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Istanbul Spice Market: The Rights and Wrongs

Istanbul Food Markets

Istanbul Spice Market by Olga Irez of Delicious Istanbul

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 muska, 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 Ezcincan, 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
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{ 50 comments… add one }

  • sue HOLLENDER September 21, 2011, 10:27 am

    Thanks so much for the useful info. I loved it! The remark on the product sure help eliminating all the wasteful “search”. Will certainly enjoy Istanbul after reading your valuable article.

    Reply
  • Lynn from Winnipeg, Canada October 15, 2011, 4:51 pm

    Just bought some dried grapes, still on the vine, at Malatya Pazari. They are fantastic!!!

    Reply
    • Olga Tikhonova October 15, 2011, 9:32 pm

      Great catch, Lynn! I am happy you’ve enjoyed your Spice Market shopping!

      Reply
  • Rick June 27, 2012, 8:01 am

    your advice about shopping at the Spice Market was very helpful. We did go and the shops you recommended were great. We bought cheeses, pastrami and perfume.

    Reply
  • Milena July 10, 2012, 5:04 pm

    Hello Olga,

    Thank you for the great article!
    Could you, please, recommend any places in Istanbul, where we can but Chinese or Indian tea? Thank you in advance!

    Reply
    • Olga Tikhonova August 16, 2012, 11:15 pm

      Milena, I would buy mine from a trusted dry-fruit vendor or coffee/tea specialist. In Eminonu try Kesekler or Nuri Toplar Kahveci.

      Reply
  • Anne August 7, 2012, 4:18 am

    I bought some ottoman spice at the bazaar in Istanbul. It is very good and doesn’t have the rancid/bouillon cube taste. But now I’m home in california and I need to recreate the combination. Can you tell mr the recipe? Thanks, and I really enjoyed your blog!

    Reply
    • Olga Tikhonova August 16, 2012, 11:14 pm

      Anne, I am sorry to disappoint you but there is no such thing as Ottoman mix in a definitive sense. Each spice shop at the Spice Market (as it is the only place in Istanbul you can find “Ottoman” and other spice mixes completely unknown to the local cooks) has its own idea of the mix which typically features a combination of spices typically used in the Ottoman cuisine – cumin, saffron, red pepper flakes, dry thyme, dry mint, cinnamon, ginger and what not. Neither ever before (back to the Ottomans) nor nowadays any cook in Istanbul has been using the mix so there is no recipe for it. I hope you will not hate me for the answer and keep following my blog)

      Reply
  • Regan October 4, 2012, 12:28 pm

    What are the best spices to buy and bring back to the USA?

    Reply
    • Olga Tikhonova October 8, 2012, 2:38 pm

      Dear Regan, I can definitely recommend Arifoğlu stores (mentioned in the post) for high quality reasonably priced spices.

      Reply
  • Chris November 5, 2012, 5:31 am

    Olga,

    Recently I passed through Istanbul for two of the long Turkish Airlines layovers. My wife wanted Masala which she loved and I bought peppers for myself which are good but not as hot as I wanted. That aside, I also purchased a kilo of Kurukahveci coffee which is awesome. The place I purchased the spices from is diagonally across from the coffee place and they were great, they took me to their friends and I bought my nephews a half kilo of various flavors of Turkish Delight. The spice men gave me pomegranete tea and I HAD to buy a quarter kilo of it. My problem is, I probably won’t be back through Istanbul any time soon and I would love to have more of the tea. Is there any way to buy it online? All I see are flavored green teas and instant, not this amazing dried pomegranete mix. Sorry to go on so much. Istanbul is an amazing, friendly and beautiful place. Everyone should go at least once.

    Reply
    • Olga Tikhonova November 5, 2012, 2:17 pm

      Chris, what a great use of your time in Istanbul: as a big fan of food shopping myself I can totally relate! I am happy you’ve found some really great things to bring home! On the pomegranate tea it is a tricky one: outside of Turkey instant variety is mostly available indeed. Major spice vendors I know here don’t ship to US. Anyone any idea for Chris?

      Reply
  • dougg November 11, 2012, 1:41 am

    does anyone know the “Ali Baha” shop? are they reputable?

