Fish is the one thing all four of us devour with equal enthusiasm. Raw, cured, smoked, fried, grilled – we’ll take it however it’s dished. Istanbul is perfectly suited for feeding us. Living between the Black Sea, Sea of Marmara and Bosphorus, Istanbullus practically have fish jumping onto their dinner plates.
We went on an evening search for the famous fish sandwiches that are sold around the Galata Bridge. The Galata Bridge exemplifies one thing I love about cities – it allows anyone to become anonymous. The crowd on its span includes elderly men smoking water pipes, women gossiping, young families clutching their children, and many fisherman, professional and novice alike. It’s a perfect place to people watch and, if you decide to take an afternoon nap amid the hustle, no one will mind if you do.
Stalls selling bait and tackle supply what’s needed to the line of expectant fishermen who perch their rods over the bridge’s railings. Our family could have spent the entire afternoon watching the life on and around the bridge. The eager fishermen were friendly (when not asleep), and the backdrop of the Aya Sofia across the bridge and the boats over the Bosphorus was enough to keep us captivated.
Once over the bridge, we began our search for the famous fish in bread, balik ekmek. The fishermen of Istanbul have been bringing in their catch from the surrounding waters to the bridge for decades. Over time, they became increasing industrious and decided to start grilling the fresh fish right on their boats. An efficient way to feed hungry customers from such tight quarters was to stuff a filet into a loaf of bread. Cheap and delicious. Istanbul has been cleaning up its hygiene in its aspirations to enter the European Union and as part of this effort, the city cracked down on these small operations. However, the tradition continues today in the form of licensed boats tied to the docks.
There are several balik ekmek boats on the Eminonu side of the Galata Bridge, each of which is attached to an open air eatery with dozens of kiddie sized picnic tables and stools. Each establishment is more crowded than the next.
We grabbed the first open table and found out quickly this would be the easiest order we’ve made so far in Istanbul. Balik ekmek is the only thing on the menu, so all we had to do was put up as many fingers as we wanted in sandwiches.
Balik ekmek is a fishy filet of grilled mackerel smacked into a half loaf of white baguette. A scoop of onion salad keeps the fish company. The traditional way to enjoy the sandwich is to drink it with pickle juice. There are separate stalls selling pickle juice, with our without the pickles.
If pickle juice is not your thing, you can buy a soft drink or water from one of the several vendors milling around the tables. I suspect such deviation from pickle juice is meant just for tourists. Dessert comes in the form of gooey donuts, also sold by walking vendors.
At 5 Lira (about $3) a sandwich, belik ekmek is one of our cheapest food purchases thus far in Turkey. It’s also one of our most satisfying. The fish choices in Istanbul have been a welcome change from our food options in central Turkey, which predominantly revolved around meat. A few clean bones of mackerel were the only evidence of our balik ekmeks. I even drank an entire glass of pickle juice.