Experiencing Turkish Food in Istanbul: Tasting the Culture

Turkey has one of the best and most diverse cuisines in the world. Even though Turkey is more known for its kebabs and other meaty dishes, there are options for vegan or vegetarian people as well. In fact, more than you can imagine. Let’s see what are these vegan and vegetarian dishes you should eat during your Istanbul trip.

Table of Contents

Starting the day: Breakfast in Istanbul

We can confidently say that breakfast is the most essential meal in Turkish culture. Especially on the weekends, a Turkish person’s day can’t start without a proper breakfast. It’s the base of Turkish culture and keeps people from over-snacking.

Traditional Turkish Breakfast (Kahvaltı)

traditional turkish breakfast

Instead of one full plate, a traditional Turkish breakfast happens on the table. Everyone has their plate and food is distributed all over the table. You take whatever you want from the table and eat. A good Turkish breakfast must have:

  • Turkish Tea
  • Bread
  • Olives
  • Cheese
  • Tomatoes
  • Cucumbers
  • Jams & butter

It can be said that these are the main components of Turkish breakfast. Sometimes there are additionals like böreks, fried food, fruits, sausages, and eggs.


traditional turkish borek

Borek is a fried or baked, flaky pastry filled with minced meat, potatoes, spinach, or cheese. Its crispiness and lightness form a perfect combination for starting the day. You can either eat it in the patisserie or get it packed and enjoy it outside.

Also, you can just grab your borek and take it to another cafe. For example, in Çengelköy, there is a place called Çınaraltı Cafe where they allow you to bring food but no drink. Just order your tea and enjoy your borek with it!


traditional turkish gozleme

Gozleme is a baked thin bread-like dough stuffed with spinach, potatoes, cheese, or minced meat. It is a traditional food street food usually preferred for breakfast by Turkish locals. Recently, gozleme filled with Nutella is getting popular as well. It is similar to eating a crepe filled with chocolate.


turkish menemen

Borek is a fried or baked, flaky pastry filled with minced meat, potatoes, spinach, or cheese. Its crispiness and lightness form a perfect combination for starting the day. You can either eat it in the patisserie or get it packed and enjoy it outside.

Also, you can just grab your borek and take it to another cafe. For example, in Çengelköy, there is a place called Çınaraltı Cafe where they allow you to bring food but no drink. Just order your tea and enjoy your borek with it!


turkish pide

Kir pidesi is a pastry filled with minced meat, potatoes, or cheese. Its dough is a little bit thicker than gozleme and borek relatively. Also, depending on the pastry, the greasiness of the pide can change. If you have a sensitive stomach, we don’t recommend eating more than 4 pieces of it.

Also, there are two types of pide which can open or close. Most of the time, closed ones are preferred for breakfast while open ones are more suitable for evening meals. However, time doesn’t mean anything as long as you’re enjoying yourself!


turkish mihlama, turkish kuymak

If you love stretchy cheese, mihlama is your new best friend. With its butter and cornmeal base and cheese on top, it will give the taste of heaven.

There’s also another dish called Kuymak which is almost the same as mihlama. Both are prepared in the same way but there is a slight distinction between them. Cheese is on point in mihlama while cornmeal is on the spot in kuymak.

Mid-day snacking: Lunch in Istanbul

So, you have had your breakfast and went to numerous places, experienced culture, and walked a lot. Now it’s time to take a breather. Here, let’s see some of the Istanbul street foods.


turkish simit

A circle with sesame seeds on it everywhere you see in Istanbul. It is the iconic street food of Istanbul, the well-known simit! Crispy outside, soft inside, you can find a simit vendor in Istanbul streets anytime and anywhere.

Here are all types of simit you can find in Istanbul:

  • Classic simit with sesame seeds
  • Simit with sunflower seeds
  • Simit sandwiches
  • Chocolate simit

We also recommend you to enjoy your simit with a cup of Turkish tea or ayran. They are the best combinations when it comes to snacking quickly.


traditional turkish kumpir

Baked, buttered, and cheesed potato with food stuffed inside? That’s kumpir waiting for you to have a bite! You can add anything you want inside the potato. Veggies, sauces, pickles, sausages, olives, whatever you imagine.

