Izmir’s quintessential sandwich, the kumru (the Turkish word for turtle dove), derives its name from the birdlike shape of the elegant, curved roll in which it is served. Throughout the Aegean coastal city, there are two varieties of this ubiquitous sandwich: One is served fresh from a cart with a slice of local tulum peynir (sharp white sheep’s cheese), tomatoes and optional green pepper. The other version is a greasy, salty and downright decadent configuration of grilled sucuk, salami, thinly sliced hot dog strips, two types of cheese, pickles, tomatoes and occasionally ketchup and mayo, dwarfing its humble predecessor.
While the simpler kumru dates back to the mid-19th century, it was in the 1940s that sandwich shops started grilling them up with sausage and melted cheese, according to the Izmir Provincial Directorate of Culture and Tourism, which officially registered the kumru as a geographical identification in 2017. The sandwich is sold throughout Turkey, though sometimes the ingredients are stuffed inside hot dog or hamburger buns. While they may be delicious, they’re not kumrus.
We’ve eaten our share of kumru in Izmir and Istanbul, and even feasted on a formidable interpretation of the sandwich in Berlin. But our favorite proprietor of this Aegean specialty is found in a tiny corner of the Kemeraltı Bazaar, a sprawling market dating back to the 17th century that is Izmir’s answer to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. And while Kemeraltı is more of a functional market rather than a tourist attraction, it is certainly a destination in its own right, and home to a number of excellent eateries, namely Kumrucu Apo.
Slinging sandwiches in Kemeraltı since 1970, Apo usta is perhaps Izmir’s longest-running kumrucu, serving up a scaled-back yet delicious take on the grilled version. Apo usta runs the place with his son Isa and Isa’s nephew, and the three generations work side by side in the cramped space to feed hungry market-goers.
Hailing from Mardin, a town in southeastern Turkey that’s not far from the Syrian border, Apo usta and company have imparted flavors from throughout Anatolia into their kumru. The sucuk is sourced from the Izmir district of Tire, the eski kaşar (aged yellow cheese) comes from the northeastern city of Kars, while the gleaming, blackened Isot pepper flakes are brought in from the southeastern city of Urfa.
Apo usta and company have imparted flavors from throughout Anatolia into their kumru.
We stop in on a warm Wednesday in May at around 2 p.m., and the grill is full, as are the small stools on which customers plump down to enjoy their kumrus. We order one (our second in two days) and quickly chomp it down, admiring how the delicious slices of sucuk are curled up like pepperoni and mingle perfectly with the melty, slightly sharp cheese, pickle slices, pepper flakes, and salça (tomato paste) that is spread on one slice of the bread. Though we want to ask the kumru masters a few questions, they are slammed, so we decide to wander Kemeraltı for a bit until the lunch rush simmers down.
Shortly after 4 p.m., we make our way through the tangled, narrow maze of Kemaraltı’s side streets back to Kumrucu Apo, and it’s just as busy. “We haven’t eaten lunch yet,” Isa says while presiding over a grill packed with kumrus. With our return flight to Istanbul in just a few hours, this is our last chance to press them about their unusual sandwich.
“Back in the day there weren’t tomatoes in the winter, so we used salça,” Isa says while flipping bread. In the corner, Apo usta deftly slices a huge block of cheese while Isa’s nephew assembles the sandwiches and passes them out to the hungry crowd. One can opt for fresh slices of tomato on their kumru, but we found that the acidity of the pickles and salça formed a perfect balance with the rich, savory sausage and cheese. We asked for a sprinkling of Isot pepper, but they offer spicier red pepper flakes as well.
The small sandwich leaves you wanting more, rather than leaving you full of regret, like some of the more lavish, hulking varieties of the kumru. After half a century in Kemeraltı, Apo usta and his relatives are a fixture in the bustling market for providing a delicious sandwich at a reasonable price (11 TL, or $1.25). If we lived in Izmir, we could easily eat one every day.