    Reply
    • Olga Tikhonova November 13, 2012, 12:27 am

      Doug, I am not familiar with that particular shop so can’t say much. As I have mentioned in the post a good store at the Istanbul Spice Market is specialized and has got stores/business outside this market too: if this is the case with these guys they are a reliable vendor.

      Reply
  • A Krovoll November 12, 2012, 10:36 am

    Hello,

    I am travelling to Istanbul next week,
    Just a short one, dried figs.
    Are they safe to eat are the good in taste from most of the sellers, or should I be aware of bad figs?

    Reply
    • Olga Tikhonova November 12, 2012, 7:16 pm

      The best way to find out is to try them: good vendors are always happy to let you sample. Besides that it’s useful to know that there are two types: naturally dried figs (they look like fresh ones just deflated; there are threaded and naturally dried on the sun) and processed figs (usually round and pressed). If you come naturally dried figs from Aydin (Aegean coast on Turkey) from this year’s crop those are particularly great!

      Reply
  • Violet chia November 21, 2012, 2:05 pm

    Hi
    My first visit to Istanbul for 10 days last month, oct 2012. Fantastic. A land flowing with milk and honey. I am now eating large dried black grapes. Delicious. Endless things to buy. I was simply dazzled by everything. I have yet to try the dried apricots which are not yellow like the ones that are sold back home.
    Violet Chia
    Singapore

    Reply
    • Olga Tikhonova December 2, 2012, 12:50 am

      Sounds like you’ve embraced the bounty of Istanbul deliciousness!, Violet I eat and use in my cooking a lot of sun-dried apricots (brown in color, as you’ve mentioned) – they are just so superior to the chemically-treated orange ones.

      Reply
  • Kek Soh Peng February 23, 2013, 8:04 am

    I visited Istanbul 2 weeks ago and bad experience @ Malatya Pazari of Spice Market. I was rudely chased out of the stall by the manager when I requested to sample some of the unknown colorful dried fruit. This happened after I purchased 3kg pistachios and 1kg dried figs. It was very unpleasant as the man shouted @ me and shooed me away with drama waves of his arms. I regretted spending my money there.

    Reply
    • Olga Tikhonova Irez February 23, 2013, 6:25 pm

      Kek, I have to agree with you: their staff is not the friendliest of all. I can comfort you with that fact that the unknown colorful dried fruit must have been an artificially colored and flavored import. But then all this does not cancel the quality of their local dried fruits and nuts which is still very good.

      Reply
  • Constantijn March 3, 2013, 8:55 am

    What a fantastic city Istanbul is. You love it or you hate it,… Like Mumbai. We are about to head up for the market to buy some spices! Thanks for the tips! Will let you know how it has been.

    Reply
  • Liliana March 20, 2013, 7:46 pm

    Hi Olga ! I found your blog very helpful for my next trip to Istambul in May. I would like to know where exactly is the Spice Market and if all of the stores you recommended are inside it. I tried to find them through google maps but it shows me each one in different places and far from each other.
    Thank you very much in advance for your help !
    Liliana

    Reply
    • Olga Tikhonova Irez March 21, 2013, 12:03 am

      Liliana, here is the map http://goo.gl/maps/VRzxu where the pin shows the entrance to the Spice Market, an L-shaped building. The stores I have mentioned in the blog post are easy to find by their numbers I have included. Good luck!

      Reply
  • Judi March 22, 2013, 5:12 am

    Thanks for all the info! I am most interested in bringing Turkish Delight home for my grandchildren. I want to look at jewelry for my daughter and daughter-in-law, but wonder about pricing at #45, Sufi. – can you advise? We’ll check out all the shops you recommend if we don’t get lost. My husband said we should look for Biblical spices – Frankensene and Mir. We thought they might make good Christmas gifts. Will we find them?

    Reply
    • Olga Tikhonova Irez March 23, 2013, 1:12 am

      Judi, Sufi is above average but then you are paying for rather unique items. I will not be surprised if the market’s shopkeeps will present you some Frankincense and myrrh indeed but these substances are not used in Turkey. The most popular aromatic resin here is sakız, resin of wild pistachio tree, often used to flavor Turkish sweets and coffee.

