"Baaaaaaalık Ekmek! Baaaaaaalık Ekmek!" men shout from on, under and around the Galata Bridge. Rhythmic and powerfully loud, it's like a call to pray for this agnostic pescetarian. The shouting hits the ears at right about the same moment the smell of grilling fish reaches the nostrils. The taste buds want desperately to join in on the fun. Sure, kebabs and köfte may be synonymous with "Turkish street food," but a seaside stroll with balık ekmek in hand is quintessentially "Istanbul."
Istanbul is surrounded by water about as much as a place can be without being rendered an island. The European side and the Asian side are both peninsulas, with the Bosphorus Strait between them, connecting the Black and Marmara Seas and dividing the continents. On the European side, another smaller peninsula is carved out by the Golden Horn, which is what the Galata Bridge spans. Men cast their lines in this water all day long, even more so around noon - which makes me wonder how many bring their rods and buckets to work with them. Five liter bottles of water are used to keep their catch alive and on display.
We discovered what "fish bread" really meant back in Eceabat - and it was a lesson well learned. There, a fresh batch of battered and fried sardines filled the hunk of grilled bread. In Istanbul, grilled mackerel is the thing. For all the different balık ekmek vendors there are, I was a little surprised none went for something different. But that's actually part of the charm. It's like they're all part of this society of fish sandwichiers with a decided upon formula. Recipe: a quarter loaf of bread, split and grilled, a medium sized de-boned fillet, some roughage (greens, carrots, onion), grilled peppers and the offer of a lemon squeeze or salt. Price: five lira.
This is not to say that some bargaining doesn't take place - it is Istanbul. We bypassed this vendor on our first night even though he had some tomatoes added to his mix, something that intrigued us. He was busy trying to decide upon a price with these women, who wound up walking away empty handed. Maybe they were actually his wife and daughter, trying to get him to pack it in for the night and come home. It's tough to tell. I've really only mastered the words "fish" and "bread" so far.
As ferries bring daily commuters from the Asian suburbs to their European offices and dinner cruises travel the Bosphorus with tourists, a number of boats rock back and forth at the docks. In from a day of fishing, the grills are set up and a blinking "Balık Ekmek" sign may be plugged in. This two man operation had set up a few round tables outside on more steady ground, complete with red and white checked plastic table clothes and a squeeze bottle of lemon juice on each. Who needs food trucks when you have food boats or farm-to-table when you have caught-cleaned-and-cooked?
Then, there is the line of fish restaurants on the lower level of Galata Bridge. Same formula, same price whether you take it to stay or to go. This man made our best balık ekmek so far. Attached to a restaurant (we gave our money to his "friend," a waiter) his turnover was higher, which meant filets hadn't been drying out over coals for as long. The bread was grilled in a sandwich press, which made it easier to get our mouths around and his salad component had a nice dose of red cabbage. He was, rightfully, proud.