Istanbul Spice Market, once the largest spice trading venue of the medieval world, with its abundant stalls still featuring piles of edible exotics is a definite highlight for anyone exploring Istanbul and a favorite stop during my Istanbul food tour. As with all the touristic highlights you need to be prepared to fetch some fantastic finds and not to fall for any of the catches.
What Spice Market is … And What It is Not
It is mind-boggling to think that life and trade have been bustling under the high domed roof of the Istanbul Spice Market for the past 350 years. A few centuries ago it was a marketplace for goods brought from Egypt (hence the other name of the market – Egyptian Bazaar) that included spices, medicinal herbs, aromatic incenses, fragrant essential oils and such. With the possibly the same range that dragged merchants of the Western world to buy goods imported from the East back then it still attracts city visitors looking for Iranian saffron, Indian curry, Chinese flower tea, Turkish delight, Russian caviar. Foreigners coming to buy foreign goods – that’s what the Istanbul Spice Market has always been about.
Unfortunately, things change and I personally get upset when I see shops at the Istanbul Spice Market emulating Grand Bazaar souvenir kiosks let alone outlets of local apparel brand – their presence so does not fit the spirit of this old food marketplace. And I get equally upset when I see people buying dubious spice sets or anonymous lokum not knowing how to tell a good stuff – and in that way supporting mediocre vendors.
To the extent to which demand can shape supply I hope that I can contribute to better, more authentic Istanbul Spice Market by sharing some insider tips on where to shop and how to do it right. If you want to find out what exactly to buy here is Top 5 Istanbul food items you can’t leave without.
Where to Shop at the Istanbul Spice Market
Good shops at the Istanbul Spice market share two common features. One is that their business was conceived decades ago at that very little shop you see at the Spice market and has gone way beyond: many have become renown trademarks in Istanbul. Second commonality is that they specialize on a particular product category. Specialization is a very visible feature in the whole Istanbul food business and at the local markets you will never find a reputable vendor selling pastirma next to the Turkish delight or caviar next to the dried fruits and nuts.
As you are looking for reputable specialized vendors you may want to note down a few names (the number in the brackets shows their shop number at the Istanbul Spice market):
Malatya Pazari (#40 and #44) Little empire of dried fruits and nuts and related products at the corner of the L-shaped market. After marveling the piles of sun-dried apricots and freshest pistachios dig inside for their famous fruit leather (sheets of thickened fruit paste) and anything done with it – for example muskat, or triangle-shaped roll of mulberry leather stuffed with pistachio powder. Also check out the lesser known takes on the traditional Turkish delight: dusted with sugar powder fruit sticks made of the fruit molasses (eg. plum, blackberry) and whole pistachio nuts hidden inside. Or fruit döner, block of fruit paste with nuts that got thickened after hours of simmering, called after the famous kebab variety because it also gets served in very thin shavings made with a special knife.
Cankurtaran Gida (#33) Fine example of a typical Istanbul delicacy shop featuring breakfast fare. The third generation running the shop makes a point to bring the best of the country’s produce onto the local gourmet tables: their sheep cheese ripen in the goat skin (take note of the furry picturesque bulks in the shopping window) comes from Edirne, blocks of yellow hard cheese from Kars, black olives from Bursa, honey from Anatolia. Cankurtaran’s own label on the goods they sell means that packaged deliciousness has met their rigorous standards of quality and taste. Once you try any of their goods you may never get to your hotel breakfast again. Sorry.
Arifoğlu (#31) Spices, herbs and natural cosmetics specialist. One of those few spice shops where you will not be greeted by a shopkeeper who forces a pile of perfumed dried apple pieces into your nose to smell. Not that they don’t have apple tea – it is just that the shops are geared towards the local tastes. If you want to take home not only the tastes but also the smells of the city you’d be interested to inquire about the perfumes they mix of fragrant essential oils right at the spot. Fixed price is guaranteed and so is the quality.
In addition, I could not help mentioning two little shops with non-edible but still delicious pleasantries located at the Istanbul Spice Market.
Sufi (#45) Interesting jewelry collection by local designers inspired by Istanbul and Turkey-related themes: pomegranate flower as a silver ring or Istanbul sea-gulls as a golden pendant. The shop also has rather fashionable takes on the traditional tableware. Be sure to find something you would not see elsewhere but also to pay for it.
Özer (#82) Boudoir style shop offers hand-woven silk scarves and restored antique female clothes. A must for those who got inspired after visiting Harem in Topkapi Palace and now looking for high-end oriental editions to their wardrobe.
How to Shop at the Istanbul Spice Market
Wherever you decide to shop at the Istanbul Spice Market (and beyond) there are a few good strategies to stick to.
- Taste before buying: By tasting you will get to understand the reasons (or lack of thereof) behind the variation in prices and will make sure to buy something you personally like. And rather trust your palate or eyes than a wordy salesmen: if the highly praised Ottoman spice mix has a strong flavor of bouillon cube (and occasional yellow lumps) or if hazelnuts taste rancid – that’s what they are.
- Shop where locals do: In Istanbul you will soon notice that there are places with very photogenic window shops and displays of their products and there are places to actually shop at. Make sure that you explore picturesque places for photo shooting and follow the locals when it comes to shopping.
- Buy from a reputable, high-turnover supplier: That way you make sure you get the freshest produce of highest quality at reasonable prices. In Istanbul and all over Turkey those tend to be specialty shops often located in the key commercial districts. The shops featured before are good examples of reliable shopping spots favored by Istanbul locals.
- Ask for vacuum packing: Most of the shops offer this service free-of-charge and it will really help keep your purchases fresh without a fridge for a few days, whole piece (instead of all over your bag) over the long flight back home and then store it back home if you decide not to open it immediately.
- Pay in Turkish lira: By paying in foreign currency you show a lack of clue and being unprepared – two things in Istanbul that result in you paying totally unnecessary premium. While most of the shops at the Istanbul Spice Market will take dollars or euro you can’t expect a friendly exchange rate there.