Istanbul Fish Sandwiches

Last Updated on June 23, 2023

For perhaps a century, fishermen brought their catch from the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara to Istanbul's Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn 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 the fish sandwiches from the boat to thousands of hungry, thrifty Istanbullus every day.

Balık ekmek! Balık ekmek! they shouted. (Fish in bread! Fish in bread!)

Fish Sandwich cook in a boat on the Golden Horn, Istanbul, Turkey
Making a fish sandwich
on the boat...

For as long as I've been visiting Turkey, which is now nearly 50 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've never been ill 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 newspapers 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 in the traditional boats tied to the quay, and also at little restaurants beneath the Galata Bridge.

Just go to Eminönü, then to the western (Golden Horn) side of the Galata Bridge. You'll see the gaudy balık-ekmek boats bobbing in the water between the bridge and the TurYol ferry docks, and 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 Southeastern Turkish weirdness called şalgam (SHAL-gahm), a blend of water, juice of salted, pickled black carrots and çelem turnips, and boiled, pulverized bulgur wheat. It's sour and salty, and you can get it with spicy pepper (acılı) if you like. You can order water or a soft drink instead. (No alcohol is served.)

On some days the crowds are such that long lines form at the boat of hungry Istanbullus waiting to buy balık-ekmek. You can avoid the crowds, and have a somewhat more refined and comfortable experience, by choosing one of the balik-ekmek restaurants beneath the Galata Bridge instead.

If you're there in the evening, you'll have a sunset view of the Golden Horn, and a good, cheap dinner.

Actually, I think the balık-ekmek of the former Kumkapı fish market, now moved to Samatya on the shore of the Sea of Marmara, tastes better, with fresher fish. More...

—by Tom Brosnahan

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