Kumpir is one of the most known street foods in Turkey. In Istanbul, the best place to eat kumpir is Ortaköy Sahil where there is a long line of vendors.

Midye (Mussels)

traditional turkish mussels, traditional turkish midye

If you’re walking by the sea or happen to be around, it’s impossible not to see a street vendor selling mussels. Inside these shells, there is a flavored rice and mussel itself. Most of the time it is eaten with a dash of lemon juice and bon appetite.

If it doesn’t sound appetizing, you can try a safer option which is midye tava (fried mussels). Deep fried until they turn golden brown, it is so crispy and tasty. Also, midye tava is usually served with special tarator sauce which adds another layer of deliciousness.

Çiğ Köfte

traditional turkish cig kofte

Made from bulgur and spices, don’t ever miss tasting this low-calorie vegetarian Turkish food. While wandering around, you’ll find a cig kofte shop every 100-200 meters. Buy a wrap and enjoy it with ayran. Or, you can also buy a package of them and enjoy them at your place.

Balık Ekmek (Fish Sandwich)

traditional turkish fish sandwich, traditional turkish balik ekmek

If you are around Eminönü, eating balik ekmek is an unspoken tradition you should fulfill. The fish used for the sandwich is usually mackerel, “uskumru” in Turkish. The sandwich is stuffed with lettuce, onions, and rockets. Pickle juice or şalgam will be the best company for your sandwich.

The Real Deals: Dining in Istanbul

Now that the day is over, it’s time to eat something delicious. Evening Turkish meals will do more than fill your stomach, they will cherish your palate and satisfy you with each bite. Here are some popular Turkish dinner options for you.


traditional turkish iskender

Iskender is döner served with pita bread, yogurt on the side, and butter sauce on top. We can easily say that iskender is the best food in Istanbul you should try it without a second thought. There are lots of good Turkish restaurants serving only doner or iskender, you should go to one of them for a better experience.

Warning: When iskender is served, the plate itself will be very hot, avoid touching it!


turkish manti

Manti is small dumplings filled with minced beef or lamb meat, it is another traditional food in Turkish cuisine. Served with yogurt and tomato sauce on top, there’s no way you won’t like it. In different regions of the country, manti Turkish food can be in smaller pieces while some big. However, most of these regional restaurants can be found in Istanbul.


turkish lahmacun

Also known as Turkish pizza, lahmacun is a round flatbread topped with minced meat, herbs, and finely chopped vegetables. It is cooked in a stone oven which is the main reason for its deliciousness.

After lahmacun is served, you don’t want to eat it directly. You have to put more toppings such as lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and parsley. Then, a dash of lemon juice everywhere. And voila! Wrap the flatbread and give your palate a gift.


turkish tantuni

Tantuni is thinly sliced beef meat fried, served in a flatbread or bread. While preparing, the bread or flatbread will be sauced from the pan for more explosive flavors. Then, the wrap will be garnished with parsley, onions, and tomatoes. 


traditional turkish kebab

Kebab is a grilled or skewered meat that originates from Persian culture. There are numerous variations of kebab blended with Turkey food culture:

  • Adana kebab: Skewered meat served on a plate or as a wrap. A bit spicy.
  • Urfa kebab: Skewered meat served on a plate or as a wrap. Less spicy than Adana.
  • Çökertme kebab: Served on top of potato fries instead of lavash or pita bread.
  • Cağ kebab: Instead of beef, lamb meat is used for cag kebab.
  • Beyti kebab: Ground meat wrapped in lavash in pieces.

We can’t say where you should go to eat the best kebab in Istanbul, but as mentioned previously, there are Istanbul restaurants solely focusing on making doner or kebab. So, you will be the judge.


traditional turkish kokorec, traditional turkish lamb intestines

Kokorec is skewered and grilled lamb or goat intestines wrapped around seasoned offal. The first thing you probably think is “Intestines?!” and we understand you. However, it’s cleaner than you think!  The intestine is turned inside out to be washed, then rubbed with salt, and often soaked in vinegar or lemon juice and water for 2 days.

At first, you may have mistaken kokorec with a different type of doner because it’s skewered in a charcoal grill. But when you get close, it doesn’t even resemble doner. So, if you see a horizontal skewered doner-like food outside, it’s kokorec.

