• Waiting for balik ekmek to be prepared in Istanbul. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
How can a humble fish sandwich taste so good? Dilvin Yasa follows the taste buds of Istanbul's 15 million residents.
Dilvin Yasa

16 Sep 2021 - 11:44 AM  UPDATED 16 Sep 2021 - 2:51 PM

What's in a name? Plenty, if you're a sullen teenager being introduced to Istanbul's favourite sandwich, Balık ekmek, for the first time. "Balık ekmek. The literal translation is 'fish bread' or basically, a fish sandwich", my mum said, casually, as we took our place in a long, snaking queue selling the sandwiches at Kadıköy ferry port in Istanbul, Turkey. "Trust me, you're going to love it."

Hmm, call me crazy but 'fish sandwich' didn't exactly sound like it was going to be winning any culinary awards (or fans with a western palate). "That sounds disgusting," I scowled as we moved up the queue, my mouth already committing the ultimate act of betrayal by watering when the heavy scent of onions and spices wafted over us. "What is this sorcery?" I wondered as my mother ambitiously ordered not one but two sandwiches and I took my first bite under Turkish mother-level duress (it's significant).

There's no other way to describe what happened next except to say that describing balık ekmek as a generic 'fish sandwich' is not unlike calling Albert Einstein 'that scientist dude' or Alain Ducasse as 'a cook'. 

Balık ekmek is a decent helping of chargrilled or pan-fried fish (usually whiting or sometimes mackerel), topped with a heap of onions, lettuce and parsley, and seasoned with plenty of herbs, spice, salt and — as always — a squeeze of lemon served in a thick hunk of bread. Sold by fishermen on the waterfronts of the Bosphorus, also known as the Strait of Istanbul, and the Golden Horn estuary since the mid-19th century, balık ekmek has been a staple in the Istanbullu diet ever since, even if the traditional methods are quietly disappearing. 

Balik ekmek (Turkish fish sandwich)

If you don’t happen to live near the Bosphorus, then this sandwich is the closest you will get to the ridiculously moreish fish rolls sold along the banks of this mighty river.

Balik ekmek crayfish and truffle toastie

You can’t beat a toastie – no matter what part of the world you’re from. Especially when it’s filled with truffle fava and crayfish! They’re a great way to use up whatever is floating around in your fridge and a great late night snack with a beer and a footy on the TV.

In my parents' time and certainly within my own teen years, the fish was always freshly caught from the Bosphorus. Whiting in their plentitude leapt from the sea straight to the charcoal makeshift grills that were set up on the decks of the fishermen's boats to sell directly to the public.

Kadıköy ferry terminal in Istanbul is known for some of the best balık ekmek around.

Over the last 25 years or so, a perfect storm of municipal regulations and environmental challenges (overfishing and environmental damage caused by urbanisation and coastal development, for example) has seen a huge shift in the way balık ekmek is served. The last of the traditional balık ekmek boats were shut down in 2019. These days, the fish isn't freshly caught from the Bosphorus but shipped, on ice, from Scandinavia, and sold at balık ekmek stalls which can be found near the entrance of each ferry port.

"Describing balık ekmek as a generic 'fish sandwich' is not unlike calling Albert Einstein 'that scientist dude' or Alain Ducasse as 'a cook'." 

This isn't to say you can't still get a mouthwatering balık ekmek in the city of course, but you do need to be careful with how you approach the situation. I always recommend, for example, that travellers only get their balık ekmek from the vendor with the longest queue of locals, not tourists. It's been my experience that plenty of great ones can be found around the Kadıköy ferry terminal and that the best way to consume the sandwich is to sit nearby, so you can overlook the water and share it with your new million-odd seagull mates keen to break bread.

Chef-restauranteur Somer Sivrioğlu of Anason and Efendy restaurants, however, says those in search of the perfect balık ekmek should head to the fish market across from the old fishermen's boats in Istanbul's Eminonu district where the city's famous fish sandwiches are sold from carts in the street. "They use locally caught fish and cook them over charcoal," Sivrioğlu writes in his cookbook Anatolia, in which his version of the fish sandwich appears.

Heading to Istanbul might still be off the cards for now, but happily, Sydneysiders can still get their balık ekmek hit at Anason in Sydney's CBD, where Sivrioğlu makes his own version with a cured silver trevally, tarama and avruga caviar. Eaten overlooking the Barangaroo ferry terminal, you can almost pretend you're in Turkey and believe me, those seagulls are only ever moments away. 

Images by Héctor de Pereda and Antony Stanley.

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