You can’t call it a night out in Istanbul if you don’t end it with an islak burger. Turkey’s answer to New York’s pizza slices or London’s fried chicken wings is a succulent patty of ground beef cooked in milk, garlic, and mint, covered up in tomato sauce, and slapped in the middle of a soft golden bun.
Cooking them is easy. Once the islak burgers are ready, they are put on a tray and placed in a glass box shaped like an old school popcorn machine that looks like it came from an Iowa county fair. Underneath the glass box, a boiling pot of water gives off a steam flow that keeps the islak burgers warm and drenched in garlic fumes.
Islak is Turkish for wet.
The islak burger joints worth a visit in Istanbul are at the top of Istikal, Istanbul’s main street at the corner of Taksim, the central square where the occupy Gezi protest kicked off in May 2013.
The most well-known islak joint around town is Kizilkaya, so I had to stop by. When I arrive, Hasan, the islak guru, is hard at work hastily moving the burgers around to make sure that the bottom doesn’t burn and all the parts are just as wet.
Inside the establishment, it feels like getting hot-boxed by garlic. I pay the equivalent of a dollar for my islak as Hasan hands it over to me. As I bite into the soft, warm bread, the texture mixes with the hot tomato sauce while the strong garlic taste of the meat adds a layer of density that leaves you yearning for more.
There is something amazing about the simplicity of the islak burger that puts regular burgers to shame. First of all, there’s the bun. On a classic burger, it’s too hard compared to the delicious mush that’s inside it. Second, there are times when there is really too much stuff inside the bun.: tomatoes, ketchup, onions, and lettuce, to say the least. Simple is good, and the islak burger does this just right. I’m not suggesting that hamburgers should be replaced, but the Turkish version is a pretty valid alternative.
There is only one problem with it: It’s too small.
I get up to order another one, but my guide stops me. “We shouldn’t eat too much here,” she says. “Why?” I ask. Progressive youngsters started boycotting Kizilkaya since the owner kicked out a number of Occupy Gezi protestors that were hiding in his shop from the police during a protest. And as if that was not enough, he later tweeted in support of the government and called for the protestors to be “kicked out of Istanbul.”
So we head out in search of the next great islak joint. Bambi café, located a sneeze around the corner, is a Turkish chain mostly known for its late night junk food. Adin, a young waiter, serves me and mentions that the origins of islak burgers were created right in Taksim square in the 60s by the owner of Kristal buffet, a restaurant that is long gone because of the city’s effort to rebuild and rebrand itself as the Middle East’s capital.
“We usually eat islak with ayran or lemon juice. Do you want to try?” He asks. I pick the first and it doesn’t sound like anything I tried before. It’s a cold, watery yogurt-based beverage with a salty twang to it. But if you think it sounds terrible, you are wrong. Ayran is thick and fresh, and each sips seems to refresh your palate and prepare it to enjoy the next bite as if it was the first.
Our next stop is Cılgın, the joint right next to Kizilkaya. We’re here because we want to catch some gossip about its more successful neighbour. No chance. There is a mutual respect, or as people I that I talk to call it the “Turkish way of doing business” between neighbouring businesses competing for the same client base. The shopkeeper, Murat, also tells us that islak burger makers are mostly from the same region next to the Black Sea, the same place where the islak recipe comes from.
Today, Turkey is a much more liberal country then it used to be in the 60s when islak was invented. Today, it’s the staple food that takes care of the drunk crowd that stumbles out of the hundreds of bars, restaurants, and clubs around Istikal. I ask Murat if any drunk person has ever competed on the number of islak burgers they can crush in one sitting. “Just last night, two drunk guys bet they could eat 14 each. They stopped at five … but the record is 22…It happened a few years ago. I still remember it.”
This article was written for Vice