A food tour of Istanbul is the perfect way to learn about Turkish food culture and history while sampling the most delicious and authentic local food.
I was watching an episode of Shane Delia’s ‘Spice Journey – Turkey’ series on the Travel Channel one night, and every time he tried a new dish in an urban eatery or rural village home, I thought ‘but I’ve never seen that’.
And so it was that after a few episodes I decided that Turkey was worth at least one more visit. I had not tasted anything on any of my previous trips that was even remotely memorable or noteworthy. I had all but written off Turkish cuisine as bland and mostly unpalatable, except for the baklava and Turkish delight.
By the time I made my way back to Istanbul for my first Culinary Backstreets food tour of Istanbul, I had already booked two food tours and a cooking class with Culinary Backstreets LLC. For the first time in fifteen years I felt excited about eating real Turkish food.
This is not a sponsored post because all tours were paid for in full, or with the discount applied for any returning guest booking on their website.
Why take a Food Tour of Istanbul?
I had no idea where to start when I decided to revisit Turkey’s food culture, so I did what I always do, and asked Sheikh Google. The first option I found was the website of Culinary Backstreets LLC and they had quite a few tours available in Istanbul. There was no online booking option at that time. I sent an email to the address mentioned on the website and the responder recommended three different options to get the most out of the trip. The payment was processed manually and I received a confirmation via email.
It turned out that the responder was one of the owners of the company, and I subsequently met him at the Slow Travel seminar at the Terra Madre Salone del Gusto conference in Turin. I had a true fan girl moment and I suspect he silently freaked when he introduced himself to a few of us waiting for the seminar to start and I shrieked, ‘omg you are my hero’!
The Culinary Backstreets website has since undergone a major upgrade and improvement and all tours can now be booked and paid for online. They do however respond to any emails within 24 hours and also offer a discount to any returning guests. Return visitors may get a discounted rate using a voucher code.
I returned to Istanbul with my family for a subsequent visit and have taken numerous food tours in Istanbul with Culinary Backstreets over the past few years. Their tours are the gold standard by which all subsequent food tours are measured against.
One of favorite food tours was the Culinary Backstreets of the Bazaar Quarter that starts at the Sirkeci train station with an authentic Turkish breakfast. You can read about my experience here.
We went on to explore an Ottoman era han (trader inn) around the Grand Bazaar, where craftsmen still ply their traditional metal smith trades in tiny workshops. At each stop along the way we were offered delectable tidbits including freshly baked borek; Konya wedding soup made with dried baby okra; refreshing freshly squeezed fruit juice of mulberries, banana and apple; freshly baked pide eaten on the rooftops overlooking the Bosphorus; perfectly sweet and crunchy kadayif served with Turkish coffee; elegantly spiced kebabs and a selection of mezzes in a two stage lunch; and lastly dessert of Tırlıçe (milk soaked cake) followed by Turkish tea.
This tour starts at the Naval Museum in Besiktas before moving on to the neighborhood streets with breakfast salons serving breakfast all day long. You can read about my experience here.
Our first meal was an authentic Turkish breakfast after which we explored the fish market, and had a short introductory lesson on Raki drinking etiquette and customs, sans the Raki.
After a short ferry ride across the Bosphorus to the Asian side we spent much time immersed in Üsküdar’s traditional food culture. We visited covered markets and artisan shops tasting honey, sweets, nuts, fresh fruit and pickled vegetables, cheese, fish and meat.
The walk ended in the residential neighborhood of Kuzguncuk where Jews, Christians and Muslims lived side by side in days gone by. We visited a small neighborhood restaurant for a final meal of fish soup and Turkish tea.
One of the highlights is the walk and cooking class in the Kurtuluş neighborhood. The very knowledgeable and helpful chef Iris and Cookistan Turkish Cooking classes made it an unforgettable experience. You can read about my experience here.
The meeting place at the Ramada Plaza, opposite the Osmanbey metro station, is one stop away from Taksim. We started with a walk through the neighborhood that had once been home to religious minority groups during the Ottoman Empire and still maintains it’s soul. We visited a bakery for morning tea goodies, a bountiful deli, tandir bread baker, a butcher, a spice and herb shop and an artichoke specialist shop along the walk to the class venue.
After a leisurely ‘getting to know you session’ with the rest of the group, drinking tea and eating cookies and simit, we commenced our 6 course cooking class. On the menu was Sulemaniye soup, bulgur salad, Circassian chicken, borecik, stuffed dried eggplants, courgette and vine leaves and lastly pumpkin dessert.
The walks and cooking class were amazing and I saw and learnt more about Turkish produce and food culture in those few days than I did on all my previous visits to Istanbul. Gone was the bland overcooked tourist fodder…
After writing this blog post I was looking for the origins of Kayseri cheese online and found this website of the Turkish Cultural Foundation with a detailed guide to the culinary culture and historical development of Turkish cuisine. It also has recipes for numerous Turkish regional dishes that are loved throughout the country.
By end of my first focused food tour of Istanbul I felt exhilarated, albeit a bit exhausted. In my mind’s eye I was already wondering about my next culinary excursion abroad. My first Culinary Backstreets food tour of Istanbul was such a wonderful experience that I subsequently returned with my family to share the beauty and joy of learning about Turkish food culture and history with them.
I keep going back because the combination of blue skies, mountains and sea remind me of my hometown, Cape Town. Now that I have experienced the delicious flavors and textures of fresh produce and ingredients cooked in traditional Turkish methods and keep learning about the local foods of other regions in the country I feel like there is so much more left to explore in this vast country.
This post was first published on 17 May 2015 but has since been updated.