5 Biggest Conspiracies of Istanbul Spice Market

Istanbul Food Markets

Istanbul Spice Market by Olga Irez of Delicious Istanbul

I do that more often that I wish I had to. I sort of hate to ruin excitement of the first time Istanbul visitors they get into at the sight of the sizable boxes with a label ‘Turkish saffron” and equally impossible price tag ‘5 Turkish lira’. I dislike politely explaining that technically there is no such thing as the Ottoman spice mix. And I know I will be forever cursed for revealing the secret of the apple tea which really is .. just an instant powder. But at the end of the day this is why people join my Istanbul food tours: they do want to go beyond the tourist scams which means that at times I have to – rather cruelly – dethrone some of the myths created by the smooth-taking Istanbul spice sellers.

Yet it is not fair to put all the blame on the enterprising Istanbul spice sellers as they are only one part of the demand-supply equation. The other is Oriental fantasies and somewhat outdated ideas from the old times of the Pudding Shop glory. And Istanbul does not hurry to prove you wrong and moreover – gives you all the reasons to stay  deceived especially if you are planning your shopping at the Istanbul Spice Market. The choice is yours and I have made mine  – in this post I am going to crush 5 biggest conspiracies of Istanbul Spice Market.

Turkish saffron

Ah those boxes with orange and red threads – way too big for the 5 lira worth of saffron! ‘Turkish saffron’, the label boldly states which in the coded language of Istanbul Spice Market means “not-saffron-at-all”. There is only small saffron production Turkey which is not supported neither by great know-how nor by the strong domestic demand: used a lot during the Ottoman times nowadays saffron can be found just in one dish know to the majority of the Turks – zerde pudding. If you walk past the 5 Turkish lira boxes and delve into the depths of a spice store you will find a glass jar with red threads and a label: ‘Iranian Saffron. 1 gram = 25 Turkish lira’.

Each spice vendor has both: real deal from Iran and cheap saffron imitation which in fact is safflower, plant with dying properties so strong is had been used to dye textiles already in the ancient Egypt. I sort of understand the spice vendors. Even more so after witnessing a dialogue between my favorite Istanbul pide maker and a young traveler who tried to beat down the price of a pide on the premise it was more expensive that a kebab he had (which was 2 TL, an absurd for anybody who cares to learn meat prices in Istanbul and do simple math). So the vendors want to offer something to you if you say you are not paying 25 Turkish lira (about US$14) for a gram of saffron. So here is box of ‘Turkish saffron’ for 5 TL. Deal of the year!

It is useful to know that saffron threads are stigmas of a crocus flower. Each flower has just three stigmas which makes for rather laborious picking and results in a high selling price. Real saffron threads are dark read in color, brittle and have a fresh smell. Sometimes other parts of the crocus flower can be added to the stigmas to make a more attractive price but all those additions are effectively a dead weight. Also there are many ways to imitate the threads (colored strands of gelatin, for instance). And finally there are powdered versions which one should stay clear off since it’s impossible to establish the origin and components of that powder. Buying a powder called ‘Indian saffron’ in Istanbul you run a risk of getting turmeric – hugely beneficial spice that gives a color too but simply does not cost that much.

Real deal: Get your saffron in Istanbul from a trusted vendor – I can’t recommend Arifoğlu highly enough, they have two stores at the Istanbul Spice Market and a reputation of a business with 500 employees at stake.

Mesir macunu (Turkish Viagra)

Aphrodisiac qualities of many traditional foods is the most favorite tale of the Istanbul Spice Market folks. Which is half capitalizing on the Oriental fantasies of the Westerns taking the idea of harem much further that its true historical circumstances. And half self-perception of the Turks: masculinity and its indispensable attributes is a rather cornerstone concept in Turkish culture so when the spice vendors wink at you as they offer some kind of Turkish Viagra (may be just dried figs stuffed with walnuts) they are king of pulling your leg about something which in fact is a rather serious matter to them.