Islak Burger (Wet Burger)

traditional turkish islak burger, traditional turkish wet burger

Think of a burger without any lettuce, tomatoes, or onions, but it’s so juicy. Yes, we have such Turkish food here. Tomato-sauced buns and a patty between them will surely hit the spot. There are several famous restaurants especially good at preparing wet burgers, knock on their door and grab your wet burgers!

There’s always a spot: Desserts to eat in Istanbul

Who says that the day is over after the dinner? Well, not Turkish people, because it’s time to end the day in a sweet day. There’s a saying in Turkish, “Eat sweet, talk sweet.” and it’s no surprise that sweet things make people happy.


traditional turkish baklava

The main character of Turkish desserts. Baklava is made from numerous thin layers of filo dough, each layer is buttered and filled with chestnuts, pistachios, or almonds. After it’s baked, a sweet syrup called şerbet made with sugar and water will be poured over the hot pastry. This way, baklava absorbs the syrup better and becomes more sticky.

Types of baklava:

  • Pistachio baklava
  • Walnut baklava
  • Almond baklava
  • Dry baklava
  • Sütlü nuriye
  • Cold baklava
  • Chocolate baklava
  • Rose or Lemon flavored baklava

Lokum (Turkish Delight)

traditional turkish delight, traditional turkish lokum

A sweet treat made from just water, sugar, and starch that you can flavor with whatever you want? Yes, Turkish delights are the best when it comes to this and it’s no wonder why it is one of the most popular Turkish desserts.

Most famous Turkish delight flavors you should try:

  • Rose
  • Pistachio
  • Double roasted
  • Pomegranate
  • Coconut
  • Lemon

Also, lokum can be in two different shapes which are the traditional cube and rectangular prism.


traditional turkish kunefe

Kunefe is a shredded crispy filo dough hiding unsalted cheese underneath, both absorbing the sweet syrup. Served with the bits of pistachio on top, there’s a high likelihood of you falling in love with Kunefe.

Additionally, you may find a copper jug on the table that has milk in it. Milk washes away the burn coming from sugar and also makes the dessert lighter.

Halka Dessert (Sweet Churros)

traditional turkish sweet churros, traditional turkish halka dessert

Halka is a type of tulumba pastry that is a fried donut in hot oil and soaked in syrup. Commonly known by locals, the halka dessert is also called “kerhane tatlısı”. The origin of this name comes from getting back home for some fun but you need energy to do so. Then, you buy one halka dessert and feel the sugar rush in your blood. 

Don’t forget the drinks!

Turkish cuisine is not completed without their drinks. Because of our culture, we should always have something to drink throughout the day and keep our tea hot. So, here are the most popular Turkish drinks.

Çay (Turkish Tea)

traditional turkish tea

Turkish tea is a black tea that almost everyone drinks anytime and anywhere. Most of the households’ day starts with brewing tea and ends with a cup of tea. According to research, a Turkish person drinks 1,300 cups of tea annually. So, if you want to feel like a local, just grab a cup of tea anytime you can and enjoy your trip.

Turkish Coffee

Traditionally, Turkish coffee is made in a pan filled with sand that’s heated from under. This technique makes the coffee roast better, resulting in a better taste. Anyway, you can find good Turkish coffee anywhere in Istanbul as long as you are not in a chain store.


traditional turkish ayran

A mixture of water, yogurt, and a sprinkle of salt, ayran is the best way to freshen up on hot days. You find ayran in every cafe or restaurant because it goes so well with meals. 

Şalgam Suyu (Turnip Water)

turkish salgam suyu, turnip water

Salgam is a traditional Turkish beverage made from fermented turnips and spices. It has two options: spicy or not. It’s sour like pickle juice but not sour enough to pucker your lips. Salgam is usually drank with fish or with raki.


turkish raki

Also known as “Lion’s milk”, raki is an alcoholic Turkish beverage made from grapes and flavored with aniseeds. Raki is colorless but when you mix it with water, which is the most usual way to drink, it becomes white like milk. Raki’s alcohol percentage can be between 40 to 45%.

Unlike other alcoholic beverages, raki needs company to drink. Not an obligation but another unspoken tradition, because raki is too heavy to drink alone, you need someone to share your burden. So, plan a meyhane night with your friend(s) and live the culture itself.