Sirkeci Food Tour
The neighborhood of Sirkeci is full of small
restaurants whose customers include working class Turks,
businessmen and tourists from around Turkey and other countries.
The Hotel Neorion and other hotels of the Sirkeci group have put
together an exploration of these restaurants, an eating tour, led
by Agah Okay Alkan, who if not an expert in Turkish cuisine, knows
enough to keep you informed and entertained. It is perhaps the
most fun tour you can do of the city and since you sample the food
from every restaurant, the most satisfying.
We start our tour by going to the Cig Kofte Shop of Ali Usta,
located in a hallway on a small side street near the Spice Bazaar
(Hamidiye Turbesi Sokak #26). Ali reminds you of someone who might
appear out of a magic lamp, though worth a much larger personality
than your typical genie. Watching him work is magic. Cig Kofte
means raw meat patty and was traditionally made with beef or lamb
and comes from the city of Urfa in southeast Turkey. Now it is
made from cracked wheat due to modern safety laws, but it is so
heavily seasoned you could make it with just about anything and it
would still taste good. Just imagine a huge pile of a substance
the consistancy of raw falafil mix, with herbs and spices crushed
into it, then thrown in a blob into a leaf of lettuce (iceberg),
or smeared into a thin pita bread and wrapped up with lettuce,
spring onions and lots of lemon. The people who line up for Ali's
Cig Kofte also get a container of ayran, a yogurt drink that is
the antidote for spicy food. Cig Kofte is one of the healthiest
things you can eat on the streets of Turkey and we came back the
next day for more.
The next stop was for one of my favorite dishes: Kokorec,
pronounced kokorech or what we know in Greece as kokoretsi. It is
eaten in the Balkans and Anatolia and is lamb or goat intestines
that are wrapped around other organ meats and roasted on a spit.
Whereas the Greeks slice it off in sections and eat it as it is,
in the famous Krak Kokorec shop we visited it is chopped up and
eaten on bread, like a big liver and intestine sandwhich that
tastes a lot better than it sounds, especially if you add a few of
the spicy peppers in vinegar that are in jars on each table. The
shop is owned by Hasan Usta, who hails from the eastern Turkish
city of Ardahan, and has been operating since 1992 at 54 Buyuk
Postane Street right by the Spice Market. Hasan Usta started with
a small cart and it is now a popular stop for any knowledgeable
traveler who regularly reads the NY Times where he has been
featured. For those of you who want to try the stuffed mussels but
are nervous about getting them from the men selling them in the
street, just slip behind the grill and point to them. They say he
makes some of the best mussels in Istanbul. They don't really go
with Kokorec but don't let that stop you if you have your heart
set on them or you are with someone who wants to try kokorec and
you don't. They also serve the aryan yogurt drink here too. Like
Ali's place we returned here for a meal later that week.
After walking through the Spice Bazaar and out the other side our third stop was Lezzet-i Sark, at Hasircilar Caddesi #52, a kofte and grilled meat shop that specialized in food from Adana Turkey, where we walked up a narrow stairway to a small dining area and sampled several dishes from that part of Turkey. Our first dish was Icli Kofte which is a meatball, covered in bulgur and deep fried. We were then served Adana Kebaps, a long spicy skinny hamburger made from lamb (beef can be used), grilled and served with grilled hot peppers, minced onions and parsley and tomato. I tried a bottle of salgam suyu which is turnip juice and managed to drink most if it. It tastes pretty much as you would expect turnip juice to taste like, maybe better, and a little spicy too. Like many kofte and kebab shops this one has a menu with photos of the food which is very helpful when you are in a country like Turkey
Since we were at the Spice Bazaar we stopped for a tour of the Nuri Toplar coffee roastery, one of the oldest and most well known in Istanbul, and then went to the Namli Sarkuteri, a famous gourmet deli-supermarket that was filled with smoked meats, pickled vegetables, pastourma, cheeses, marinated fish, some of which we sampled. For me it was the most interesting stop on the tour because there were so many good things to eat there that I would not even know where to begin. For those who want to visit on your own it is at Hasircilar Caddesi No. 14-16 just on the other side of the Spice Bazaar from Sirkeci. We planned to come back here to buy pastourma but ended up getting it from a Greek shop in the Bazaar. Make sure you buy some pastourma when you are in Turkey. They package it well and it will keep, as do the souzouk, beef sausages. We bought a ton of these back with us and were still eating them two months later.
As you might imagine by now we were getting full but we still had
one more stop before desert and that was at the Mavi Halic Pide
Salonu at Kutucular Sk#28. Pides are like pizzas, or are to Turkey
as pizza is to the rest of the world, though shaped like boats
with the edges folded over so you can fit a lot more stuff. If you are traveling to Turkey with your children this is a great food to know about because it is not a hard transition to make from loving pizza to loving pides once you know what tastes good on it. Since we sampled several different ones on the tour it was a good introduction though I don't think we ever had the opportunity to eat another one. That's OK because the Turkish restaurant at home makes really good ones too though they are a lot cheaper
After a short detour through the pet market between the Spice
Bazaar and the New Mosque to see the parrots and the therapeutic
leeches, we ended up at Hafiz Mustapha, the famous sweet shop
where we have stopped just about every night during our last two
visits to Istanbul so it needed no introduction. We sampled a
number of traditional sweets and then as we left we met the owner
who had us sample some loukoum which we know quite well from Greece as loukoumia, specifically the island of Syros which is famous for it. By now it was almost 4pm. The tour is
only supposed to last two hours but we had dragged it out with
questions and the fact that it was one of the few tours I have
ever been on that I did not want to rush through since it was all
about food. But since it ends right back where we started in
Sirkeci we just walked the few steps to the hotel, went down for a
swim and a Turkish bath, and were soon all ready to go to dinner.
In fact that night we went to the Neyazade restaurant where our
guide Okay was working.
My advice to any travelers who are staying at the Hotel Neorion or any of the hotels of the Sirkeci Group, to do this tour which usually takes place on Monday, though probably if you have a few people who want to go, can be arranged for any day. First of all it is fun. Okay is a great guide, speaks perfect English and knows Turkish food and probably after the tour you will have at least one new friend in Turkey. Plus you will know what everything is which will make eating the rest of your stay a lot less complicated. Most likely, like us you will return to some of the places that Okay took you to on the tour, (especially Ali's Cig Kofteci shop). And even if you don't feel like your sense of direction will enable you to retrace your footsteps, the type of restaurants we visited are all well represented on tiny Hoca Pasa street, right across from the hotel.