We were fortunate to partner with Culinary Backstreets on their Two Markets, Two Continents Tour. While they provided support for our tour, all opinions in this post remain our own. Thanks to Culinary backstreets for their support.
We love to take food tours right away when we arrive in a new city. We've found this to be a great way to get the lay of the land from someone who knows their stuff. It's also a great way to get to the heart (or stomach) of what makes a particular place tick. And so it was that we booked the Culinary Backstreets "Two Markets, Two Continents" tour on our first full day in Istanbul.
I'm just going to get this out of the way immediately; this was one of the best tours we have ever had. Maybe even the best. Much of the tour's greatness came from our guide Gonca (sort of think gonja for pronunciation and you will be somewhat close). To say that she loves what she does and is amazing at it is an understatement. From start to finish Gonca took great care of us. There were two other gals on the tour (Australians living in London) and Gonca was at home with all of us right away. She laid out what the day's activities looked like and made sure to keep checking in on how we were doing. She provided great cultural insight and provided thorough explanations for all the food we would try throughout the day. There was such ease with Gonca that we all felt like old friends by the second stop.
I didn't get names of all the places we went so I'm just going to provide some highlights. We didn't have a bad experience the whole day and ate so much good food. This tour is so thoughtfully considered that while I felt like I did an obscene amount of eating I didn't leave feeling sick and stuffed. We all were saying we felt quite perfect. Exactly what you want on a food tour.
Do yourselves a favor the next time you are in Istanbul and book this tour with Culinary Backstreets. It will definitely help shape your time here.
We met Gonca down by the waterfront and she was already waiting for us with a smile and good cheer. Our other two tour mates showed up and we got on our way immediately. While the pace of the whole tour was really relaxed and had no definite timelines, we needed to be on the ferry to the Asian side of the city at 11:00 and we had some serious eating to do beforehand.
We started our day with a visit to Gonca's favorite simit vendor. Simit is a sesame covered less dense bagel shaped bread. They're sold all over Istanbul for about 1 or 1.25 TEL each which makes them a super fast, super cheap, super portable breakfast on the go. Gonca told us about how important relationships are here in Istanbul. Residents have their go to simit vendor, tea vendors, coffee vendors, you name it. Her vendor was as kind as could be. He even offered us a taste of his personal breakfast bread! We grabbed one simit per person and headed to our next stop. This was a truly special treat and one of the few places I did manage to capture the name - Hasan Fehme Ozsut. Bookmark this now because by the time you are done reading about what we ate here your mouth will be watering and you will definitely want to check it out.
As we sat down to the table the owner of the restaurant placed a medium sized plate of clotted cream drizzled with honey in the center of our group. Now, this isn't just any clotted cream. This family owns water buffalo and makes the cream from their milk; which according to Gonca is a rarity nowadays. Once we had a taste of this stuff we were all transfixed. The methode for eating the water buffalo clotted cream is the push a bite of simit into the cream and twirl it around until you have just the right proportion of cream and honey on the bread. Then quickly shove it in your mouth and swoon. Swooning in involuntary because good god is this incredible. We all agreed this was one of the best things we had tasted.
But it got better. Gonca came prepared with olives, red pepper paste, pickled herbs and other treats to accompany our simit and cream tasting. All of this combined made for an incredible start. We all agreed that we could have ended the tour there but there was so much more to see.
Next we were off to one of the best places to buy desserts in the Karakoy area. Along the waterfront stands an incredible sweet shop called Karakoy Gulluoglu. As Gonca noticed we were getting tight on time for catching the ferry we whipped around the store in a fury. She seamlessly ordered burek and a baklava type of treat (the name escapes me). The burek was for eating on the ferry and the sweet would be for much later in the day. We were a whirlwind of people as we made our way out of the shop and back onto the street. A quick tour around the deli next door and we were on our way to the ferry.
