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Istanbul Fish Sandwiches, Turkey

For perhaps a century, fishermen brought their catch from the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara to Istanbul‘s Galata Bridge for sale.

A few enterprising boatmen had an idea: why not cook the fish right on the boat and offer it for sale ready-to-eat?

They built grills and fryers right in their boats, built fires in them, grilled fish fillets, stuffed them in half a loaf of bread, and handed from the boat to thousands of hungry, thrifty Istanbullus every day.

Balik ekmek! Balik ekmek! They shouted. (Fish in bread! Fish in bread!)

For as long as I’ve been visiting Turkey, which is now 40 years, there have always been fish sandwiches for sale at the mouth of the Golden Horn. I loved the weirdness of seeing a cooking fire raging in a boat, I loved the flavor of the fresh fish, and I loved the price—cheap! And I never got sick from eating one.

Then came Turkey’s aspiration to join the European Union, and such old-fashioned, romantic, but perhaps unsanitary practices were discouraged.

Istanbul’s nespapers were filled with requiems for the Galata Bridge fish sandwich, paeans to its flavor, nutritional value, cheapness, and tradition. A part of Istanbul‘s age-old culture died.

Or did it?

I’m happy to report that the Istanbul fish sandwich lives!

Istanbul fish sandwiches are still being served daily at little restaurants beneath the Galata Bridge, and also in the traditional boats tied to the quay.

The new sort of grill on Galata Bridge.

Just go to Eminönü, then to the western (Golden Horn) side of the Galata Bridge. On the bridge’s lower level you’ll find several small restaurants with low tables and chairs. Waiters will cajole you in with shouts of Balık ekmek! and Buyrun!(“Come on in! Help yourself!”)

Sit at a table and a waiter will bring you balık-ekmek, a grilled fish fillet inserted in a half-loaf of bread along with a scoop of salata (lettuce, tomatoes and onions).

Order a drink—the traditional accompaniment is a weirdness called şalgam (SHAL-gahm, pickle juice!)—and enjoy. You can order water or a soft drink instead. (No alcohol served.)

The boats congregate between the bridge and the TurYol ferry docks. Similar fish, similar price, but you stand to eat.

If you’re there in the evening, you’ll have a sunset view of the Golden Horn, and a good, cheap dinner: the bill should ebe less than YTL5 per person.


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