Editor’s note: This post wraps up our special series this week featuring our top street food picks in all of the Culinary Backstreets cities.
As rapidly as Istanbul marches toward its modern destiny, street food in this city is still served the old-fashioned way, by boisterous ustas with a good pitch and, sometimes, a really good product. When the bars close, hungry Istanbulites cruise the streets looking for the gas lamp of a rice cart or listening for the call of a sucuk griller, on whom they pounce in a feeding frenzy. As informal as the dining may be, there is an irreplaceable human element – respect – at street food stalls and carts around the city. We like to celebrate these tasty Istanbul street eats and support the ustas who serve them, because, to us, there is no kebab without a real, live kebapçı serving it.
1: Çiğ Köfteci Ali Usta
In the Turkish Republic, where military service is mandatory, being a soldier is something that is – love it or hate it – an integral part of the Turkish male identity. As good as Ali Usta’s çiğ köfte (literally, “raw meatballs”) may be, we think it must be the soldier’s love of orders that have made Ali Usta and his çiğ köfte such a celebrated street food. A line often forms outside of the building where Ali Usta’s stand is set up on a side street in Sirkeci. Regulars who know the protocol can usually get their order without summoning the wrath of this peculiar usta. First-timers, take note: hold your bag open to catch flying lemons or risk being pelted; stand back or you’ll get sprayed by chopped lettuce; accept Ali Usta’s gift of one çiğ köfte while you wait, but step out of line in any way and you will be reprimanded. For those who follow the rules, there is a small exclusive seating area just behind Ali Usta, known as the VIP salon.
Ali Usta’s çiğ köfte, a soft, spicy mash of bulgur and onions, is the perfect vessel for the smoky Urfa dried red pepper that gives it its red color and spicy kick. Customers can order either a dürüm, in which Ali Usta loads several plump köftes into a piece of lavaş, or a porsiyon (portion), in which each individual nugget is wrapped in a leaf of lettuce. On a recent lunch excursion, we sat on a stool in the VIP area, sipped an ayran and ate our çiğ köfte as the Ali Usta show unfolded.
2: Pamuk Usta’s Nohut Dürüm
On nizip.com, a chat board dedicated to all things Southeast Turkish, members of the diaspora log in and bombard each other with questions on important Nizip-related subjects. Where to eat a good nohut dürüm, a savory wrap of chickpeas in pita bread, for breakfast seems to top the list of concerns for many Nizipli trying to maintain their identity in the melting pot of Istanbul. Most agree that Pamuk Usta’s cart behind the headquarters of Istanbul’s municipal water authority is the only place to go.
After cooking the chickpeas over low heat overnight, Pamuk Usta (pictured at the top of this page) sets up his small stand outside of Huzur Kiraathanesi every morning except Sunday at 7 a.m., stocking his cart with fresh pide bread from a bakery around the corner. When a customer places an order, he puts a generous portion of chickpeas into the crease of the bread, adds chopped parsley, onions and hot peppers, and sprinkles it with lemon salt. For just 2 Turkish liras, this has to be one of the cheapest (and heartiest) breakfasts in town. To the guys from Nizip assembled on the street at 9 a.m., it’s a necessary taste of home.
3: Tufan Usta’s Balık Ekmek
One of Istanbul’s most seductive culinary illusions is created by men fishing from the Galata Bridge right beside bobbing boats serving balık ekmek, or grilled fish sandwiches. Blur your eyes and it looks a locavore fantasy, but take a closer look and, hiding under the grill, you’ll probably see a cardboard box filled with frozen North Atlantic mackerel flown in from Norway. We find this sleight of hand trick such a betrayal that we boycotted balık ekmek for years. Then we broke down and followed a couple of tips to a balık ekmek stand in Karaköy that is worth celebrating.
Tufan Usta, a second-generation balık ekmekçi (fish-sandwich maker), sets up his grill near the ferry dock at Karaköy every evening around 5 p.m. and grills fresh, local mackerel fillets over a charcoal fire. Though we’ve never tried it, we’re told that you can even buy your own fish over in the Karaköy fish market and Tufan Usta will clean and cook it for you. On a toasted roll with onions and a squirt of lemon, what you see is what you get – a real local taste of Istanbul street food.
4: Uykuluk-Rice Cart Mashup
We’ve documented the phenomenon of pilav carts and we’ve covered the craze for uykuluk, or sweetbreads, in Sütlüce, but we never expected these two beloved subjects to come together in a single dish. But every evening in Kadıköy, like a lunar eclipse, two street food carts cross paths, making this rare combination possible. The grill cart is run by Aziz and Cesur, two brothers from the eastern Turkish city of Mardin who have been roving around Kadıköy with their grill since the late 1980s. Their hot-ticket items are grilled lamb innards – heart, spleen, liver and, of course, sweetbreads – but they also have köfte (meatballs) as well. The pilav cart, which seems to follow the grill smoke down to the coastal road around midnight, serves up buttery rice studded with chickpeas. Replacing the usual pilav topping of shredded chicken breast with tender and smoky sweetbreads might amount to blasphemy to some traditionalists but, for us, it shows a spirit of teamwork in which anything is possible. Now, if only a pickle cart would roll by!
Note: If the pilav cart is not around, head down the street to Dadaş Pilav. Get a portion of rice and bring it back to the grill cart for the meat topping.