So here comes Mesir macunu, paste of 41 spices which – as one of the producers boldly states – “the Sultans used .. before taking part in harem activities”. This wonderful paste apparently does boost one’s well-being, gives energy and improves sexual performance. What’s interesting is that the references to the aphrodisiac qualities of mesir macunu can be found only in non-Turkish sources. During the first months of my stay in Istanbul I was taken aback by the scene at a local herbalist. An Istanbul hamineffendi browsing the store addressed the shop keeper, “I have a slight cold, do you have something like Mesir macunu?”What? She was not buying it for her husband but to boost up her immune system?

Mesir macunu was first was made of 41 spices to treat a sultan’s mother from a serious disease. The lady was wonderfully cured and became a evangelist of the treatment which she started spreading to the masses. There was no better way of doing it than throwing tiny packages of the paste once a year from a mosque rooftop which is still continues to be an annual festival in Manisa. And 9 months after the festivals thousands of Mesir macunu babies get born in Turkey. Only kidding (wink)..

Real deal: Go for plumb dry figs..stuffed with walnuts, if you must. You’ll have plenty of energy to continue browsing Istanbul food markets and exchange joked with the witty store keepers.

Lemon salt

Spice vendor with the most picturesque (and educational) stall outside of the Istanbul Spice Market makes a theatrical pause and looking like a true conspirator tells, “And this is lemon salt. For chicken, for fish, for apple tea (see below) and <he pauses again> for gin and tonic”. To my questions I asked him at numerous occasions about how this particular salt can be produced he gave me a vague answer. Or often times even left me to pitch his precious to the less curious customers.

When I saw a small package of the same white non-transparent crystals at Arifoğlu, respectable spice vendor with a large retail network and a mass-market product range found in all major supermarkets things got cleared.  Under the name ‘Limon tozu’ (lemon salt) on the package in much smaller font it wrote “Citric acid”. The price was 4 times lower than that of the lemon salt by my conspirator spice vendor.

In Turkey citric acid can be found almost in any kitchen pantry. First and foremost it helps scale heavy duty double tea pots that tend to run boiling for long period of times. Second it is used in making jams and pickles as a natural preservative; you can also use it in cooking instead of lemon juice. And well, if you really have to .. in your gin and tonic. Just do me a favor – don’t pay 100 TL (US$36) for a kilo (2.2 pounds).

Real deal: This is where you can save yourself some luggage spice and probably best buying ‘lemon salt’ (aka citric acid) at home if you ever need it at all.

Turkish Apple tea

Turkish apple tea is possibly the biggest conspiracy of Istanbul Spice Market. Otherwise how could you explain the strong opinion shared by many first time Istanbul visitors that apple tea is a Turkish national drink? The great conspiracy behind it is that being a foreign traveler in Turkey you are most likely offered apple (pomegranate as a variation) tea at the many hotels, cafes or shops around the popular tourist sights. And I could see why one can like this apple tea. Its composition – sugar, acidity regulator: citric acid (E330), antioxidant: ascorbic acid (E300), anti-caking agent: tricalcium phosphate (E341), natural identical apple flavor, coloring: caramel (E150 – sounds rather likable. You can’t go wrong with a few acids and artificial flavorings. Apple tea is a beverage that most locals have never tried and most tourists drink during their stay in Istanbul and upon their return report on the fantastic ‘Turkish national drink’. How come?

Offering tea to visitors is a long-standing tradition which in situation of a market makes even more sense: a cup of tea you will keep you in a store longer and increase the likelihood of sale. Yet in time Turks have figured that flavor of Turkish tea (=black tea) comes rather strong for most foreigners (probably besides Russians who drink glass of Turkish tea after another and get nostalgic about the Georgian tea we had during the Soviet times). The strength comes not so much from the tea leaves but from the prolonged brewing of the tea over the steaming water.  So instant apple tea came to service to continue the tradition of hospitality but offer something that most travels would like.

Real deal: Get a bag of dry apple pieces (with no artificial perfume added – they should smell as humble as dry apples do) and throw them in your regular tea – black or green to add that subtle taste of Istanbul to your tea.

Ottoman spice mix

Ottoman has been very popular topic. Especially after the start of the Turkish soap Muhteşem Yüzyıl (Magnificent Century) now broadcasted at over 20 countries besides Turkey which made the realities of life at the Sultan Palace (include the harem and its “activities”) more understood even by a primary school children. Ottoman sells well. Because it is still so mysterious and any tale can be created, packaged and sold. Such as the Ottoman spice mix.

