What: One of Istanbul’s most quintessential meals is as simple as can be: balık ekmek (“fish bread”), a fish sandwich most famously consumed under or around the Galata bridge, where it’s been peddled for decades. The fish in question is most often uskumru, or mackerel, grilled, seasoned, and served with lettuce, onion, and (occasionally) a grilled hot pepper or two on a crusty roll with a squeeze of lemon. It’s a fitting repast for Istanbul, situated as it is between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, within striking distance of the Mediterranean; sadly, however, decades of overfishing have prompted most vendors here to source mackerel from Norway rather than local waters. Despite this globalization of the trade—and the touristy nature of the experience, and the fact that the various vendors can be hit-or-miss—the balık ekmek remains an Istanbul essential.
Where: The Eminönü side of the Galata bridge—once you walk past the casting fishermen on the bridge and descend the stairs—is probably the most iconic spot to try this dish, where you can choose from a line of casual fish restaurants under the bridge or a bunch of traditional boat-cum-cafes along the water. Note: Our photo is from a small restaurant called Osmanlı Balıkҫısı (212-528-8210; Yeni Galata Köprüsü Altı No.10, approx. map)—one of many with both a kitchen (with a full menu) and a little outdoor grill dedicated to the sandwiches—but we later learned the boats and market vendors are a better bet (see alternatively section below).
When: Daily, 9am-11pm
Order: The balık ekmek (8 TL) consisted here of juicy grilled mackerel, squeezed with lemon and stacked with lettuce, red cabbage, and onion. Nice, but a little dry—additional lemon juice was available at the tables, but this sandwich needed some kick (some vendors offer hot chili paste on request). Moreover, though we liked the fish’s crispy ends, it was grilled a little too “well” for us. We recommend our readers hit up one of these alternatives:
Alternatively: We found the fish to be of better quality, and the resulting sandwiches more toothsome, at the boats along the water’s edge (unfortunately, we lack a good photo). There you can also try the wonderfully colorful drink pairing, turşu suyu, or pickle juice—a salty, tangy, bright-pink concoction made with vegetables like cucumber and cabbage (yes, it is akin to drinking a jar of pickles and their brine—mouth-puckering but refreshing!). Next time we’ll also check out the vendors at the popular Karaköy fish market on the other side of the bridge, or follow Eating Asia’s advice and find this vendor on the Fatih side of Atatürk bridge, the next span north.