A Taste of Istanbul: Tradition, History, Delicacy

Pandeli, in business since 1911, used to be a favorite of grand visitors to the city, from Queen Elizabeth II to Audrey Hepburn. Its interior is covered in 400-year-old turquoise tiles. Yadid Levy/Alamy

Do you prefer your sheep's head roasted and hot, or boiled and cold? No matter. One street in Beyoglu, Istanbul's old European district, offers both sorts of sheep's head ( kelle ), considered an ancient delicacy across the Middle East.

From his cart, Muammer Özkaymak lovingly cuts slivers of cold sheep's head (kelle sögüs), sprinkles it with thyme and red pepper and serves it with chopped onion on a fresh white roll. Özkaymak took over the family business in 1976 (his cart is decorated with a laminated photograph of himself as a cheerful teenager in flared trousers on the same street corner). But the ancestral tradition goes back to 1890, when his great-grandfather first got into the business of boiled sheep's head, having bought the recipe from Greek neighbors in the family's native region of Cappadocia. Every day, Özkaymak's wife boils up to 60 heads in pepper and laurel-leaf water in their kitchen.

Across the street is the upstart Orhan Senin, who is merely the third generation of his family to run the butcher and roast meat shop that his grandfather opened in 1957. Senin's hot version of sheep's head (kelle tandir) is on the gristly, greasy side, so he loses the face-off to his longer-established rival.

Over the past two millennia, Istanbul has become not so much a crossroads of cultures as a traffic jam. The Middle East meets the Balkans here... and the Caucasus and Central Asia. Every one of the cultures that have dominated the city or just passed through—from the Greek colonists who founded it, to the Turks and Spanish Jews in the Middle Ages, to the modern refugees from the former Soviet Union and Syria—have left a mark on the city's culinary offerings. Although Istanbul has recently been the target of extremist attacks and is coping with waves of refugees, now is a perfect time to experience the city's ancient traditions before they're extinguished by gentrification or upwardly mobile kids refusing to take on ancient family businesses.

In the city's downtown, you can take a gastronomic tour around the Ottoman and Russian empires, experiencing a few centuries of culinary history in a single day. For a taste of the upper end of old Istanbul's social scale, head to the newly reopened Rejans 1924. This Russian restaurant is a trip back to the vodka-and-tears world of White Russian Constantinople, when a vast influx of hard-living exiles fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution with only their wits and what they could carry briefly transformed the city.

Mikhail Bulgakov captured that world in his novella Flight, which is peopled with impressively mustachioed Cossack colonels brushing down their uniforms in squalid Istanbul garrets, young Odessa chancers making book on cockroach races, and desperate refugees asking one another for snippets of news of the civil war and chasing rumors of work or a cheap passage to Marseilles.

Crimean Tatar exiles opened Rejans in 1924. They employed down-at-heel St. Petersburg debutantes as waitresses (causing a sensation in a city where all waiters had hitherto been male) and a former professor of mathematics from Petrograd University to keep the books. The place was a favorite of Agatha Christie's and became a meeting place for Turkish intellectuals to argue over vodka.

The formidable Zinnur Taygan ran the place from the 1960s until retiring in 2010 and spoke Russian with a pre-revolutionary accent interspersed with beautiful Levantine French. Madame Sonia, the last of the original Russian waitresses, has passed away. But Rejans has reopened under new management (though it now calls itself Rejans 1924 because of a legal tussle that has left the owners of the name without the restaurant, and the proprietors of the restaurant without the name—Bulgakov would have appreciated the absurdity). The important thing is that the spirit of the place lives on in the wood-paneled interior, the misty-eyed Russian harpist who plays weekends and the home-infused lemon vodka.

One welcome innovation is that the once-ghastly menu has been impressively revamped with authentic Siberian dumplings, a wonderful smoked fish plate and a superb duck salad. The Rejans tradition of putting a whole bottle of lemon vodka on the table (they charge you for what you drink), combined with the buzz of conversation and the heart-tugging music of an accordion, often ends in the happy result of patrons bursting into song. Careful on your way out—the stairs are fearfully steep, and falling down them drunkenly is one Rejans tradition you probably want to avoid.

The Turks’ taste for sweets has kept plenty of confectioners in business across the city, some of them for centuries. The oldest is Haci Bekir, named after its founder, who came from the Anatolian town of Kastamonu in 1777 and set up his original Turkish delight shop in the Istanbul district of Bahcekapi. Hackenberg-Photo-Cologne/Alamy

Another survivor of the city's culinary past is the Ayazpasa Russian Restaurant, opened by Russian exile Boris Ivanovich Kryshanovsky in 1943. Conveniently situated between the German and Japanese consulates, the place used to be an eavesdropping hot spot for Soviet intelligence. The owner convinced his diplomat customers that he was passionately anti-Soviet—while his staff assiduously listened in on the table talk and passed it on to Josef Stalin's spies. The current Turkish owner started as a waiter here in the 1950s, and his son studied film in Moscow and speaks fluent Russian. The borscht is excellent, and suitcase-loads of black bread are brought in weekly from Russia by friends to help keep the restaurant supplied.