Call me a snobbish purist but I don’t buy the spice mix idea. First, spice sellers always push them hard as a high margin product (God knows the exact proportion of the spices in the mix). And then speaking of the Ottoman spice mix specifically – what’s the value of clubbing together dry thyme or mint, saffron, red chilli flakes, fennel, sumak, black pepper, coriander, cumin, allspice, ginger and cinnamon. Besides that were are only 30 spices away from creating a panacea and aphrodisiac in one – mesir macunu. Probably, if you have no idea about spices it all it may sound interesting otherwise you pretty much have a good idea of which exact spices to put.

If we stick to the facts there is no such thing as the Ottoman spice mix. When paging through the book of Ottoman recipes ‘500 Years of Ottoman Cuisine’ by Marianna Yerasimos, researcher of Ottoman food culture and habits, you can’t find a single dish calling for more than 4-5 of the listed above spices at once. Generally, Ottomans may have been lavish as they used the most expensive spices of the world but then were not so keep to stack them all in a single dish. So just combining most frequently used spices in the Ottoman cooking does not do the job any besides of providing living for the Istanbul spice vendors. But maybe it is just worth learning that allspice, cinnamon, black pepper and dry mint were typically used in dolma. That cumin, coriander and black pepper are most often used for meatballs.

Real deal: Pay a visit to a local spice vendor and stock up with some locally grown and used spices – such as variety of red peppers specifically – which would serve as a great inspiration for your cooking experiments.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jolita November 5, 2012, 9:41 pm

    Agree with every single word!

  • Mrs Ergül November 6, 2012, 7:15 am

    You got me at the apple tea. When I told our family that I wanted to bring some apple tea back, I was told that thing is only for foreigners. They have never had it before.

  • Barbara November 6, 2012, 8:00 pm

    Oh so true!

  • Julie Nathan November 6, 2012, 9:48 pm

    Aha. It appears I fell for the “lemon salt.” 😉 And in fact I think I only used it once when I got home – preferring fresh lemon juice instead…

    • Olga Tikhonova November 6, 2012, 10:30 pm

      Julie, you are not the first and not the last. I could not leave Istanbul without a ‘Gucci’ silk scarf from Grand Bazaar when I first came here: Istanbul is like that it tricks you but also rewards you when you least expect. If you are making any jams/pickles try to use it – citric acid does keep the color of the vegetables/fruits and acts as an overall preservative!

    • paul August 10, 2015, 2:43 pm

      Try grinding it and mixing it with icing sugar. 2 parts sugar to 1 part acid = Sherbet.

  • Marica Bochicchio November 7, 2012, 4:10 pm

    Very useful this note, I need info about your ingredients. Thanks, Marica

  • Joy (My Turkish Joys) November 7, 2012, 7:03 pm

    Great tips, Olga! I can’t stand apple tea and always ask for “normal cay.” I’m sure many tourists have been cheated just by having misinformation at the Spice Bazaar.

  • Lini April 4, 2013, 11:51 am

    I just tried my flowering tea… I was soooooo happy to have found it at the spice market… but just as the saffron, it’s an imposture… no jasmin in it, just green tea and a single small clover flower… and it doesn’t even taste good 🙁

  • Owen July 11, 2013, 6:46 pm

    Just got back from Turkey and our tour guide took us to the spice market. I was rather unimpressed. Ended up buying some woven bookmarks and t-shirts. Everything else seemed overpriced and the fact that half of the stalls had the exact same items displayed in almost the same way was a turn off. I was picturing something more like what you see in the movies. I’ll just buy my spices and tea at the oriental market!

  • Sekhar July 23, 2013, 7:48 am

    Anyone who lives in the East knows that you cannot get true saffron at the prices on offer at this Market, or in Grand Bazaar. Beware because they may contain dangerous colorants. We have been to Istanbul several times and trips to these Bazaars should be for enjoyment and/or photography, plus some inexpensive souvenirs, not in the hope of any serious bargains.

