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.
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