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Your Definitive Guide to Gluten-free Istanbul

Where to eat in Istanbul

Your Definitive Guide to Gluten-free Istanbul post image

Every time I am reading mouthwatering accounts of Istanbul food I sign: often times the authors tend to be rather insensitive to the cravings of those who for health issues or out of their own choice stick to a particular diet – gluten free, low-carb, vegetarian, vegan, raw eating – you name it. Unless you are one of them it has probably never occurred to you that giving up particular food does not make you less of a foodie. And when you travel around you want to explore local flavors as much as your all-eating companions. In order to give a lead to the traveling foodies with dietary restrictions or food allergies I am starting a series of articles with tips on how to savor Istanbul to their own taste. This article is about gluten-free Istanbul.

While Istanbul may have the reputation of the word’s kebab capital once you are eating gluten-free all you see around here is bread. It is hard to think of any meal not accompanied by those boat-shaped golden loaves as crusty from outside as they are airy inside. You order a bowl of soup and you get a half kilo of bread neatly sliced with your order. You get lured by the cries of a kebab vendor and you end up getting yarim ekmek tavuk doner, or pieces of grilled chicken with some salad and onions stuffed into a half of a loaf. You look around for a snack and see a bright red cart with a striped roof selling bread rings sprinkled with sesame seeds. You crave for a dessert and you pass shop windows featuring trays of mouthwatering baklava made of paper thin dough. Is there a way to survive let alone enjoy Istanbul gluten-free? I’ll tell you, there is.

Breakfast

Served buffet-style in most of the hotels your Turkish breakfast will offer a wealth of gluten-free treats: fresh vegetables, cured olives, selection of cheeses,  boiled or scrambled eggs – enough material to create your own meal each morning! You may want to have your yogurt drizzled with honey or dark thick grape syrup (pekmez) and seasoned with dried fruits or nuts for a very much Istanbul gluten-free power breakfast.

Lunch and Dinner

Your safest bet will be to head out to a sit-down restaurant with a menu rather than a buffet/canteen. You will think you are in a gluten-free paradise once you see a menu featuring a range of meze, or hot and cold starters. These meze can make up for a meal in itself or can be a wonderful start before you order fish or meat as a main. Ignore the menu and instead ask the waiter to bring you a tray of these starters and choose those looking freshest and most appealing.

Broadly, mezes can be divided into three major types: vegetables and legumes cooked in olive oil (check out puree of smoked eggplant, or assorted beans served whole or turned into a paste, or dolma – wine leaves, wrinkled eggplants or little bell-peppers stuffed with rice), yogurt-based dishes (sprinkled with garlic and herbs) and marinaded sea food (lakerda, or salted tuna fish; istavrit, shrimps, calamaris marinaded in olive oil). There are only a few mezes you would need o skip: kisir, balls of bulgur (cracked wheat) and tomato paste, and calamaris fried in the breadcrumbs.

Naturally you will feel great at any kebab or fish house – just ask them to serve the meat or fish of our choice without bread or bulgur but with more salad on the side.

If you end up in a buffet or canteen-like eatery stay rather purist in your preferences. To be on the safe side you may want to skip all the steaming stews as flour is often used as a thickener in those. For the same reason soup-wise stick to chicken (tavuk suyu) or red meat (et suyu) stock if you crave for a bowl of hot soup. Also you can opt for rice (pilav) making sure it is done without orzo (golden pasta looking like a gigantic rice grain).

Snacks

Speaking of snacks I’d like to congratulate you as eating gluten-free you will enjoy the healthiest snacks in Istanbul. You will quickly notice mobile carts selling roasted corns and chestnuts that are among the favorite foods on the go in Istanbul. Another strategy may be to stop by a dried fruits and nuts vendor and stock up with world’s best pistachios or hazelnuts and amazingly flavorful sun-dried apricots to snack while exploring Istanbul. In case you decide to go completely local (especially in winter) take a note of the carts selling pickled vegetables and get yourself a glass of a mix high on color, salt and vinegar. Afterwards you may need to look for a fresh fruit juice vendor – luckily there is no lack of those around.

Desserts

Unless you find yourself in a posh district of Nişantaşı with some cafes featuring gluten-free treats you may start thinking that there is no way for you to get a taste of the vast dessert universe in Istanbul. A few tips to your rescue.

  • Savor wonderful fruit desserts: besides the obvious choice of fresh fruit you will find heavenly gluten-free treats of fruits (and nuts and even vegetables) baked or simmered in sugar syrup until their reach the ultimate perfection – check out  kabak or ayva tatlisi (pumpkin or quince sweet, respectively).
  • Explore the variety of puddings (making sure they use rice starch) – ranging from virtually plain vanilla to the funky chicken (jokes apart, try tavuk goksu or even better – kazan dibi, pudding of chicken breast burned at the bottom in the latter case).
  • Submit to the generous offerings of Turkish delight, a signature sweet of this country, that you will be offered anywhere in Istanbul. It is made of corn starch.

Attitude Tips

People in Istanbul (and anywhere in Turkey) will often be happy to accommodate for your food preferences only that they do not necessarily know how. Dietary restrictions and food allergies have not received great awareness  in Turkey to date so many people are just unlikely to know what exactly “gluten-free” means. For instance, major Istanbul bread producer İstanbul Halk Ekmek makes what they believe to be a gluten-free bread (glutensiz ekmek) yet it contains wheat starch.  So be specific and instead of staying you are allergic to wheat explain that you do not eat bread, anything make of flour, wheat starch and sesame.

Some gluten-free travelers find it useful to print out a dietary card in Turkish especially if you are staying for a while and planning on some traveling around the country. You can hand in this card to the staff at the hotels, restaurants or cafes you are eating at so they can best accommodate for your food requirements.