  • Seasonn July 24, 2013, 3:51 pm

    I am glad I read your post before going to the spice market.
    I am a chef so know quite a bit about food, so am not easily fooled.
    One of the vendors, gave me spiced ‘salt’ to try, it was spiced citric acid.
    Another tried to pawn dyed raisins off on me, as cranberries.
    I am not sure if medicinal saffron was one of the ‘ploys’ either, but
    I wasn’t going to fall for it is it was. One good tip I did get from a herbalist,
    if I used the safflower ‘saffron’ as a tea it boosts the metabolism…
    Thanks for the great info in your posts…

  • Edna Bambrick September 21, 2013, 5:26 pm

    I disagree. Ottoman spice mix (whatever it’s comprised of) does exist and is worth it. A good Ottoman mix will hit all areas of the tongue without overpowering the food or one area. A good mix and I’ve tried 20 is near priceless in flavoring some foods – grilled meats, grilled vegetables, hummus and eggs. I use it daily.

  • Maierwei September 23, 2013, 3:54 pm

    Great post, I’m glad to know that foreigners are discovering the truth behind the “traditional” Turkish apple tea. And yes, I use mesir tea as an immune boost too. Just one correction: “limon tozu” is powdered lemon, lemon salt should be “limon tuzu”. Greetings and love!

    • Olga Tikhonova Irez September 23, 2013, 5:49 pm

      Thank your very much for correcting me! Much to my embarrassment I often mix tuz and toz: have updated the spelling now.

  • Leah November 11, 2013, 2:56 am

    Thanks for the tips — I haven’t run into the ‘lemon salt’, but I knew enough to be wary of cheap saffron. I used to live in Dubai and could get true Iranian saffron for quite a good price by American standards. But still, it isn’t super cheap.

    I do agree with the one poster who said they’d gotten a good spice blend. I did as well, although I’ve lost the paper telling me what was in it. It wasn’t very expensive, either. But everyone loves it on meats, especially kebabs.

    The true joy of the spice market for me was the peppers — urfa biber being my favorite. That goes in almost everything. As I speak, ribs with urfa biber in the spice rub are cooking. After a couple years, I’m finally running low. I guess it is time to book another trip to Istanbul. Although, I will say I got my pepper flakes (at least three different kinds) outside the main spice market, on a side-street leading up to an entrance.

  • Betty Lillegard November 21, 2013, 8:15 pm

    O.k. I got taken by the saffron gimmick. So what do I do with it now? I made rice & put it in there & it was very dry & did not color the rice. If there is danger in eating it, I bought a bag for someone else & would like to let them know? Betty Lillegard

    • Olga Tikhonova Irez November 24, 2013, 6:57 pm

      If you bought the safflower, it should add color (it’s been used as a dying agent after all). Pre-soaking it in water or stock you are using for the dish can help release more color; it’s best to discard it after cooking as it is indeed too dry. Safflower is actually a medical plant, so there is no danger in eating it.

  • EJJ January 23, 2014, 2:28 pm

    The wife and I just returned from Istanbul. My wife actually had a discussion with a coworker in which she had to inform her that Apple Tea isn’t actually a true Turkish Tea. I must admit however that I’ve been craving a cup since my return. I must also admit that I only had it at one place in Sultanahmet which was enjoyable. Every place we stopped offered us a cup and it wasn’t that great but there was this little cafe behind the Sulton Ahmed (Blue) Mosque behind the off of the Arasta Bazaar. The cafe called Avlu Serbethane Restaurant and Cafe. I actually visited this place every day that we were in Instanbul. I’m not sure what they did differently, but their Apple Tea was a thing of beauty and I easily drank 10 – 12 cups in four days.

    Moving forward I want to obtain some for use back home in the US but I’m worried because I’m not sure exactly how to replicate the recipe they used. I usually use a rather liberal amount of sugar to sweeten my tea. For some reason I barely used any at all for their Apple Tea and it was simply amazing. I have been longing for it since my return.

    As it relates to the Grand Bazaar, the name is perfect because it is nothing short of Bazaar. It was mainly for entertainment value. Further my wife and I also realized that much of the shopping in Istanbul, especially in the Sultanahmet region was purely tourist shopping and a rip off. We further decided to only shop at the Arasta Bazaar (behind the Blue Mosque) and the area around it because we realized that part of the proceeds went to rents which go to support the Mosque. We then decided to look at it as making a donation to the Mosque and seeing the items we purchased as love offerings (my wife’s term). We no longer expected to find a deal or even be treated fairly and in turn spent very little in the area.

