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A waiter ladles honey over baklava at Saray Muhallebi. (Photo: Katherine Gypson)

Istiklal: The Heart (and Stomach) of Istanbul

A Turkish friend once told me that to understand Turkey all you need to do is take a walk down Istiklal Caddesi — the main pedestrian shopping area of Istanbul that hums with energy late into the night and hosts everything from street musicians to sophisticated clubbing to protests. “Istiklal,” she said, “is the heart and soul of Turkey.”

In the last days of the Ottoman Empire, Istiklal was the high-end European area of Istanbul. The street was renamed Independence Avenue after the Turkish republic was established in 1923, but fell into disrepair. Authorities wisely revived the street in the 1980s and 90s, restoring nostalgic elements like the tram and the famous Flower Passage shopping area without turning the area into a veritable theme park.

On my first visit, the crowd practically carried me down the busy street. Everything on Istiklal feels open and in motion, a 21st century bazaar just across the Bosporus from the old Byzantine markets. One of the best ways to experience Istiklal’s contrasts and sense of fun is through food. The Turkish take something you think you know – ice cream or a kabob platter – and give it a twist that turns it into an unforgettable experience.

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Fishermen on Galata bridge, with Galata Tower in the background. (Photo: Katherine Gypson)

Never a seafood lover even in the best of situations, I found myself thinking, “you only live once,” and gulped down raw oysters from a sidewalk stand in Balik Parzi, Istiklal’s Fish Market. I lived through the next few minutes – long enough to watch a smiling vendor dip a potato spiral on a stick into boiling oil. The crispy treat that emerged was covered in a flavorful powder that tasted like Ranch dressing. For those angling for a healthier treat, vendors also serve fresh-roasted corn and roasted chestnuts.

I searched for Nevizade – a famous back alley packed with restaurants and the sounds of live music. Most of the restaurants serve the same menu of mezze and kabob, but part of the fun is found in simply walking down the street while owners shout from their doorways, trying to convince potential customers that theirs is the best.

For those of you with a curious stomach and a good pair of walking shoes, here are a few places I always make time to visit on Istiklal:

•     Saray Muhallebi Istiklal No. 173 (which roughly translates to “the palace of desserts”). I was overwhelmed by the selection of pastries the first time I stepped in this bustling three-level restaurant. Waiters rush around with plates of baklava and a rainbow of puddings and custards. Turkish pistachio ice cream is nothing like the American version. The ice cream clung to my spoon like honey and instead of melting into a pool, it stayed cold and firm, owing to the goat’s milk and dried orchid powder used in the recipe. Walking along Istiklal, you’ll see many small stands where men in traditional Turkish dress use long wooden spoons to stir the ice cream and maintain its texture. But the Saray is still my favorite spot for this treat.

•    Haci Baba Istiklal No.39. Long known as one of the best spots for traditional Turkish cuisine, this restaurant serves Iskander Kabob – a massive meal of lamb kabob over pita, smothered in stewed tomatoes and served with fresh yogurt that adds just the right cooling touch. A waiter will arrive with a pot of sizzling butter to pour over the dish. Tell him to be generous — it’s the ingredient that ties everything together.

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Iskander kabob at the famous Haci Baba restaurant. (Photo: Katherine Gypson)

•    For a slightly lighter meal, head to any one of the Gozleme places lining Istiklal. You’ll know you’re in the right spot when you see women in traditional village dress sitting in the windows of the restaurants rolling out dough to a crepe-like consistency. You can have your “pancakes” stuffed with white or yellow cheese and spinach.

•    Finally, choose a treat to bring back to your hotel by stopping at Koska Istiklal No. 122A. The storefront looks like the Turkish version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – packed with colorful Jordan Almonds, powdery Turkish delight and baklava in every shape and size imaginable. You can pick up a sampler tray of baklava for less than $5.

Follow Katherine on Twitter @kgyp.