Enjoy savoring delicious Istanbul and let me know how it went!

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{ 17 comments… add one }

  • helpforyourenglish March 11, 2011, 3:30 am

    A very useful and informative post. Luckily I do not have any special dietary needs but my mother does – gluten free – so I am very aware of the issue. My mother travels a lot. If she ever goers to Turkey, I’ll point her to your blog. Great work. Thanks. :-)

    Reply
  • Kimberley March 15, 2012, 6:22 am

    I have an allergy to wheat, as well as many other things like sulfites (includes dried fruit), tomato, citrus and vinegar. I think I might have a hard time in Turkey but your tips have definitely helped me think about being VERY prepared for my travel there. Thank you so much for the tips!

    Reply
    • Olga Tikhonova March 15, 2012, 5:06 pm

      Dear Kimberley, I am glad if I could help! As for the dried fruits and vegetables in fact in Turkey there will be a whole bunch with no sulfates added: sun-dried brown apricots and naturally dried figs, darkish tomatoes and more. Enjoy and stay healthy!

      Reply
  • Abdullah June 18, 2012, 12:15 pm

    Dear sir /madam,
    Can you please let me know where to find any reastaurant serving a gluen free food.
    I am in Istanbul now.

    Best regards;
    Abdullah

    Reply
    • Olga Tikhonova June 18, 2012, 9:34 pm

      Dear Abdullah, as I’ve mentioned on the post there are no restaurants in Istanbul offering a dedicated gluten-free menu. There are however some places where you can encounter gluten-free items with more probability. I recommend kebab houses and fish restaurants specifically where besides the obvious mains you can feast on the gluten-free starters (meze). Few names: for kebab Zubeiyr or Murat Kelle Paca in Taksim; for fish Akin Balik in Galata or Carsia Balik in Besiktas. Enjoy!

      Reply
  • Hanne Nielsen August 15, 2012, 8:58 pm

    Just back from a wonderful trip to Istanbul with my husband and daugher I would like to share a good experience with you. We were staying in the Sultanamet area and one evening we decided to try out the restaurant “Neyzade” just around the corner. As always, before ordering, we showed the waiter the dietary card in Turkish – this has been of great help! – and he confirmed with the kitchen that her selection was o.k. Later on we found out that the had modified the dish to make sure it was “clean”. When the traditional bread basket was presented she even got gluten free bread “because we know about this” as the waiter said. This is what I call excellent service!

    If in Istanbul I highly recommend that you pay Neyzade a visit. http://www.neyzaderestaurant.com

    Kindes regards,
    Hanne (Denmark)

    Reply
    • Olga Tikhonova Irez December 2, 2012, 1:06 am

      Hanne, thank you so much for reporting back and passing this recommendation to those who are yet to visit Istanbul!

      Reply
    • karin March 20, 2013, 10:25 pm

      Thank you. I had a lovely glutenfree meal at Neyzade! After some problems witb finding food this was a good tip.

      KARIN

      Reply
  • JB September 11, 2012, 1:32 am

    Love this web site. Thank you.

    Arriving Istanbul Sept 20th with dinner arranged by our travel companions. I am gluten, dairy and soy free (Celiac plus allergies). None anaphalactic.

    Do you know of Imbat and Matbah Restaurants. Our companion has requested reservations at those two restaurants for our two nights there.

    With great appreciation. JB

    Reply
    • Olga Tikhonova September 11, 2012, 11:36 am

      Dear JB, there are so many outstanding places to eat in Istanbul and you will be better off going elsewhere. Considering the way you eat I recommend you a good kebab place instead – like Hatay Akdeniz Sofrasi (tram to Aksaray) or Zübeyir in Taksim – you will enjoy their meze (it’s a good idea to print out the dietary card I have mentioned and show to the waiters) and high-quality meat dishes.

      Reply
  • Sara October 23, 2012, 8:29 am

    Hi Olga
    THANK YOU SO MUCH for this post!
    i am going to Istanbul for a short break and i think you just saved me from getting depressed from my condition.

    Reply
  • Holly March 28, 2013, 4:47 pm

    You need to know that many Doner places in Turkey and throughout Europe use a blended meat grilling on their pole and quite a lot of them include gluten! Especially the cheaper ones. In fact, the friend who owns a shop said that quite a lot of them also include some pork for taste.

    Reply
    • Olga Tikhonova Irez March 28, 2013, 5:01 pm

      Thanks for the tip, Holly! That drives the point home that kebabs including döner in Istanbul should be eaten in the proper restaurants (vs street stands selling them unbelievably cheap). If you eat gluten-free you’d probably avoid döner anyways as it is served wrapped in bread/on bread or grains most times.

      Reply
  • Anwen September 2, 2013, 9:42 pm

    Thank you so much for this post – and for pointing me in it’s direction. It is being printed out and taken with me. Thank you – I’ll feel much happier going out with my colleagues to eat now! Thanks once more. Anwen.

    Reply
    • Olga Tikhonova Irez September 3, 2013, 9:12 pm

      My pleasure, Anwen! Enjoy Istanbul!

      Reply
  • Femke November 9, 2013, 9:01 am

    FYI most gluten intolerant people can eat wheat starch as it does usually not contain gluten, so the bread manufacturer is correct in saying it’s gluten free.

    Reply
    • Olga Tikhonova Irez November 10, 2013, 10:24 pm

      Hi Femke! Thank you for sharing this and urging me to research a bit. You are right, if we deal with a specifically produced wheat starch , because the regular wheat starch is not 100% free from gluten.

      Reply

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