Turkey is by no means notoriously gluten-free friendly. Upon traveling to Istanbul, I was unsure of which Turkish delicacies I'd be able to indulge on. In the land of kebabs and baklava, I was afraid of arriving with an empty stomach and failing to find anything safe for Celiacs. Thankfully, with a little bit of research and a lot of help from the friendly Turkish people, I was able to taste my way through Istanbul one gluten-free bite at a time.
First and foremost, if you are traveling to Istanbul and have Celiac Disease or a gluten intolerance, I highly recommend printing out a Turkish gluten-free restaurant card like this one to give to your waiters at restaurants. I didn't find any eateries in Istanbul that had special gluten-free menus, and not every waiter knows what gluten is. Using this card helped me enjoy traditional Turkish treats without ever getting sick.
Though finding a gluten-free breakfast in Istanbul is a difficult feat, thankfully it's not impossible. Our breakfast buffet at Big Apple Hostel included a myriad of naturally gluten-free goodies such as yogurt with honey, sweet jams, grilled bell peppers, feta, cucumber, fruit, olives, meats and cheeses. I recommend booking a hotel or hostel where a similar spread is offered, because the chances of finding a gluten-free breakfast at a nearby bakery or café are rather slim.
A Döner Kebab without bread
When in Turkey, do as the Turkish do... meaning, eat kebabs! I had no problem ordering this famous dish without the flatbread. Döner meat - lamb, beef, pork or chicken roasted vertically on a spit and shaved into thin slices - is generally gluten-free, but always ask your waiter about it just in case. Combined with some hummus, Tzatziki sauce, eggplant and French fries, this dish is an economical way to send your taste buds to Turkish heaven.
The quest for kumpir
One of the Turkish friends we met suggested that we venture down to the waterfront near Beşıktaş for the street food, namely the stuffed baked potatoes called kumpir. Kumpir is a street food staple in Istanbul, notorious for its mind-boggling array of toppings and endless combinations of flavors. We loaded our potatoes with corn, sour cream, butter, cheese, pickled beets, olives, tomatoes and other colorful garnishes.
We got ridiculously lost trekking to this area from Taksim Square, and we were caught off guard by how far away it was. But without a doubt, these baked potatoes were worth it! To find these savory spuds, wander down to Beşıktaş - one of the stops for most popular Bosphorus river cruises (just east of Dolmabahçe Palace). You can find them in the covered area of food stalls across from the Beşıktaş docks and the BeerPort. Apparently, you can find more kumpir stands near the Ortaköy Mosque as well.
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire...
If you get the munchies near Taksim Square, be sure to snack on some roasted chestnuts from the street vendors! Wash it down with some tart pomegranate juice for a truly refreshing treat. Or, pick up some dried fruit and nuts from Istanbul's Spice Bazaar to take with you as you explore the city. The delectable pistachios, hazelnuts, dates and figs make for the perfect gluten-free snack on the go!
Freshly squeezed pomegranate juice
Dried fruit and nuts from the Spice Bazaar
Lamb tomato stew from Palatium
Though finding a gluten-free dinner in Istanbul requires a bit of patience, it's worth any extra effort.
Meze, or appetizers, can easily be made gluten-free. I recommend starting with a plate of dolma, or stuffed grape leaves with rice and herbs. When ordering your main course, be weary of soups, stews and meatballs. When in doubt, show your waiter your restaurant card! Also be sure to stay away from rice pilaf, because it almost always has orzo in it.
I had great luck eating at Palatium, located above the ruins of the Great Palace of Constantinople. I loved their lamb tomato stew so much, I went there twice! All I had to do was order it without the bread. Overall, the waiters at Palatium were incredibly patient and accommodating.
(But a word for the wise: as picturesque as they may be, do not sit in the beanbag chairs... unless you want to leave the restaurant with a few flea bites. Yuck!)
One of the best meals I had in Istanbul was at Imbat, on the top floor of the Orient Express Hotel. As one of Istanbul's top rated restaurants on Tripadvisor, Imbat did not disappoint! The staff was very knowledgable about which dishes contained gluten, and they even offered me gluten-free bread (that tasted surprisingly normal). I ordered the baked leg of lamb slices marinated with milk, onion and paprika and served with Aegean rice, and now I just want to go back in time and relish this meal again.
Sky rockets in flight, Turkish Delight
For dessert, you can't go wrong with some classic lokum, or Turkish Delight. Because Turkish Delight is made from corn starch, it is naturally gluten-free. The best Turkish Delight I found was from the Spice Bazaar and Hafiz Mustafa near the Blue Mosque. At Hafiz Mustafa, we savored rose, pomegranate and pistachio lokum in their elegant sitting room alongside piping hot cups of sweet apple tea and black çay tea. The delightful flavors and ambiance made me forget about all of the baklava I was missing out on!
Savoring apple and çay tea with a view at Charm Hotel's rooftop lounge
Although I thought being a Celiac would hinder me from experiencing traditional Turkish cuisine, I was surprised by how much of it I got to enjoy in Istanbul. Though it took some effort, I left Istanbul with a happy heart and a full belly!
Do you have any food allergies or intolerances?
How do you survive them while traveling?
How do you survive them while traveling?