The first thing I search for in a new destination is food tours. Food is the most important factor in my travels and so I want to do a tour right away to discover a place and its food culture. So an Istanbul food tour was in the cards. I actually signed up for two different tours and was lucky enough to convince our friends to join us.
The first tour we tried was a dessert food tour offered by Context Tours. If you’re unfamiliar with Context they provide tours in dozens of cities around the world with different themes – I’ve rarely found the range of options they have – all led by docents and professionals who really know what they’re talking about.
So, when we met our guide the morning of our second day in Istanbul, I couldn’t wait to see what desserts would come our way. One of the added benefits for this tour was that we all knew each other so there wasn’t any of the sometimes awkwardness that happens on a group tour. We were laughing from the first bite.
I know what you’re thinking, how many desserts can there possibly be? I think this is a good time to stop and reflect on which desserts would you choose to represent your own culture? I was thinking about it a lot during our time eating and walking.
Could I even put together enough dessert options – in Turkey there is! This wasn’t all about the food, we learned a lot about food and sweets in Turkey as well as the places we were passing and the history of the city. Istanbul was a melting pot before the United States even existed. It’s one of the most interesting parts of the cities history. But that isn’t to say it was all unicorns and rainbows. No, quite the opposite. There’s also a dark and very brutal side to Turkish history.
I won’t name all of the places we stopped – you’ll have to check out the tour when you’re in Istanbul but feast your eyes on what you can expect.
Lokum & Asure
Istanbul’s equivalent of a high street is dotted with hundreds of shops – including many for turkish delight or lokum. There are plenty of traditional flavors. I am completely addicted to it and I’m sure it won’t take you long to feel the same way. The texture is unique but as we learned, good Turkish delight doesn’t burn your throat or stick in your teeth.
You’ll also quickly discover most cups of Turkish coffee are delivered with a piece or two of lokum.
We tried both the traditional version of lokum and stopped at a more specialty coffee shop that had lokum you could personalize. There is both a jelly version and milky version. We were able to choose what flavors we wanted inside. I chose nutella, hazelnuts and pomegrantes. We also had one with rose and pistachio. This shop is one of my favorite treats and I beelined for it on my second trip to Istanbul.
Asure on the other hand wasn’t the sweet dessert I was expecting. It’s also known as Noah’s Ark Pudding but I really didn’t think of it as a pudding either. This is one of the very few Turkish desserts with no animal products (it’s naturally vegan). The base is a thick porridge and the rest is dependent on the family and region. It can have ingredients such as wheat, rice, sugar, nuts, dried fruits, beans and chickpeas and be flavored things like lemon and orange peel.
Turks take coffee seriously. There’s no sissy coffee here, it’s dark, thick, and full strength. You can order it sweetened or unsweetened (I suggest the later) and it’s better to order it that way than to try and sweeten it on your own. You’ll understand why after you get your first cup. I really like it but can see how others don’t view it as affectionately. Afterwards if you’re with a local she may be able to tell your fortune in the cup. Any guesses what’s coming my way?
Baklava with Cream
There is one shop in Istanbul that is THE best known for baklava, but also has many different types of dessert including Turkish ice cream. The baklava is, to put it mildly, a treat. We had ours topped with cream and while it’s certainly rich, I dare you to stop at just one piece – you can’t! We later went back and also tried ice cream here. It’s really unique as it is made with a special local syrup that gives it a texture I’ve never experienced in ice cream. MarocBaba liked it but the texture was just too different for me.
The final stop on our tour was something I had heard about when I first started looking at food in Turkey. This is a very unique dish that was created during Ottoman times. It’s exactly the type of dish they were best known for. It comes in two versions; caramelized and regular. The texture initially is like flan, maybe slightly firmer but there’s a stringy texture to it. The taste is sweet and while you’re trying to figure out what it is you realize you can’t place it.
I’ll help – it’s chicken breast. Yes, a pudding made with chicken. It tastes nothing like chicken and if no one told you, you probably would never guess. The meat is cooked an incredibly long time until just the threads are left and then cooked into the pudding.
If you love dessert and you’re in Istanbul I recommend checking out this tour. It’s really unique and a great way to learn about this side of Turkish cuisine and history.
Find and book this tour and many others from Context Tours.
Special thanks to my friend Chris Griffiths who took the tour as well and provided some of the images in this post. See his work on his website.
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