In two prior posts, I described our thrilling shopping adventures at the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district. Yet, the market that we fell in love with the most was located away from the tourist hordes - on the Asian side of the city. It is hard to characterize the Kadikoy Produce Market as an off-the-beaten-track attraction. The Lonely Planet guidebook recommends it after all, and even organized tour groups show up here occasionally. But the market still retains the feel of authenticity, and we loved every minute of our time there.
Just getting to the Kadikoy market was a fun experience. Before visiting the market, we spent several days on the European side of the city. Almost every day, be it from the top of the Galata Tower or the walls of the sultan’s palace at Topkapi, we observed water taxis and ferries crossing the Bosporus Strait and transporting people between the European and Asian sides of the city. To take a water taxi in Istanbul is as common as taking an Uber from Wicker Park to downtown Chicago. The 15-minute ride to the Asian side was exciting, and I ran from one side of the water taxi to another to take pictures and climbed the upper deck for the beautiful 360-degree views of the city.
After disembarking on the Asian side, we walked several blocks to get to the market. We arrived early in the morning and the market was just getting going. It is called the Kadikoy Produce Market in various guidebooks, and the produce section here is truly impressive. No matter where we went, the fruit, vegetable, and fish looked so fresh and appetizing. Standing in front of a display with at least 20 different types of olives, we were salivating. The abundance in the selection was also agonizing as it was not easy to select what exactly we wanted. As always, the local merchants were happy to provide samples, and we tried way too many olives before committing to one type that we bought in the end.
The seafood section of the market was especially mind-blowing. Although I’d been to fish markets all over the world, at Kadikoy, I saw something I’d never seen before. To prove that the fish was fresh, it was displayed with gills inside out. Fresh fish, as it was explained to us, has red gills; fish with purple or brown gills shows oxidation and should not be consumed. And as we walked through this section of the market, the fish with its red gills inside out looked like a vibrant still-life painting of Rubens. The image was so vivid and unexpected.
What this market became known for in the last couple of years are foodie tours. You can pay $25-30 for a local to take you around and help you navigate the unusual and exotic foods that you otherwise would not have tried or even noticed. My parents and I decided to DIY this tour by just stopping at shops and trying different foods. In one of the shops filled with jars of pickled veggies from floor to ceiling, we found a shop assistant who spoke Russian and who gave us a personal tour of the shop. As with all Istanbul merchants, he was very generous with samples, too. He gave us to try three types of ajika (a spicy dip from Georgia), soka (yellow peppers bathed in yogurt and white cheese, a Bosnian specialty), and countless pickled vegetables. We loved the tangy and spicy flavors of everything we tried and purchased a lot of delicious things to take with us. As we were paying, a group of tourists from Spain walked in as part of a foodie tour.
In another shop selling spices and sweets, I pointed to a heap of brownish triangle shapes. “Muska,” a shop attendant announced loudly. There were no samples to try but I went ahead with my intuition and bought five of them. It turned out this was a tasty and healthy Turkish dessert/snack. It can be described as green crushed pistachio mixed with grape molasses wrapped in smooth and elastic “pestil” made from boiling the dried mulberry. As I am writing these words, I am wondering if there are any Turkish grocery stores or markets in Chicago selling this treat.
The Kadikoy Produce Market is not only about the produce. You can buy everything here: from souvenir trinkets to dishwashers. The market also has a giant clothing section, where counterfeits of known brands are sold. This section is especially popular with Eastern Europeans who come here to buy “brands”. I peeked inside one of these stores and nearly burst out laughing when I saw a Columbia logo on one of the fleeces. It was sown so clumsily and poorly, and I wish I had taken a picture right next to it while wearing my Columbia jacket with the proper logo on it. A second later, an excited middle-aged Russian man grabbed that fleece off the rack and started putting it on, while admiring himself in the mirror. I had to leave that store immediately before he could see me giggling to myself. But, at the very least, I did not see any “Abibas” or “Nkie” that I witnessed in my childhood when counterfeit goods flooded the clothing markets of my post-Soviet hometown.
Yet, the main reason to visit the Kadikoy market is food. Despite trying samples at different shops, we still wanted to have a proper sit-down lunch. On one of the market streets, we found a restaurant with a giant piece of meat rotating on a spit by the entrance. My parents were excited to try Turkish meat dishes which they heard about a lot before the trip. Because I stopped eating meat a couple of years ago, I hoped to find a vegetarian option. Unfortunately, the menu did not have any. I figured that the best way to handle this situation was to order meat dishes for my parents and then grab something vegetarian outside after they eat. As I was placing an order for durum (a Turkish wrap with doner kebab) for my mom and iskender kebab (thinly sliced grilled lamb meat served with a spicy tomato sauce and yogurt) for my dad, the owner, a burly Turkish man in his 50s, asked me:
“And what will you have, young man?”
“I am ok,” I said. “I don’t eat meat, so I’ll grab something else outside later.”
“No worries,” said the owner. “Take a seat. The food will be ready soon.”
We sat down, and I explained to my puzzled parents, who were still grappling with my decision to abstain from eating meat, that I would eat something vegetarian afterward.
Shortly, the owner stopped by our table to bring us utensils and said:
“Young man, I live upstairs with my family, and my wife just cooked me a vegetarian lunch: rice and garbanzo beans with spices. If you want, I can share it with you.”
“Oh, no, no, no…I do not want to impose. That’s your lunch.” I said nearly blushing.
My parents were looking at me and the owner in confusion, not understanding what our exchange in English was about.
“Don’t worry.” The owner said with a wide smile. “She cooked way too much food. I’ll share it with you. Let me know if you like it.”
Ten minutes later, my parents were munching on appetizing Turkish meat dishes, while I had two plates of steamy rice and tasty spicy garbanzo beans in front of me. What is more, after the meal, the owner refused to take payment for the vegetarian dish, completely blowing us away with his kindness and generosity.
We finished our visit to the Kadikoy market in late afternoon, after having spent almost the entire day there. Sitting on the upper deck of the water taxi and going back to the European side, we were surrounded by grocery bags filled with olives, cheeses, ajika, pickled veggies, and fruit that lasted for the remainder of our stay in Istanbul.
Visiting markets was our favorite activity in Istanbul. Whether you shop for beautiful Turkish souvenirs, spices, and sweets, try samples of mouthwatering Turkish food, or just drink tea in almost every single shop, exploring local markets is one of the best ways to discover and get to know this ancient city. More importantly, the warmth and hospitality of the Turkish people will always make you feel welcome, encouraging you to come back to Istanbul again and again. We surely will be back!