It should come as no surprise that one of the things I was most looking forward to during my time in Istanbul was a food tour. Although there were a bevy of companies to choose from, most were in Sultanahmet, the historic and uber-touristy neighborhood where I was staying. And even though I know food tour companies would have steered clear of some of the lackluster fare that dots Sultanahmet’s streets, I wanted something different. And Secret Food Tours offered just that.
One of the neatest and most unique things about Istanbul is that it’s technically on two continents, Europe and Asia. Most tourists will spend most if not all of their time on the European side for that’s where popular sights like Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace are. But I didn’t want to come all the way to Istanbul and not make it to the Asian side (to at least say I was in Asia since my time in South Korea seems like eons ago).
This was my first food tour with Secret even though they operate on six continents and seem to be adding new food tour destinations monthly. What sets them apart from other companies is that they don’t advertise or promote where you’ll be stopping at, hence the name. In fact, I was even requested for the purpose of this blog post not to share any names and in keeping with this unique concept, I won’t. You’ll just have to trust me that the foods I ate are reason enough to book.
I took a taxi from Sultanahmet and in hindsight I should have taken the ferry over to the Asian side. As I would find out, taxi drivers on the European side don’t really frequent the Asian side and vice-versa, although the nightmare I had getting back after the tour made the morning’s cab driver seem like an ace. The tour met up at the Kadıköy ferry terminal which offered stunning views of Sultanahmet from across the water.
Nusret was the tour guide and he had a most fascinating backstory. He had been in the military for well over a decade serving as a helicopter pilot but recently decided to do a major life change and now he works in the food tour industry as head of the Secret Food Tours Istanbul operation. He told me that he had lived in the Asian side for a while and when Secret decided to start tours in Istanbul, they wanted someone who was most familiar with the Asian side and he fit the bill. He said he beat out dozens of other applicants.
I truly enjoyed visiting the Asian side of Istanbul since it offered me a completely different side of the city. It was mostly all locals that I saw and nothing of tourist significance which was fine since I had that at my doorstep back in Sultanahmet. And even though I don’t subscribe to the whole traveler versus tourist debate (if you’re going somewhere that you’re a visitor to, those two words are synonymous), it still is refreshing to see a more local side of any place.
On the tour there were a total of seven stops. I’ll list the foods eaten at each one in the order that we stopped:
Menemen (peppers, tomatoes and eggs) Muhlama ( Melted Cheese) and Breakfast Plate (Tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, three types of cheese)
As my visit was on a weekday, this spot wasn’t too crowded but Nusret said that on a weekend lines are generally out the door. The cuisine served here is reflective of cooking in the Black Sea region, where the owners are originally from. This is especially true of the Muhlama, which is akin to Turkish fondue. That was a bit rich for me but I loved the menemen. Give me a good egg dish anytime.
Pastrami Pide and Manti
I never would have guessed that pastrami was immensely popular in a country like Turkey but it is. It’s especially popular when served as a topping on pide, Turkey’s version of pizza (minus the sauce) or boat pizza as it’s also commonly referred to. At this place we got to see the pide being made (from shaping to cooking to adding toppings etc).
And then there was manti which was my favorite food that I tried while in Turkey. I had made them myself at home but I’m just going to be honest and say mine paled in comparison. Manti are a type of dumpling typically filled with spiced ground meat (lamb or beef) and topped with a garlic yogurt sauce. I had manti on my first night in Istanbul at the hotel, which I enjoyed, but these were far superior.
Turkish coffee (or sage tea in my case)
The third stop was an extremely chill coffee house (not sure if they served food too) with a beautiful outdoor seating area in the back, far from the hustle and bustle of the streets. I’m not a coffee drinker at all especially since Turkish coffee is quite strong.
This is another type of Turkish pizza although drastically different from pide as the dough is quite thin. It’s topped with minced meat, minced vegetables including onions, tomatoes, parsley, and a variety of spices. You also sprinkle lemon juice on it once it’s rolled up, which is how you eat it.
Ahh, the Doner Kebap (or kebab as it’s known in the English speaking world), the number one Turkish food that most non-Turks are familiar with. By this point my stomach was nearing full although the meat quality was sublime. And as I would come to discover from all that I ate when I was in the country, Turkey knows how to do fries.
Just like the Turkish coffee stop, this was a nice break because it also featured a beautiful outdoor garden seating area complete with a friendly and adorable cat. I’m not an oenophile at all but it was a refreshing sweet wine all the same.
Beyran Soup and Katmer
Stop wise, this was probably my favorite and as Nusret said, it was the ultimate secret stop. Here we had a soup and dessert that are specialties of southeastern Turkey (near to the Syrian border). It’s a spicy soup typically eaten for breakfast in Gaziantep, but it really can be enjoyed at any time. It also apparently takes hours to prepare to let the broth “do its thing.” It was so spicy it made my nose run, but I can also see it being one of the best things to eat when sick.
Katmer you could say is a distant cousin of baklava (I liked this more). They’re Turkey’s version of crunchy pancakes filled with ground pistachios and clotted cream. They truly had the perfect amount of sweetness to them.
My Istanbul food tour was truly one of the top five things I did when I was in Turkey (on par with even a magical hot air balloon ride in Cappadocia). The food that I ate on the tour was definitely the best variety and taste quality I had on my visit. Nusret, who curated all of the stops, did a wonderful job and was an excellent tour guide. He’s truly found his second professional calling. I can’t recommend Secret Food Tours Istanbul enough.
Disclosure: I was given a free tour in exchange for my review but as always all thoughts and opinions are entirely my own.
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