“It’s our hamburger. It’s small and it’s wet,” said my new Turkish friend. We had spent the day roaming the narrow alleys of Kadıköy Market on the Asian side of Istanbul, and I had stuffed my face with room temperature street mussels, minced meat flatbreads and a sketchy looking sandwich made with frozen fish from Norway. I had a half-hour before I needed to be on the ferry, crossing the Bosphorus back to the hotel from where a cab would deliver me to Ataturk airport. I had time for just one more thing. She said, “It has to be an ıslak burger. It’s something you must try.”
“But what is it exactly?” I inquired as she rushed me through döner stands, bakeries and busy carts of fragrant street meat. She looked back and winked, “You’ll see soon, my friend.”
The ıslak burger is a despicable dish that hides during the day, shielding its ugly from sunshine and sobriety. In the freshness of daytime it crawls underground and patiently awaits the darkness, the booze, the glittering promise of a night out in Istanbul. It strikes at 3 or 4 or 5 a.m., when the stomach of a city rumbles, when rakı and bile need soaking up, when bodies must refuel to keep moving or to accept sweet repose and the inevitable hangover. It strikes hard at a stand called Kızılkayalar in Taksim Square, where the late night lights perhaps shine hardest. When peering through booze-goggles the monster appears the sexiest little thing, one full of promise for good times ahead. But alas, I had walked right by the stand the night before without noticing the crowd of desperados huddled around it. We got ours on a sunny afternoon at late-night fast-food haven Bambi Cafe. They were noticeably surprised that I ordered the beast in the light of day.
It’s a burger. It’s a slider, actually. It’s a small burger. The bun is fluffy, the patty is chewy and suspect. It’s the sketchy $1 burger you find on the streets of pretty much any city at this point. But here it is soaked completely through. It’s soaked in an ultra oily, garlic-infused, tomato-based sauce with the sweetness of ketchup mixing with the spiciness of who knows what. Buns lose all structural integrity as they quite willingly sip up all the greasy goodness. The burgers are piled high and locked into a steam chamber, which my Turkish friend joked is a burger hamam. The thing swells with moisture and your fingers sink through sodden, wet bread before reaching the thin layer of rubbery meat. I downed a whole carton of Ayran (a delightful yoghurt beverage popular in Turkey) before picking up what felt like a dense, wet fetus in both hands.
Every bite felt like breaking a law. It was soft, too soft. There was no obstruction, no need for jaw work. It was salty, spicy with a rotten sweetness interwoven with the funky, old odor of dirty grease. It was slimy. Each mouthful dropped like a dense rock into my stomach, to remain there undigested for hours. My daytime body, fresh from the Marmara Pera gym and relaxed from a soapy, fragrant Turkish bath, rejected it violently. And the thought of sitting on ferry, taxi and plane for the 6 hours that followed consuming the entire slider haunted me. It was best not to indulge. After three bites I looked up at my friend apologetically and pushed the tray away.
But what a fool I had been to not try it the night before, when my body was being dragged through the nightlife of Taksim and the lights seemed shinier, the smiles stupider, dreamier, more honest! My stomach would have kowtowed in praise and gratitude, desperately thanking my hands and brain for coordinating the exchange of a meagre 2 lira for this sodden handful of juicy, meaty pleasure. I would’ve order 2 or maybe 3 and I would’ve had no regrets in the morning. I had nothing but regrets eating it sober.
CONCLUSION: The ıslak of Istanbul is a creature of the night, one best left concealed in the light of day. It’s a soaked, slimy, ugly little beast that effortlessly becomes your best friend in the late hours of a night out but leaves you hanging, racked with self-pity in the morning. Nobody ever says, “Hey, wanna grab an ıslak burger for lunch?” And with good reason. A definite drunk must-try, but a sober dont-bother.