June 19, 2015

Zongzi: Dragon Boat Delights

Shanghai | By Kyle Long
By Kyle Long
ShanghaiIn typical Shanghai fashion, good things come to those willing to stand in the longest lines, or to pre-book the farthest in advance. We’ve seen the queue for braised duck at Guang Ming Cun swell to several hours long during the Chinese New Year, and A Da's scallion pancakes require a minimum hourlong wait on…
May 22, 2015

Shanghai’s Top 5 Street Foods

Shanghai | By Jamie Barys
By Jamie Barys
ShanghaiShanghai is a street food lovers' paradise, with carts slinging dumplings, pancakes, noodles, buns and grilled meats on sidewalks across the city, morning, noon and night. These are a few of our favorites. 1: Shengjianbao A Shanghai specialty, shēngjiān mántou (生煎馒头) – or shēngjiān bāo (生煎包), as they’re known everywhere else in China – are juicy pork buns…
Select your currency
USD United States (US) dollar
EUR Euro