I was somewhat surprised to find that Turkey’s signature sandwich is not considered by locals to be döner, which is instead an entity on its own. It’s actually a thing called balık ekmek, which translates literally to “fish bread.” As we roamed the alleys of Kadıköy Market, my Turkish friend and fixer asked me if I had had one already and when I told her I hadn’t she changed her course, making a spontaneous B line to the nearest grilled fish vendor.
The sandwich can be traced back a few decades to when fishermen would sell their catch from the Bosphorus and Marmara Sea on boats near the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn. Some of the more enterprising of vendors decided to bring grills on deck and sell ready-to-eat sandwiches made from the only thing they had lying around, fresh fish. Pretty soon the trend caught on and the people of Istanbul picked their favorites. But then Turkey applied to the EU and balık ekmek was shunned for some time, along with all those other cheap, popular and wonderful street food snacks prepared under deplorable sanitary conditions. Turkey’s fishing industry also received a blow due to overfishing of the Bosphorus so that what did remain of this once popular snack had to be made with mackerel imported from Norway or Morocco. To this day you’ll be hard-pressed to find a place that sells fish from the Bosphorus. Even if you did, you probably wouldn’t want to eat it.
Nevertheless, the tradition survives and balık ekmek is still widely available around Istanbul. Some boats near Süleymaniye Mosque on the western side of the Galata Bridge still sell the sandwich, as do all the restaurants lining either side of the bridge. All seafood restaurants in general also carry it and it’s always the cheapest thing on the menu. Those seeking a more gourmet version are advised to head out to the Fatih side of the Ataturk Bridge. I’ve heard tell of a Kurd named Mercan there who even toasts the bread and adds tasty toppings like red cabbage and grilled hot peppers.
We got ours in Kadıköy at a cart where it cost 4 lira 50. As I stood watching the filets sizzle in their own oil against the screaming hot grill my friend asked the vendor where the fish came from. “Norway,” he confirmed. “There’s nothing good left in the Bosphorus. And you can’t each the shit they catch,” he said waving towards the bridge. “This is safer.” A little boy cut unapologetically in front of me in line, and as the man handed him an ekmek full o’ balık his face lit up in a magnificent smile. It’s beloved, this sandwich, in all of its street meat modesty.
My turn came; the vendor snatched a filet off the grill and stuffed it into a pre-sliced half-loaf of soft white bread. The fish got topped with chopped lettuce and onion. He wrapped it in a napkin and a paper bag, handing it to me without ever taking his eyes off my friend, with whom he was still deep in conversation. As they continued discussing the present state of the Turkish fishing industry I ripped away some excess bread and took my first bite. The fish was seasoned nicely with plenty of black pepper to round out the naturally oily, rich flavors of the mackerel. The skin side was grilled flat and crispy, crusted hardened with cooked seasoning. The opposite side yielded juicy flakes of fish flesh, fluffy soft and very moist. Lettuce and onion added a fresh crunch and zing, while the pillowy bread soaked up the excess oil from the grill. I was missing a sort of gravy to hydrate all that bread and to give each bite a tad more flavor; I was also surprised that a saucy cuisine like that of Turkey neglected to include one in its signature sandie. But it is what it is: a well seasoned and well cooked piece of fish wrapped around something edible to hold it in, for cheap.
Despite its changing reputation throughout the years, it’s clear that there remains a solid demand for balık ekmek around Istanbul. It wasn’t my favorite dish of the trip, but it’s worth a try if you’re hungry and have a spare 5 lira.