Special Report
Food: Innovative cuisine in a modern age

A blend of local and migrant cultures has resulted in a rich culinary diversity, says Gwen Robinson

Gwen Robinson
OCTOBER 16 2012

On Friday night in Istanbul, the panoramic terrace of the Sunset Grill & Bar is heaving with the glamour crowd. They are drawn by stunning views over the Bosphorus Strait, which divides what is known as “European” and “Asian” Istanbul, and by the creative menu of Turkish, Japanese and Mediterranean cuisine – as well as a wine cellar that surpasses many of France’s top restaurants.

This is just one aspect of Istanbul’s diverse culinary scene. Many others lie on either side of the Golden Horn, a tributary that divides the city’s “old town” and “new district”, and in the sleepier “Asian side” to the east.

In the teeming streets of Sultanahmet in the old town, diners sit in the open air to sample succulent, charcoal-grilled kebabs or the day’s catch at any number of seafood restaurants. Many later drift into one of many atmospheric cafes for thick, sweet Turkish coffee and honey-drenched pastries.

In the new district of Beyoglu, the vibrant backstreets of Cihangir and Galata are peppered with kebab stores, pickle shops, bakeries, fish vendors and taverns plying colourful meze plates of dips and salads, and grilled fish and meats with anise-flavoured raki, the local “firewater”.

Turkish cuisine is an overwhelming mix of regional flavours and styles, from simple grilled meats and hearty stews to more complex, elaborately spiced dishes and crunchy salads. Bakeries offer as many varieties of bread as patisseries do sweets. Breakfast usually consists of cheeses, breads, tomatoes and cucumber.

With its multi-ethnic blend of cultures: Turkish, Arab, Persian, Greek – even Uygur – and roots in imperial Ottoman cuisine, the concept of generic Turkish food is difficult, says long-time Istanbul resident and author Nicole Pope.

“Foreigners tend to see the kebab as a uniform national dish, but there are numerous regional variations …There’s virtually no single ‘national dish’ – you’ll find kebabs and meze throughout the country, but with differences.”

Istanbul is a real migrant city, and its restaurant culture reflects that diversity, says Ansel Mullins, a food critic who runs the website Culinary Backstreets. “The population here has tripled in the last 20 years, and people have brought their own cuisines.”

Mr Mullins agrees with critics, such as Baris Tansever, owner of the Sunset Grill & Bar, who argue that the kebab has fallen prey to fast-food culture, and overly dominates the image of Turkish cuisine. Mr Mullins talks of a rising generation of innovative Turkish chefs. But, he says, “Turks love their traditions.” Through culinary tours of Istanbul he aims to show the quality and diversity of “genuine” Turkish food, including the “real kebab”.

“Definitely, the clichés need to be challenged, though like it or not, kebab in its many forms is a real part of the culinary landscape. There’s plenty of room for upscale sushi restaurants as well as downmarket kebab joints.”

One tour starts in the district of Cihangir at Datli Maya, a bakery and restaurant run by the chef Dilara Erbay, who left her fusion restaurant to devote herself to traditional recipes. She has converted the shop’s gas oven back to wood-fired, to bake robust stews in clay pots as well as breads and pastries.

Tempting smells waft from a batch of simit – sesame-coated bread rings. We feast on fresh-baked borek – stuffed flat pastries – filled with crumbly spiced cheese and spinach.

The next stop is Asri, a family-run pickle shop, its shelves stacked with jars of colourful pickled vegetables, many of which have come from the family’s own farm. We demolish cups of piquant turnip and cabbage in a tangy juice.

A short walk brings us to Hayvore, a bright bistro specialising in Black Sea cuisine, including hamsi (fresh anchovies) in a rice pilaf, stuffed black cabbage and a smoky bean-and-kale soup with corn bread. “This is what you could call Turkish soul food – down-home and exceptionally tasty,” notes Mr Mullins.

It is time for a caffeine break. “Turks drink tea and coffee many times a day,” says Mr Mullins. We visit Mandabatmaz, a hole-in-the-wall just off trendy Istiklal Street. Here, the Turkish coffee is high-quality, thick and flavourful.

A cab ride to Sultanahmet, near the spice market, brings us to Sehzade, which Mr Mullins ranks alongside the city’s top kebab restaurants. Among the most popular varieties of the ubiquitous dish are doner kebab – pancake-thin layers of marinated meat stacked on a vertical spit, and cag kebab, which is chunkier and roasted on a horizontal spit.

Vegetarians can also feast at kebab places, on dishes such as lentil soup, fresh salads and ezme – spicy minced tomato, onion and parsley.

“This is an explorer’s city, an eater’s city – you learn so much about modern Turkey through its food. But it takes time to go beyond the surface, to discover Turkish identity.”

After a day touring the city’s eateries, that goal seems a little bit closer.


Istanbul restaurant listings

Emek Manti

A culinary shrine to manti – Turkish dumplings. 0212 262 6981


A modern bistro specialising in hearty Black Sea cuisine. 0212 245 7501

Sahin Lokantasi

A classic esnaf lokantasi – working man’s diner. Fast service, no frills. 0212 244 2543

Tarihi Karakoy Balikcisi

Good fresh fish at this lunch-only restaurant in a hardware market. 0212 251 1371

Adem Baba

This family-friendly seafood restaurant is an institution. 0212 263 2933


Order meze and fish dishes at this subdued, stylish restaurant. 212 259 7232


Cuisine of the Hatay region comes together with good design sense. 0212 292 1100

Zubeyir Ocakbasi

Locals and visitors come for the classic kebab experience. 0212 293 3951

Kofteci Huseyin

Meatballs are a family tradition at this tiny kofte – minced kebab – shop. 0212 243 7637

Lokanta Maya

A contemporary take on Turkish food from chef Didem Senol. 0212 252 6884


Chef Semsa Denizsel creates simple, yet excellent, seasonal menus. 0212 219 3114

* Cezayir

Traditional cuisine in a gracefully restored building. 0212 245 9980

* Sunset Grill & Bar

Top of Istanbul’s top-end eateries – with food, atmosphere and prices to match. 0212 287 0357

* Mikla

Chef Mehmet Gurs combines innovation and tradition with stunning views. 0212 293 5656

* Denotes author’s picks; other listings courtesy of Culinary Backstreets

Turkey international code +90