My first culinary walk in Istanbul was the Culinary Backstreets of the Bazaar Quarter food tour that started off in Sirkeci and wound itself through Ottoman-era tradesmen’s hans and caravanserais to end off very close to the Grand Bazaar.
This Culinary Backstreets tour of Istanbul started with an authentic Turkish breakfast and ended with the obligatory Turkish tea and hubbly bubbly.
The reservation enquiry was done via the Culinary Backstreets website and the payment was processed after I had confirmed the tours I wanted to take. At the time they did not have an online payment platform and all booking enquiries were responded to by one the their team. Fortunately, my responder happened to be one of the founders and he recommended the two tours; this one and Born on the Bosphorus and the Shop, Cook, Feast cooking class that I ultimately booked.
The tour is offered every day except Sundays and starts at 09:30 for around 5 hours. The terrain includes steep hills and if you are lucky, a view of the city from the rooftops. Unfortunately the rooftops can only be reached via a steep external flight of stairs without any ballustrade.
The meeting place for the Culinary Backstreets of the Bazaar Quarter food tour was at the Sirkeci train station, close to the tourist information office. The food walk leader was Ugur ‘Adam’ Ildiz, his intern for the day, and two American couples.
I was staying at the Hotel Miniature in Sultanahmet and it was a few minutes walk downhill to the Sirkeci station.
This tour had so much to offer. From an authentic Turkish breakfast to freshly made mussels from a street vendor and spit roasted sweet breads from a Master chef.
Sirkeci Station cafeteria: Hoca Paşa Mahallesi, Ankara Cd.
Our first stop on the Backstreets of the Bazaar Quarter food tour was a few steps from the meeting place at Sirkeci train station. We were treated to a beautifully prepared authentic sit down Turkish breakfast at a cafeteria for the artisans and workmen who came to offer their services across the road at the park.
Ugur also gave us a quick lesson on Turkish honey with wildflower honey from the Mediterranean region, chestnut and rhododendron honey from the Black Sea area and the first harvest of a new colony of young bees that had a very thick texture.
The breakfast feast of typical Turkish breakfast ingredients including lightly spiced pastirma, kaymak (clotted cream) with honey, fresh wild thyme, sheep’s and goat’s cheeses, aged Kaseri cheese, acuka (spicy tomato and walnut spread), olives, rose petal jam, grape molasses with tahini, candied unripe walnuts served with simit and acma breads. It was all washed down with black tea and Turkish coffee made the right way (with a layer of crema that covers the coffee completely).
Kısmet Börekçisi: Hoca Paşa Mahallesi, İbni Kemal Cd. No:52, Fatih
After breakfast we took a walk up the hill and around the area surrounding the train station. Our next stop was at Kısmet Börekçisi where we sampled the freshly made borek. The outside was crisp and the inside surpringly tender and soft with a texture similar to fresh pasta.
Güvenç Konyalı: Hoca paşa hamam sok., Ankara Cd. No:4, Sirkeci
A shortcut through a converted hamam brought us to our next stop, Güvenç Konyalı, a restaurant that specializes in Anatolian cuisine. Their speciality is the Konya wedding soup, made with dried baby okra that has been rehydrated, other vegetables and shredded lamb. The baby okra has a very short harvest season and is very expensive to purchase.
Neslihan Büfe: Hobyar Mahallesi, Büyük Postane Cd. No:44, Fatih
We passed by historical Ottoman era buildings and stopped at the Neslihan Büfe for a refreshing freshly squeezed fruit juice of mulberries, bananas and apples.
We then made our way through the garment district that borders the Spice Bazaar, and I for one was overwhelmed by the serious wedding dress shops and accoutrements available. If you’re planning on getting married and money is no object, then a visit to this area would not be wasted.
Pak Pide: Mercan Mahallesi, Nasuhiye Sk. No:4, Fatih
A walk up a steep hill took us to the Ottoman era hans (trader’s inns) and the area where the porters who transport the goods up to the craftsmen’s workshops rest and eat.
Our next stop was Pak Pide, where we had a taste of traditional baked pide made for over forty years by the same man using local ingredients and a wood fired oven using wood that burnt with very little smoke. Ugur led us up a flight of very steep steps (without any banister or railing) to the rooftop of the Han where we enjoyed our mid-day snack with a stunning view across the Bosphorus.
