LSF on tour: finding Turkish street food down a back alley in Istanbul

Emin Usta making his balek ekmek (fish sandwich) in Istanbul. Pic: Daisy Perkins

Emin Usta making his balek ekmek (fish sandwich) in Istanbul. Pic: Daisy Perkins

Last week my incredibly talented artist cousin/close friend/ultimate dance partner Daisy Perkins – who having just left Pakistan is currently sketching her way round Istanbul – sent me a message.

It said: “I just had the best fresh fish street food wrap that I think exists! It’s made with a lorra love (and a lorra time!) by this old man with a bushy moustache, cooking over a little BBQ. Utter heaven. And I thought of you and how I would totally accompany you back here for a foodie hunt (and chance to sketch).”

And I thought about it for a minute, and smiled, and wondered if I should start organising a trip to Istanbul in search of Turkish street food. But then I realised that my taking a trip soon was unlikely and anyway actually I really just wanted to hear the story in her own words. Even better, did she have any pictures?
Well, whaddyaknow! A few days later I got an email from my cousin filled with gorgeous pictures, a sketch she’d done quickly afterwards, and a wonderful description of her Turkish street food exploration.
So here goes. Told with her own words and pictures, here is Daisy’s story of finding a bloody good fish wrap in the back streets of Istanbul. Enjoy…
LSF
The Istanbul Balik Ekmek:  Treats from the Bospherous   
Word, art and pictures by Daisy Perkins
Down a back street and in a grafittied car park surrounded by dilapidated, decaying buildings lies one of Istanbul’s hottest finds. A little makeshift BBQ is home to what I swear is the best fish sandwich – balik ekmek – that Istanbul, or perhaps even anywhere else in the world, has to offer.
Charcoal sketch of the inimitable Emin Usta, a Turkish street food trader in Istanbul. Pic: Daisy Perkins

Charcoal sketch of the inimitable Emin Usta, a Turkish street food trader in Istanbul. Sketch and photo by Daisy Perkins

Emin Usta is a big man with a proud, bushy, drooping moustache. In between drags on a cigarette, he prods and pats mackerels over hot charcoal, before delicately de-boning each one. If a fish isn’t up to scratch it is discarded into the flames, and the process begins again. Slowly he puts the onions on to cook, sometimes a lemon, then the bread or wrap; this is a man confident in his art. And this sandwich is an art. He assembles it with generous amounts of leaves, sprinkling over mysterious herb concoctions, and sauces are lavishly squirted on top; then the sandwich goes back on the BBQ for the final heat-up, along with more lashings of herbs and sauces. This man practices generosity in his sandwiches.
The Istanbul balek ekmek (fish sandwich) in Istanbul. Pic: Daisy Perkins

The Istanbul balek ekmek (fish sandwich) in Istanbul. Pic: Daisy Perkins

The result is a masterful. The freshly cooked hot fish sandwich is a sensational delight, made better only by the wait and watching of its creation. So simple and just so… wonderful. It evokes a feeling with which many hardened street foodists will be familiar; the surprise and delight of a sensational dish served up from some grubby, unexpected backstreet.
To find Emin Usta’s stall, head to the Karakoy Waterfront, Persembepazari, Istanbul, Turkey.
To see more of Daisy Perkins’ art (and I recommend you do, because she’s brilliant) visit DaisyPerkins.com
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London Street Foodie is an ever-growing guide to the best places to eat London street food. There's a lot of street food waiting to be discovered right now; we'd like to help nudge you towards the good stuff.