For an authentic taste of the Ottoman Empire, head to the Haci Abdullah Lokantasi, just off Istiklal Avenue, formerly the Grand Rue de Pera, the pedestrianized artery of Istanbul's old European quarter. The original Haci Abdullah opened in 1888 and, after several moves, settled in its current location in 1958. A modern revamp has blinged up the place and obliterated its old atmosphere, but the food remains authentically Ottoman, thanks to master chefs and apprentices who have handed down techniques and recipes in an unbroken line that stretches back to the restaurant's first days. The menu is devoted to all kinds of Turkish meze (small savory starters) and traditional pickles, jars of which line the walls. It's also famous for its stews.

Pandeli, in business since 1911, used to be a favorite of grand visitors to the city, from Queen Elizabeth II to Audrey Hepburn. The location—up a steep stone staircase near the entrance to the 17th-century Spice Bazaar—is wonderfully atmospheric. The interior is covered in 400-year-old turquoise tiles. Pandeli has been in this location since 1955, when founder Pandeli Cobanoglu's original restaurant nearby was destroyed during anti-Greek pogroms. Like thousands of Istanbul Greeks at the time, Pandeli considered giving up his business and immigrating to Greece. But according to his granddaughter, the governor of Istanbul loved Pandeli's cooking so much that he stepped in and offered the restaurant its current home.

Pandeli's fame has made it into a slightly pricey tourist trap; one wall is devoted to framed photos of famous diners. But the creamy eggplant salad and the eggplant borek (a kind of filo pastry) are sensational, as is Pandeli's trademark dish, sea bass en papillote (baked in paper). Be sure to leave room for the traditional Ottoman deserts—especially the kazandibi, a kind of chewy, creamy pudding. It's made of chicken breast, but don't let that put you off.

The Turks' taste for sweets have kept plenty of confectioners in business across the city, some of them for centuries. The oldest is Haci Bekir, named after its founder, who came from the Anatolian town of Kastamonu in 1777 and set up his original Turkish delight shop in the Istanbul district of Bahcekapi. There are now several shops—the oldest, around the corner from the Spice Bazaar in Sirkeci, dates from the middle of the 20th century but looks like something out of a Harry Potter movie with its ranks of wooden shelves full of multicolored confectionery boxes and glass counters filled with various flavors of Turkish delight (lokum). Another popular Istanbul institution is Hafiz Mustafa, also in Bahcekapi, founded in 1964, famous for its dozens of variations of baklava, the dessert made of crushed pistachios, filo pastry and honey.

Less famous but more authentic is the Uc Yildiz confectionery in the fish market, a stone's throw from the sheep's head vendors. It's a traditional confectioner that produces most of its sweets in a small workshop above the shop. (On certain days of the week, boiled sweets and rock candy are cooled in large stainless steel vats that sit on the upstairs floor.) The family members also produce their own brand of lokum and boil their own orange, quince, strawberry and cherry jams, which they make in 180-year-old Ottoman copper churns and weigh out on an antique manual scale (a bargain at just 6 euros a kilo). The interior is the ultimate sweet shop of the imagination, with walls stacked to the ceiling with large glass bottles full of sweets and boxes of toffee and chocolate. The white-coated Feridun Dörtler is from the fourth generation of his family to run the place: The Dörtlers have been in businesses here since 1928.

And what about the historic home of Turkey's most iconic and world-renowned dish, the döner kebab ? For that, you'll have to travel to Berlin, where Turkish immigrant Kadir Nurman invented the döner in its modern form in 1972. The traditional Turkish prototype that inspired Nurman is the cag kebabi from Erzurum in Eastern Anatolia. It is made from slices of lamb leg and shoulder threaded onto a spit and rotated horizontally, not vertically, in front of hot charcoal. It's not easy to find, being so much more labor-intensive—and more delicious—than its mass-produced descendant. You'll find a good one at Osmanli Kebapcisi on Uzuncarsi Sokak in the shadow of the Rüstem Pasha Mosque, the loveliest mosque in the city. You sit on little stools under a 400-year-old plane tree as the market crowds surge around you, wreathed in the aromatic smoke of grilling meat. That must surely be a smell as ancient as the city.