We walked through the Han visiting metal smith workshops along the way. One was for making the steel fittings for the narghile (shisha). Another workshop of a company called Soy was for hand fashioned copper and silver cookware, which one of the tour members said was of superior quality and much cheaper than what she saw on a recent vacation to Paris.
Büyük Yeni Han: Taya Hatun Mahallesi, Sandelyeciler Sk. No:41, Fatih
A leisurely walk through the Han brought us to Büyük Yeni Han, a traditional workers tea shop, where we were treated to freshly made kadayif with kaymak (clotted cream) and Turkish tea and coffee. The Han has an intercom system for the workshops to order their beverages and snacks from the tea room. They also had a manual rope system to lower down trays of tea to the floors below, saving the server trips up and down the steep stairs. Ugur gave us a brief lesson on reading coffee grinds left on the upturned cup. Basically, it had no scientific or metaphysical basis, just look for the pictures and make up a story.
The burst of energy from the sweet dessert gave us the second wind we needed to approach the Grand Bazaar through alleys lined with silver shops catering to Russian and Arab tourists, narrow side streets and the great expanse of the undercover central trading area. First stop was a surprisingly clean public toilet at the edge of the bazaar in the grounds of the mosque.
Midye dolma (stuffed mussels) Mobile cart vendor: Inside the Grand Bazaar
Next stop was along the road with a reputable cart vendor of Midye dolma (stuffed mussels). The mussels are prepared fresh every day by the vendor’s wife and stuffed with rice and spices. He collects the shells in a bag to determine the bill for each buyer. The mussels were moist, flavorful and delicious with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.
Kokoreççi Erdinç Usta: Mollafenari Mahallesi, Kılıçcılar Sk. No:27, Fatih
A little further and we stopped opposite a very busy small kiosk called Kokoreççi Erdinç Usta (Usta means Master) selling crusty Kokoreç sandwiches (sweetbreads wrapped in intestines and grilled on a rotating spit). Ugur warned us that it would be spicy and an altogether acquired taste. I found it crunchy and not at all weird tasting. The spicy kick from the hot chili was delicious too and probably killed any funky flavors that may have been lingering on the intestines.
Dürümcü Raif Usta: Mollafenari Mahallesi, Küçük Yıldız Han Sokak No:6, Fatih
Our first stop for lunch was at Dürümcü Raif Usta where we enjoyed Adana and Sis kebap served with a lovely cold Ayran (salted yoghurt drink). The meltingly tender lamb cubes and the minced lamb were perfectly spiced and served with fresh salad of lettuce, tomato and parsley and grilled hot green peppers.
Yasemin’in Mutfağı: The location for this restaurant may have changed
Our second stop for lunch at Yasemin’in Mutfağı was a delicious spread of seasonal vegetable mezzes including artichoke hearts with peas and carrots in olive oil, hummus with chili pepper and fresh herbs, Turkish moussaka (no béchamel included), and bite size Manti filled with minced meat and covered in a yoghurt sauce sprinkled with fresh herbs and melted butter. The menu changes every day according to what is available fresh in the markets.
By the time we left Yasemin’s we had walked, visited and savored our way through 7 hours of sights and treats.
Bena Dondurma: Gazi Mahallesi, Atik Ali Paşa Camii Sokak, Çemberlitaş No:17
After an amazing day the only thing left was dessert, which we had in the grounds of Atik Ali Pasa mosque that backs on to an establishment called Bena Dondurma. It was my very first taste of Tırlıçe, the delicious Turkish version of tres leche, a three milks cake soaked in evaporated milk, condensed milk and cream.
The Turkish/Albanian version sometimes literally uses three milks of sheep, cows and goats. Our Tırlıçe was served with creamy Turkish ice cream or dondurma. Even now it is still the best tres leche cake I have eaten.
After the conclusion of the walk, Ugur offered us some tea at the narghile cafe nearby. The tea was lovely, but the smoky flavor filled air was a bit overwhelming.
Verdict: It was a lovely end to an amazing day during which I learned more about the culture, history and food of Istanbul than on all my previous trips. I was already looking forward to my scheduled Born on the Bosphorus food tour and the Shop, Cook, Feast – a hands-on adventure cooking class.
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