    I will however say that we truly enjoyed Istanbul and will be back in the years to come.

  • Tient January 29, 2014, 3:24 pm

    I love reading your tips. I am going to Istanbul this Friday and I will make sure to print out some of the advice you wrote. Again, thank you.

    • Olga Tikhonova Irez January 29, 2014, 4:16 pm

      Glad it’s helpful, Tient! Enjoy Istanbul!

  • bakitgul April 3, 2014, 5:53 am

    Enjoyed your posts and wrote down the names of your favorite trusted places. However, when I got to Arifoğlu, the first thing I saw prominently displayed were the boxes of Turkish saffron for TL 5. I felt very disappointed……..

    • Olga Tikhonova Irez April 3, 2014, 2:00 pm

      I know, I know, things are slowly deteriorating at the Spice Market. Yet, they are very clear if you ask them about the real deal and cheap variations. Believe me, I have met many people who think that paying 20-4O TL for a gram of saffron is a scam. The 5 TL thing is for them.

      • Mike G March 17, 2015, 10:02 am

        At those prices, Europeans and Americans, and maybe others, are better off buying even saffron at home. These days, one can buy very high quality Iranian saffron here for USD$5-10 per gram, depending on the size of your purchase. There must be better things to bring back even if you don’t want to spend a lot of money on really unique goods like handmade textiles.

        As you say, really high-quality Turkish dried peppers are almost unheard of here at any price. Good Turkish pistachios are much tastier, I think, than the American variety, and they’re often stale but still very expensive when you can find them here at all.

  • Zarina April 4, 2014, 11:10 am

    I bought some apple tea in Istanbul. It has a red colouring and is very sour! 🙁 nothing like what I had there. I can use it with added sugar but the colouring is worrying. Do you know what that colouring is and if it is safe to drink? ( it has apple pieces and tea leaves in it )

    • Olga Tikhonova Irez April 5, 2014, 6:41 pm

      red color might be natural (e.g. hibiscus that is rather sour or rose hip) or artificial. It’s pretty hard to “diagnose” without seeing the product, Zarina

  • Jonie Block April 29, 2014, 2:34 am

    Ive been to Istanbul and the spice bazzar is sometimes a rip off. Every word in this article is true. Tip… before going “Know” what spices you want. Venders are not looking out for your interest. They are looking out for theirs- which is profit.

  • theo May 13, 2014, 10:15 pm

    what spice? what coriander? i’ve been here three years and i can’t even find rosemary and coriander leaf or mustard seed unless i’m willing to go to the upscale american military market in ankara or istanbul. for a country that is in the middle of the spice route, turkey is surprisingly monotonous in terms of the spices used in food. i enjoy turkish food, don’t get me wrong. but i do think that turks need to embrace their older cuisine and give up the fast food culture already.

    • Olga Tikhonova Irez May 15, 2014, 10:28 am

      Turkish cooking does not lavishly resort to spices to build flavor, but then you need to understand and appreciate the ways in which the flavor is built before jumping into judgements. The more to the South and South East you move, the more spice you will encounter in the dishes. I have no problem finding the condiments you have mentioned in Istanbul: every decent spice shop carries mustard seeds of various kinds and dry rosemary, and each weekly market has at least one stand with the fresh herbs including coriander.

  • a June 19, 2014, 2:08 pm

    After I initially left a comment I seem to have clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now
    every time a comment is added I recieve four emails with the
    exact same comment. Is there a way you are able to remove me from that service?
    Thank you!

    • Olga Tikhonova Irez June 20, 2014, 10:38 am

      I don’t manage those comment notifications as it is a default feature the Wordpress platform offers (and I can’t remove it). Hence, I am not sure how to go about it. I believe at the very bottom of such email there must be some subscription options where you can cancel the further notifications. Hope that may help.

  • Ronak August 15, 2014, 10:00 pm

    I am Indian and I have some penfriends in Turkey and I was planning to send them some authentic Indian saffron from here. But it turned out that most of them haven’t heard of it. After reading this article I came to know that after all it is used sparingly and particularly in Zerde. Thanks for the brilliant article – it was very informative and touched a lot of diverse info.

