Exploring a country through food is one of my favourite things about travel. There are so many amazing ways to cook, spices to combine and varieties of fruits and vegetables that you just simply never get to try at home! Finding a great hands-on cooking class, or a local food and wine tour can be an incredible way to learn about the country you are visiting and help you know what to order when you are on your own!
Istanbul did not disappoint on the food front!
I met up with my local guide and four other passengers; two were from Germany and two from the United States. We set off from the Galata Bridge, taking the Tunel (one of the oldest in the world) to the top of the hill where we began our evening food adventure. Trust me, the two-minute ride is well worth it, it is a steep hill!
The tour itself was presented as “a day in the life of a Turk,” through food. We started at a small cafe eating breakfast food called su boregi (directly translated to Water Pastry), and a sampling of Turkish coffee or tea.
The su boregi was light and mild. Layers of dough boiled and then flipped to keep the inside moist and the outside crispy. Sometimes they are filled with meat, cilantro, eggplant or yellow cheese, but ours was light and simple with just a sprinkling of white cheese inside, mixed with oil and hang yogurt. The texture is like eating pasta, but with no sauce and it is light enough for breakfast.
With Turkey being the world’s second-largest tea producer, you might understand that it is an important part of their culture. Most of the tea is grown in the Black Sea area and Turkey as a whole produces 1/3 of both tea and hazelnuts in the world.
You won’t see Turks just sticking a tea bag in hot water though. There’s a delicate process where they use two teapots with water in the bottom pot and loose tea in the top. They pour the boiling water from the bottom over the loose leaves. A bit of this extract will be mixed with more of the hot water and voila, the perfect cup of Turkish tea!
For ‘lunch’ we headed to a lovely little patio restaurant where they served up a bottle of Raki for us to share as we pondered our meze options.
Raki is a local liqueur. When mixed with an ice cube and water, watch the magic happen as it turns from a translucent liquid into a milky substance that they refer to as Lion’s milk. It has a distinct licorice flavour and is regularly compared to Ouzo, but don’t say this out loud as you will start a big debate that cannot be finished!
Meze is a variety of hot or cold small plates, served with bread. Our group poured over the options, asking what each one was and then a handful were ordered to give us a little taste test of everything. From denim borulcesi (sea weed / sea beans) to atom (a powerful chili), kozlenmis biber (red peppers), patlican ezme (mashed eggplant), to the most delicious hummus I’ve ever tasted.
Of course, it was accompanied by the standard onion, tomato, garlic, pureed salsa and haydari (hang yogurt with garlic and herbs). Add a spoonful of any of these tasty dishes on top of bread baked soft in the middle and crispy on the outside, and you have yourself a meal!
Did I mention we were only on lunch at this point?
As we moved on from the outdoor patio to our next destination, we made a quick street-food stop. Vendors throughout the streets of the Taksim and Galata districts are always hopping with the crowded night scene streaming by at a constant flow.
As two men stopped for a quick snack from the muscle vendor, we joined in the fun. A muscle shell filled with rice, drenched in lemon and popped in your mouth is apparently the way to go for your mid-evening night-out-drinking snack! Seeing as we had already had our afternoon Raki, I guess we had caught up with the youngsters. I’m not a huge fan of muscles normally but decided to give it a fair try. After staring down the shell convincing myself that I could do it, I popped it in my mouth and was pleasantly surprised at the mix of soft flavours and absence of distinct seafood taste. I almost had a second one and then remembered that I needed to save room for dessert!
Oh, wait, dessert isn’t next?
You can’t have dessert before you’ve had at least one more Turkish tea or coffee! So off to an open-air cafe near the Passage Hazzopulo, we went! With a mixture of both tea and coffee drinkers, we got to enjoy the thick bold goodness of Turkish coffee, the smoothness of Turkish tea and the sweetness of emil cay (apple tea). Apple tea is my favourite, but apparently, it is more of a tourist drink than one of the locals.
We then meandered off through some of the narrow streets and were drawn in by the methodical clickety-clack of metal utensils on a hot metal cooking service. As the minced meat on the cooking surface was broken up, tossed around and loaded up with spices, you could see people piling around to get it while it was hot and fresh. Kokorec, it was called, and our guide asked if we wanted to know what it was before or after trying it.
hmmmm … that doesn’t really sell it for me!
Kokorec is a very popular delicacy of cow or goat intestine mixed with spicy tomatoes and onion and then served on a small bun. I was sorry that I had asked what it was beforehand, but dug out my inner bravery and gave it a try. Much to my surprise, it was actually pretty tasty. It had the texture of minced beef or lamb, although maybe a little greasier, and the spices added a nice flavour. I even managed to take more than one bite, so it must not have been too bad at all!
With our bellies warmed up from tea/coffee and spicy Kokorec, we headed off to a narrow, off-the-beaten-track street for a taste of Efes, Turkey’s famed beer. Although I’m not a beer connoisseur, the gentlemen in my group described it as an “Easy drinking beer. Sweet and not too hard.”
After our ‘night out’ for a beer, next up was the typical ‘after-the-bar’ food; a little something called a wet burger. And, it was just that. It is a small, smoked, beef patty cooked with garlic and tomato paste and then smooshed into a small bun and left to get soggy. Chow down on a couple of these with a few big gulps of Ayran, a salty yogurt-based drink, and they say you’ll be hangover-free!
At our final stop, we finally made it to dessert and indulged in delectable Turkish sweets. We were served delicious baklava which is many layers of phyllo pastry, filled with pistachios, baked and then drizzled with sugar water. To take the edge off the exceptional sweetness, we shared some gooey Turkish ice cream. The ice cream has the same substance as chewing gum, so it doesn’t melt quickly and is slightly chewy, but mouthwateringly delicious.
As if that wasn’t enough, Beatrice then pulled out a chocolate bar chalked full of hazelnuts which is one of Turkey’s big exports. I have a special soft spot for chocolate and hazelnuts, so I managed to find an empty spot in my tummy to try a couple of squares.
And with that, we finished up the evening near Taksim Square with full bellies, new friends and a taste of local life.
Taking a local food, wine or beer tour on your vacation is an excellent way to try the local dishes, learn about the country’s food culture, all while supporting local restaurants, food stalls, entrepreneurs and winemakers!
Not all food and drink tours are made the same though! Let me help you have a great time trying the best local foods and supporting the local communities you are visiting, without having to worry about which companies are reputable and where to have the best food experience! I’d love to share my experiences from destinations around the world with you and get you booked on the perfect tasty tour or cooking class to make your trip memorable!