The journey continues
The ferry ride is about 20 minutes or so and rest assured we did some more eating while we were en route to the asian side of Istanbul. As part of her whirlwind shopping in the sweet shop, Gonca picked up some burek for us to try. So we dug into it while on the ferry. This was the lightest, fluffiest pastry crusted burek I have had. There were two varieties to try, but I just went with the spinach option. It was so good, but I held back from having more as I knew there was so much more to eat once we got off the ferry.
A visit to the "Fish market"
I have "fish market" in quotes because where we went next is a fish market only in name. The ferry dropped us off in Kadakoy and it was just a short walk to the fish market neighborhood where we continued to feast. This is where I really fell down in terms of the names of the places we stopped. This area was filled with so many great shops that offer just about anything you could desire. Our first stop was for some mezze at another shop that I would call a "deli". They had quite a few prepared items and an amazing selection of olives. We pulled up our chairs to one of the tables outside and got ready to dig into the salad assortment magically appeared at our table.
We ate dolma, stuffed squash blossom, a spicy pepper mixture, sea beans and grilled olives. Everything was delicious and in fact, Zac and I found our way back here later in the day to do some personal shopping.
The next stop was a pickle shop where we had a sampling of various Turkish style pickles. One of the biggest surprises to me is that these pickles were so simple. There was no spice, peppers, dill, etc. in any of the products. They were salty and vinegary for sure, but they kept a lot of their own flavor as well. One of the best things we had there was a beverage that was a mix of all the pickle juices on hand. Oh how I loved this. Apparently it's an acquired taste, and one I would revisit later when we had some soup and I ordered the pickled turnip drink.
Whew. I was getting full but we had just a few more stops left. Next up was a stop to a nut and dried fruit shop. The displays are obsessively neat and beautiful and the wide assortment is incredible. We tried some local pistachios, walnuts, and my favorite, a dried fig stuffed with walnut. This was an incredible snack and one I plan on recreating.
Our next stop had us leaving the world of snack foods and getting back to the filling stuff. We stopped at this tiny little place on the corner and pulled up our stools to the outside counter and waited for our lahmajoun. This little "pizza" like item is incredibly tasty. The dough is rolled super thin and is topped with a very light mixture of meat and tomato sauce. For the full experience, roll your piece of lahmajoun before trying to eat it. Perfection.
Two more stops. I can do this. Getting really full but still somehow really able to continue eating. As a group we decided to skip the stop at which we could try offal. We stopped by the stall to see how it was prepared but none of us were interested in giving it a go. Gonca was undeterred and brought us along to another stop. Soup.
I love soup and was looking forward to this. I was excited to see that I could try the lentil soup. Our tour companions ordered the lamb soup which they enjoyed. There were some accoutrements to their soup which I can't quite remember, but their opinions were split on whether or not these added to the overall taste. The soups were accompanied by meatless "meatballs" though as you can see from the images below that these weren't balls at all. It looked more like tomato paste. But these were delicious and I couldn't stop eating them. Essentially these were created when the smack down came down on serving raw meat and so the clever chevs omitted the meat from the recipe, but everything else stayed.
Next stop - gelato. I should say this wasn't just any kind of gelato. This was made with goat milk. For this reason I was super excited. We were all looking forward to this sweet treat and eagerly got in line. Based on how quickly we devoured our selections, it seemed like we all really enjoyed ourselves.
Ok, the final stop. We decided to move our Turkish coffee experience to the end of the tour. I opted for a really fresh, really sour lemonade (just as I like it) while Gonca, Zac and one of our companions ordered the coffee. Gonca told us of ritual of drinking Turkish coffee and even the ritual of reading the coffee grounds with your girlfriends (this will be the subject of another post). We discovered so much over our beverages and enjoyed our last sweet treat that Gonca had been carrying with her since before we boarded the ferry.
This was an incredibly full (in every sense of the word) day and we left feeling as if we knew more about Istanbul, about food, and about the coffee culture. I will say it again, if you are in Istanbul you really need to book this tour. It is an absolute must.