      Reply
  • Jenny May 18, 2013, 6:45 am

    I will be visiting Turkey in a few days and really want to try some caviar. Can you recommend a place in the Spice Market that is good for a newcomer? I’ve looked into it and it seems like there are speciality shops elsewhere in the city but I would like to buy at the Spice Market. What is a reasonable price for very good quality by the ounce? Thanks.

    Reply
    • Olga Tikhonova Irez May 20, 2013, 9:11 pm

      Jenny, caviar definitely belongs to the other conspiracies of the Spice Market I have written about. Caviar is not a particularly local product so what you get to see here is the cheaper types of caviar coming from Russia and Iran sold at hefty premium; the most common way to use fish roe here in Istanbul is tarama, a paste of salted roe mixed with breadcrumbs, lemon juice and olive oil.

      Reply
  • Porsha Smith July 9, 2013, 11:43 pm

    I was wondering about the dried lavender and rose. I’m headed to Istanbul and a post made me worried that these are sprayed to make them more fragrant which would make them inedible. I was just wondering if this is true before I even think about adding these to my list. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Olga Tikhonova Irez July 9, 2013, 11:53 pm

      Porsha, you need to definitely smell the flowers you are going to buy and trust your nose. I always recommend Arifoğlu – they are not so cheap but highly reputable.

      Reply
  • Lin August 19, 2013, 4:49 am

    I read reviews that we need to bargain for items bought at the markets. Just wondering whether the stalls which you have recommended sell items at fixed prices or otherwise. Is bargaining also required for the dried fruits, nuts and herbs at Spice market ?

    Reply
    • Olga Tikhonova Irez August 20, 2013, 12:32 pm

      You need to bargain at the touristic markets, at the local markets it is not a custom, really. The places I mentioned are proper shops rather than stalls, and you don’t really bargain there (trying to do it at the places like Cankurtaran Gida might be even insulting for the shop’s staff). If you buy a lot from a single shop, you may ask for a discount, yet don’t be disappointed if the discount will not exceed 10%). Having said that there are a lot of places at the Istanbul Spice Market that would rip you off without thinking twice, that’s why it makes sense to look out for the reputable vendors like the ones I mentioned.

      Reply
  • Aishah September 24, 2013, 9:03 am

    Hi Olga! I just came back from Turkey on Sunday. I found your shopping tips very informative, it took out the guess work (and leg work) as there were so many stores to explore at the Spice Market and Grand Bazzar. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I have to agree with Kek though that the salespersons at Malatya Pazari weren’t friendly. On the contrary, the salespersons at Arifoğlu were nice and chatty. I absolutely love their olive soaps.

    Reply
  • Elle Croft October 10, 2013, 12:43 pm

    Thanks for the tips! I can’t wait to sample some of these delicious foods when I’m in Istanbul later this month!

    Reply
    • Olga Tikhonova Irez October 10, 2013, 1:33 pm

      My pleasure! Would love yo hear back about your experiences!

      Reply
  • oleg voloshin October 22, 2013, 11:55 pm

    Olga,

    I have been interested to purchase lokum from spice bazaar. I purchased some when I was there in June 2012, but the merchant resold it to someone else. I only have phone number for the new merchant, but I don’t speak the language. Is there a way to purchase real lokum (honey based) (rather than sugar based)? I tried Tugba, but their online shop does not offer much variety (and again, I don’t understand the language). Please, offer some advice :-) .

    Kindly,
    Oleg

    Reply
    • Olga Tikhonova Irez October 23, 2013, 9:45 pm

      Oleg, you can head out to Hacı Bekir (Hamidiye Cad. No. 81 and No.83) for some first rate Turkish delight.

      Reply
  • Solo January 10, 2014, 10:53 am

    Hello Olga,
    Thank you for the great article!
    Could you please, recommend any places in Istanbul ( Spice market etc)  where I can buy Natural argan,  almond, amla oils???  Thank you in advance! ;)

    Reply
    • Olga Tikhonova Irez January 10, 2014, 6:39 pm

      For the local oils (eg. almond, rose, etc) I recommend Arifoğlu: they are a reliable producer of those. They also carry the imported ones like argan.

      Reply
  • Lauren January 11, 2014, 4:57 pm

    Brilliant article! Will be visiting Istanbul in June. What sort of prices are reasonable for spice and lokum?

