It’s officially FALL everywhere in the world and surely some of you out there are already planning Halloween costumes…but today…in going through photos of this past summer, I found myself really wanting a few local summertime snacks. You see up until a week and a half ago, it still very much felt like the dead of summer here in Istanbul… 97 degrees ‘dead of summer’ to be exact. There was a moment when I wondered if fall would ever come to Istanbul…or if I would be doomed to deal with my 1 hour daily commute sweating to death in the humidity. Then right when I had given up all hope, the weather drastically dropped, and I got the flu. Typical. As much as I welcomed and desperately wanted this weather change, it happened overnight without leaving me time to properly prepare for the food change. My neighborhood markets stock only seasonal items. In just one day, nearly all summer foods were gone from the shelves . So now, let me take you back just a bit to the start of summer in Istanbul and my favorite snacks that helped me survive.
When I think of Istanbul in the summer, I think of three things: the sea, fish and cold beer. It’s usually so hot outside that the only thing I want to do is sit somewhere with a nice seaside view, drink something cold and eat something light. This can easily be accomplished here in Istanbul as seafood is such a huge part of the culture. When my brother came to visit last June, he was surprised by this cultural aspect. He was expecting to eat kebab every day and generally have really heavy food. He didn’t expect there to be so many fish places. After thinking about it a bit he looked around and said ‘But you know… it makes sense…there’s water everywhere.’ Precisely! Istanbul is surrounded by the Marmara Sea and has the Bosphorus literally cutting the two sides of the city in half. In the summer, Istanbul is in its glory (if you can stand the heat) with outdoor seating everywhere. The Prince’s Islands are also only 50 minutes by ferry and are the perfect day-trip getaway to soak up the sun. So what do you eat? Seafood: fried mussels, calamari, octopus salad… and while fall is the true fish season (when markets overfill with huge fat bellied Palamut and Lufer) nothing beats a plate of fried seafood with a beer in the summer.
One of my favorite summertime street foods is actually the very first food I ever ate in Turkey. By the ferry-boat ports, especially over in Eminonu, you can find boats serving up this delicious meal. Balık Ekmek translates literally to ‘fish bread’… and the simple translation states all that there is to know really. It’s a sandwich made of fresh grilled fish, covered in raw sliced onions (sometimes with lettuce and tomato-but not always) and stuffed in between a hunk of crusty french bread. There’s salt and lemon juice that you can squeeze onto your fish bread… depending on your own taste. That’s seriously all there is to it. There’s no sauce, there’s no extra seasoning. It’s absolutely perfect. The fish tastes like the sea and is spicy from the onions and tangy from the lemon. It might be one of the best things I’ve ever eaten and there’s nothing fancy about it. It doesn’t need to be overstated. It is exactly what you imagine when you hear those words ‘fish bread’ and in that way it’s probably one of the truest food experiences you’ll have.
My next favorite has to be Midye Dolma.
These are steamed mussels that are stuffed with spiced rice and served cold with lemon wedges. When I say ‘spiced rice’ I mean rice that is very similar to what you wold find in a yaprak sarma, or Turkish style stuffed grape leaves. The rice is seasoned with onion, dill, currants, often times pine nuts, and red pepper and cinnamon. So it’s hot-spicy and also a bit sweet. It sounds like a strange combination I know, but somehow it matches perfectly with the salty mussel and then just a squirt of lemon on top. They are soooooo good that I even don’t know how to describe just how good other than again, so simple and yet so straightforwardly satisfying. I could easily eat about 30 of them myself and actually have been told that large grown men sometimes compete with each other over who can eat the most midye dolma. This is definitely a “street” food being that you most often see these in giant trays being prepared and sold on the street. Several people have also told me that midye dolma originated on the very streets of Istanbul and that other cities copied the idea later… in that case making it a true “Istanbulu” delicacy. However I haven’t been able to find any real proof of this claim, but I do like the idea that when I’m eating this food, I’m taking part in a time-honoured Istanbul tradition. And yes, these pair perfectly with an ice cold Efes beer.
After all that salty fried food, how can you not end with something sweet right? What’s the perfect cure for your sweet tooth…when it’s a million degrees outside…and you need something light? LOKMA ! These are Turkish ‘mini doughnuts’, very similar to Greek loukomades, or Italian zeppole. In fact, the word ‘lokma’ in Turkish literally means ‘small bite or morsel’ which explains perfectly that these are perfectly bite-sized treats. The lokma is made from a light, airy batter that is dropped and fried in oil, then the dough balls are soaked in simple syrup. The outside skin is crunchy and the inside is soft…almost cloud-like and bursting with the sweet syrup. According to local legend, these doughnuts were created by the Sultan’s cooks to please the royalty of the Ottoman Empire…which is interesting in that today they are mostly served as ‘street’ food and usually considered a kind of fast food. Something you grab and eat on the go, walking around Istanbul with friends.
For most of the summer, I wandered Istanbul’s streets, taking the time to stop and grab something to eat and sit by the water to watch the sunset. With the end of summer vacation and having to go back to work, the heat of the summer lost its appeal and I found myself begging for colder days. Although now, I find myself dreaming of summer again and days with my stuffed mussels and beer overlooking the Bosphorus!