Eating (Adventurously) in Izmir
Updated: Jul 30, 2022
Anytime you visit a new town – especially a seaside one in another country – trying the local food is always a highlight of the first few days. Izmir, Turkey would be no different. But, it’s also not a binary thing, that is, eat American food, or eat “foreign” food. A spectrum exists, with some things just a little more exotic than say, a good pasta in Italy, and we’d definitely slide pretty far out on that spectrum.
Söğüş – “I Have an Idea”
Our first full day in Izmir, talking about what we’d do for lunch, Jenna led with “I have an idea…”
As she’d taken point on most of our research about the city, Chipp deferred and went with this somewhat vague comment. But, in an interesting relationship dynamic, he didn’t blindly cede control.
Here’s how these situations typically unfold. Jenna, who has a “maximizing” (read: “borderline compulsive”) approach to researching things before committing, also tends to be somewhat, say, navigationally challenged. So, after devoting a fair amount of time to travel blogs, TripAdvisor threads, and other general area research, Jenna will pick out a restaurant, show it to Chipp on the map, and let him take point on actually getting there (a questionable approach in and of itself, what with the whole “can’t spell lost without LT” joke about Marine Corps officers).
With this as background, Chipp knew the destination included the word “söğüş” (so-yoush) but not much else. Naturally, he was somewhat surprised (appalled?) to get to a streetside café, look into its glass display, and see dozens of some-kind-of-smaller-animal brains and other-unable-to-confirm-the-specific-anatomy-type innards laid out next to mounds of tomatoes, red onions, and parsley.
Enter söğüş, an Izmir street-food specialty. Turkish for “cold cut,” söğüş consists of somehow-preserved (pickled maybe?) cold sheep’s brain, tongue, and cheek, all diced up and mixed together. Then, this combination is totally coated in a finely ground spicy pepper seasoning, mixed up with a bunch of fresh tomato, onion, and parsley, and wrapped into lavash.
Verdict? There’s definitely a mental hurdle to overcome eating cold brains, but once you tackle that, söğüş is a delicious, spicy snack that, when in Izmir, you absolutely need to try. And, as an added perk, you definitely get some nods of approval from locals when they see you giving their local favorite a shot.
Reining It in with Some Turkish Mussels
To not go completely off the rails, we paired our söğüş with something a little less adventurous – just in case we couldn’t stomach the wraps.
All over coastal Turkey, you see street-food vendors and outdoor cafes with big displays of Turkish mussels, and we’d definitely developed a fondness for them during our time in Istanbul. After they’re steamed, the mussels are removed, little scoops of seasoned rice are added into the shells, and the mussels are placed back on top of the rice. Take a plate of them, douse them all in fresh lemon juice, and pop ‘em into your mouth – no work necessary.
Delicious, and the Turkish versions definitely fill you up more than mussels on their own. We never went full-gluttony with them, but primed with a few beers, you could probably take down dozens of these guys.
Kokoreç – Nothing Like a Little Tasty Intestine
While not as far out the exotic spectrum as cold sheep’s brains, kokoreç (koh-kah-rich) is definitely beyond mussels and rice. And, whereas söğüş requires overcoming the idea that you’re eating cold brains, you have to get over the fact that you’re eating an adorable baby lamb with this dish (sorry, Lamb Chop fans).
Kokoreç takes baby lamb’s sweetbread, small intestines, and large intestines, wraps them all together into a long, sausage-looking meat bomb, and slides this amalgamation onto a skewer. It’s then slow cooked over open coals for hours, crisping up into a this-looks-like-bacon-but-is-actually-intestine outside, and the inside turning into a deliciously tender snack.
When you order a kokoreç sandwich, the cook slices a circular portion of the meat cigar off the end, dices it up, mixes in some spices, and throws it onto what seems like a full loaf of bread. The diced-up meat is absolutely mouth-watering, but Chipp’s argument is that this thick bread almost dilutes the meaty deliciousness too much – in retrospect, should’ve found the Turkish words to order it served in a wrap, instead.
Or, if you magically transported kokoreç to an American “greasy spoon,” it’d be some kind of wonderful mixed into an omelet and paired with a massive heap of home fries. We can dream, right?
No Menu, Some Charades, and Fresh Fish
For context here, we’ve settled into a weekly food routine while traveling. When we get to a new place, we find a grocery store, get some coffee, eggs, fresh fruit/veggies, cheese, and cold cuts and do breakfast at home. During the week, after working for a few hours, we go out for a big late afternoon lunch and explore, which holds us over through the night. But, on the weekends, we try to do one or two proper dinners out – far more reasonable with overseas cost of living – and a nice treat to look forward to.
Going back to Jenna’s “in-depth” research, she’s found a pretty solid technique for finding awesome local restaurants for these dinners. On TripAdvisor, you can filter reviews by language (in this case, Turkish). Search for local restaurants and find the intersection between A) good ratings, and B) predominantly local language reviews. Thought process – these are the places that cater to discerning locals, not out-of-towners falling victim to tourist traps.
Our first weekend in Izmir, we ended up at a waterfront seafood restaurant found with this methodology – dozens of great reviews, and all of them in Turkish. It would not disappoint.
We showed up on a Saturday night, and the front patio was absolutely swamped – no chance of eating there without a reservation. Fortunately, they were able to seat us at a tiny table wedged into the back of the indoor dining room – no views, but the food would be more than worth it.
When our waiter came to the table, clearly surprised to have a couple English speakers in the restaurant, he used a combination of broken English and Charades to let us know that they didn’t use menus, miming for us to follow him into the kitchen. Somewhat confused, we followed.
Back in the kitchen, there was a massive display case somewhat like a mix between a high-end grocery store’s olive bar and salad bar. Apparently, these were the starters. Not having any idea what they actually were, we pointed to a few different dishes.
Next, as we moved back into the dining area, we stopped by a big tank of fish – live, swimming fish. Clearly, we were supposed to pick one. Once again, without any real idea what we were looking at, we asked for some sort of white fish, which our guy seemed to understand.
As we sat down to our recently delivered starters – delicious, but still no idea what they were – our waiter pulled on some elbow-high rubber gloves, reached into the tank, and grabbed what would, in short order, become our dinner. Incredible.