The Istanbul kitchen is regarded as one of the best in the world. Ingredients, chefs, styles and tastes came from every part of the Empire to the capital, making the Ottoman Turkish kitchen significant in world cuisine. But Turkish cuisine has not ceased to develop, and is growing and enhancing long after the end of the Empire.
The typical dish of Istanbul would consist of lamb, mutton and veal, to which a variety of vegetables are added. Pilaf, all kinds of pastry, bulgur, haricot beans, rich olive oil and vegetables are used as side dishes. Meat balls, shish kebab and doner kebab are the classic, most classic dishes found in any kebab restaurant, together with peppers, yoghurt, eggplant. Because of its coastal location, fish is also popular although is usually cooked simply, such as grilled or fried with olive oil and lemon juice.
Like the rest of the country, the usual way of starting a big meal is with mezzes, a selection of hot and cold dishes such as meat, fish, salads, vegetables and cheese, shared amongst the table and eaten with fresh bread. To finish your meal, pastry tarts, baklava, kadayif and a whole host of sweets are available not only in restaurants, but in pastry shops which have often been going for generations.
Because it is the commercial and cultural centre of Turkey, there are restaurants of many nationalities in Istanbul, like Korean, Russian, Italian and Chinese.
American-style fast-food outlets are becoming more popular, but for a quick snack it is more appropriate to fill up at the plethora of tiny takeaways with kebabs and snacks. It is easy to sample good quality regional cuisine in typical small restaurants, usually at low cost, especially in the commercial and business areas.
To wash down your meal, Turkey’s most famous two drinks are milky-coloured – although could not be more different: Ayran is a cooling, salty yoghurt drink which is refreshing in summer and can be found everywhere, from street stalls to restaurants. Raki, with the nick-name Lion’s Milk is a strong spirit with the taste of Aniseed, which turns milky-white when mixed with water. It is usually drunk to accompany food, especially at the beginning with mezzes. The main area of beer and wine production is Anatolia.
Turkish coffee is legendary, usually served very sweet and strong and drunk from tiny cups. It normally follows a meal, or is popular in cafes and offered when visiting people or even sitting in carpet shops! The expression, “a cup of coffee has a memory of 40 years”, has been repeated by Turks since the 16th century.
For a meal out which is lively and entertaining, the taverns and fish restaurants around Kumkapi, west of Sultanahmet, are great for outdoor dining and street atmosphere, and very popular in the summer. People have been meeting for years at Cicek Pasaji in Beyoglu for snacks and seafood specialities, and nearby is the narrow Nevizade street, the best place in Istanbul for eating Turkish specialties and drinking raki.
On the Bosphorus, Ortakoy is another good nightlife spot, with a good range of nightclubs, jazz clubs, fine seafood restaurants and bars. At Eminönü don’t miss an opportunity to see fishermen dressed in traditional Ottoman clothes and their Ottoman-style boats cooking delicious fried fish, whilst bobbing on the water around Eminonu.