During our trip to Istanbul we had a lot of good meals but you don't always want the bother of finding a restaurant, sitting down and having a proper meal. Sometimes you just want something to 'grab and go' and my top recommendation for cheap, quick, food is to head to the south western side of the Galata Bridge in Eminomu and check out the boats selling 'Fish Bread' or Balik Ekmek.
The lower level of the bridge is lined with bars and restaurants and throngs with locals, attracted to the bustle and the better prices than in the more touristic areas. We were there at about six o'clock in the evening after taking a cruise on the river and the place was very lively. On the river bank we found a set of food stalls and the 'fish boats'. Each boat is moored on the water with a land based a seating area. Food is served straight to the customer from the floating kitchen. The kitchen boats are decked out in an oriental style that seems to be at odds with both their setting and their fare.
The principle is simple. Fishermen have been landing their catch at the bridge for many years. There's a fish market to the north-east side of the bridge and on the south west rn side, some entrepreneurial fishermen decided to convert their boats, cook the fish and sell it directly to the public. You can't get fresher and you can't get a simpler choice – it's easy 'Fish Bread' or 'Balik Ekmek' – they're exactly the same thing. And a fish bread will set you back 5 Turkish Lira (currently 2.8 TL to the Pound).
It's a very simple 'dish' – well it's not a 'dish' at all, it's a sandwich wrapped in paper. The men on the kitchen boats – and they are all men – must have cast iron stomachs to stand the constant bobbing and rocking of the boats and the overwhelming smell of grilling fish. The fish is out of the water, onto the catch boat and onto the grills in the kitchen boats without any hanging around, storage, or any chance to lose any of its freshness.
The fish boats really messed up our eating plans. We'd had lunch at about 3 o'clock and were planning for dinner around 7 in the evening. The worst possible preparation for that was going to be a massive fish bread at 6 o'clock but the food smelt so good and was so cheap that we had to experiment. My sister shot off through the crowds and returned with her fish bread which comprised of a massive chunk of soft bread stick (I would say baguette style but not baguette because it's soft and has no crispy crust) with a couple of mackerel-like fillets stuffed inside with a bit of lettuce. It really was that simple. We all picked at Aileen's roll and then my husband went and got one for the two of us.
It's the kind of fish you'd not normally imagine putting in a sandwich – strong, oily fish that's almost guaranteed to repeat on you for hours afterwards. The perfect accompaniment would have been a large, cold beer but these places don't serve alcohol. You'll need to go to one of the bars on the bridge to get that. Apparently you're supposed to drink 'pickle juice' with your fish bread and that explains why there were carts selling pickles in juice beside the fish bread seating areas. My sister bought a portion not knowing what it was and thinking it might be fruit salad. It was really unpleasant. You can of course get fish bread AND beer if you eat in one of the bars but somehow that's just not right. You really SHOULD eat off the fish boats and not from a bar.
The men working in this area dress in oddly pantomime-like clothes – bright colours, lots of gold braid and crazy style. It's a place of noise, colour, strong fishy smells, smoke and high energy. Even if you don't want to eat fish bread, it's still worth a visit to see what's happening, the take photos of the Suleymaniye Mosque on the hillside, to watch the sun go down (if you get the timing right) and to have a beer with the locals. Take a walk across the bridge and have a look at the fish market on the north side and then if you're full of beer and bread and can't face the walk back to your hotel, there's a tram stop on the line that runs up the coast towards Dolmabahce Palace or up the hill back to Sultanahmet.