    Reply
    • Olga Tikhonova Irez January 11, 2014, 9:40 pm

      That depends a lot on the location of the vendor, the kind of the product and quality: eg. think red pepper flakes, the most common Turkish spice, “reasonable” can range from 15 to 40 TL a kilo depending.. Turkish delight is anything from 15 to 45-50 TL, again depending on the ingredients (eg.g think pistachios, and the price goes up).

      Reply
  • Sarala naidu February 27, 2014, 3:02 pm

    Hi,
    We loved shopping in the spice market especially in malatya pazari , I bought dried figs, pistachio , sumac and apple tea . I miss the baklavas and Turkish halwa and wish I could buy some in India. Love your posts Olga and thank you.

    Reply
  • Mimi April 5, 2014, 8:33 pm

    This is an awesome list! Any chance I can find sahlep there (used to make the dondurma)? Thank you!

    Reply
    • Olga Tikhonova Irez April 6, 2014, 10:03 am

      Sure. Make sure you are getting a real deal (200-400TL/kg), not corn starch with aroma.

      Reply
  • Eva April 22, 2014, 7:06 pm

    Hi,

    Thanks for your post which I really enjoyed! I went to Malatya Pazari to buy loads of nuts and dried fruits and was really happy with both the produce and the attitude of the vendors. When I paid I found the price a bit high, but hey as said I really bought a lot to bring back home. After having settled the bill by creditcard I asked for the detailed receipt but was told they could not give that which I found strange. So at the spot I decided to make a pic of it with my phone. I left the same day for the airport and after coming home looked at the prices and Turkish names. I saw one item of 96.48 tl for 536 gram, wow what was that? It turned out to be something I definitely did not buy: karakovan extra P. So now I feel a bit deceived……. Was it a mistake or was I conned. The pleasurable shopping experience changed in hindsight. Of course I would have gone back if I was still in Istanbul……. Anyway, note to self: check the bill on the spot next time. But I am still happy I found your blog Olga :-)

    Reply
    • Olga Tikhonova Irez April 23, 2014, 6:11 pm

      Eva, karakovan is most likely a honey comb; if you got the real deal I would not be so shocked by the price.

      Reply
      • Eva April 23, 2014, 7:30 pm

        Hi Olga,
        Thanks. And yes that’s what I figured out after consulting a dictionary……my point was that I definitely did not buy honeycomb, only nuts, dried fruit and a bit of pepper, mint and oregano ;-)

        Reply
        • Olga Tikhonova Irez April 24, 2014, 10:59 am

          Oh, this is disheartening! Always a good idea to check the receipt / or ask them to do a breakdown for you at spot.

          Reply
  • Mickey May 15, 2014, 9:33 pm

    Thank you for great tips in visiting the Spice Market!
    I have visited there and saved a lot of time and energy. But I have some comments in about the shop of Malatya Pazari, which you have mentioned in your essay. I felt uncomfortable for the staffs always stirred to me and when I wanted to taste some of the dry fruits and spices, they didn’t allow me and speak in Turkish and little English to blame me. I need to taste and make decision to buy which one. And also, I bought large quantity but wanted to divide into smaller packages as to share with my friends and families. However, their faces became black and not willing to do this for me. I felt not happy but I had bought a lot of spices and dry fruits. I requested to have vacuum packages but at last I found two had not been vacuum packages. I think this shop has become famous and not customer-oriented now. They even think that you would come back to buy their things. I don’t think so and I will not recommend this shop to others for their attitude and manner is super bad.

    So I write this for you as for your updating! Thanks again for your introducing and tips in tours!

    Best regards.
    Mickey

    Reply
  • Kat August 28, 2014, 11:42 pm

    Hi Olga!

    So glad to have found your site, even though we have only one and as half more day here at Istanbul as we speak!

    Wondering if there’s any shops here that carry organic nuts and spices?

    Thanks a lot!
    Kat

    Reply
    • Olga Tikhonova Irez August 29, 2014, 1:55 pm

      Hi Kat. To my knowledge there is no vendor at the Spice Market selling certified organic products. Large Migros (supermarket chains) have a small section where you may look up organic brands such as Cityfarm or Sade. Another option is a trip to Kadıköy: at the market there is a shop called Altınoluk; they carry organic nuts and cooking condiments.

      Reply

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