    • Olga Tikhonova Irez August 19, 2014, 5:22 pm

      Ronak, thank you for your note! Glad I could shed some light on the saffron issue.

  • Mrs. Kolca September 4, 2014, 9:21 am

    I remember the last time I was in Istanbul, I asked my MIL if she has ginger or we could find ginger at the bazaar, she said yes. To my surprise, I was given ginger powder which was not even close to the flavor and aroma of the real deal. Also, I have not ever seen ginger powder in my life, that was the first time.

    • Olga Tikhonova Irez September 4, 2014, 3:55 pm

      Ginger powder is simply finely ground dried ginger root. You can’t expect a dehydrated plant taste like the fresh one. Like with all the roots, it takes quite a bit of cooking time to extract the full flavor from it. I need to note, however, that in the modern Turkish cooking dried ginger is hardly ever used; dried of fresh it’s seen primarily as a medicine.

  • Inna May 20, 2015, 8:22 pm

    Hi Olga! Thank you so much for your blog! It’s been helping me almost every day since I arrived. My question may be a little bit off topic but comments on your other post are closed. I’m sort of confused by pricing for natural dried apricots in Istanbul. I bought some to try at Eminonu street market for 30 TL per kilo, then I saw 45 at Mevlut Sekeri Yepilir not far from the spice market, 65 (I may be mistaken as I forgot to put down the price at this poit) at Malatya Pazari and as much as 85 in front of the latter (I forgot the vendor’s name). So at what point does the price becomes inadequate to quality? What may be the difference between those for 30 and for 85? Thank you!

    • Olga Tikhonova Irez June 2, 2015, 4:54 pm

      Inna, it’s hard to speak on behalf of the vendors, but there might be a few reasons for the price discrepancy. Size of the fruit, type of drying / preserving used, freshness (some apricots might be from 2013) and of course the markup of a particular vendor. If you are after pretty looking jumbo size apricots from a known vendor (e.g. Malatya Pazari) you can expect to pay more. Please, note that paying more does not mean higher quality; at times “pretty looking jumbo size apricots” might mean a pesticide-loaded fruit preserved with sulfur and other chemicals to look pretty

  • Asma May 29, 2015, 8:20 am

    Thank you so much for this post! I travelled to turkey last year with one of my sisters and our other sister requested we get her some lovely turkish saffron. I thought it looked weird in the massive bin in the market, but my sister purchased a big bag because it was so cheap. It smelt and tasted like dirt and thanks to your blog post I now know it was safflower! The cheeky beggers!

  • Bruce December 1, 2015, 12:29 pm

    So that’s why I haven’t been able to find “apple tea” since we got back from Istanbul. I was starting to think it was nothing but warm apple cider and I wasn’t far off. We did find a nice white tea with apple pieces in it at our local tea store that doesn’t have as strong a flavor as what we had in Turkey but is still tasty. And I threw out the jar of saffron after using it in one dish….it was worthless. Good article. Thanks.

  • Heffe December 16, 2015, 12:49 am

    I am well aware of spice mix traps. I’ve traveled all over the world, and always hit up the spice markets for local offerings. I’m a sucker for these concoctions at times, recently having purchased some Ras El Hanout in Marrakech, Tikka Masala blend in Mumbai, and most recently Ottoman blend from my bearded brother from a Turkish mother just outside of the Grand Bazaar. I always make my rounds and smell all the shops’ blends I can before I decide on my favourite one. I know these spice blends aren’t a thing of history, but more a composition of the tastes of the land, but you know what? I’m alright with that. I’m fully capable to building my own blends, and once I’m home I usually spend some time dissecting the mix I purchased to create my own, which gets used moving forward once this one is gone. The flavours that come out of these blends are incredible and as about the only physical souvenirs I purchase being spices and teas I’m okay with overspending slightly on 100g bags of teas and spices to have a continued sampling of my trip. I have 200g of wicked pomegranate “tea” that I hope to drag out for some time. If I run out, I know where to find a similar product, ground pomegranate, at an Indian grocer in my city thankfully for MUCH cheaper, and I’m sure it’ll taste very similar.