Memorable Fried Mackerel Sandwiches from Istanbul

Istanbul-fried mackerel at Galata bridge (00)

fried mackerel sandwiches sold from the boat by the Galata bridge

One of the great cities of the Mediterranean is Istanbul, known as Constantinople before the Ottoman Turks took it in 1453.

Even in the Middle Ages, as well as today, Istanbul had a reputation among Western travelers for marvelous fish, the splendor of its fisheries of Stamboul and Galata, and the quality of the species available to buy. A modern traveler can walk down to the Kumkapı Balik Hali to witness the variety of fish or sit down in any of the fish restaurants in the Kumkapı area, or have a fried uskumru (mackerel) sandwich prepared by the boatmen near the Galata bridge on the Eminönü side–one of the most memorable foods I ate in Turkey. At the Galata bridge, the bridge that spans the Golden Horn in Istanbul and first built in the sixth century, is now a modern bridge, the famous old pontoon bridge having burned down somewhat recently. At the water’s edge, boats are tied up where men sell fried mackerel sandwiches. The cooks in the boats had a large pan filled with some sunflower seed oil and they were frying up mackerel fillets. Customers leaned over giving their money and asking for 1, 2, or 3 fish fillets for their sandwiches. These sandwiches were delicious in loaves of crusty bread with soft white insides. We put some raw sliced onions on with salt with the golden fillets of mackerel, all very fresh.

Some 45 years after I ate them for the first time, I still remember the experience. The weather was windy and cold, the sea choppy, the skies grey, so this tasted all the better. There were about 4 or 5 men on the bobbing boat taking orders and cooking. There were lots of men around eating and watching. Across the Golden Horn was the Galata Tower, an Istanbul landmark, built by the Genoese in 1348. Ferries were lined up destined for various little ports on the Bosphurus.

But we should remember the words of the French historian Fernand Braudel concerning this sight at Galata which we can witness even today: Mais si le spectacle laisse un souvenir aussi vivace, n’est-ce pas parce qu’il est rarissime? (But if the spectacle leaves a lively memory, isn’t that because it is so rare?).

Istanbul-Galata Tower Galata (00)

Gold Horn and the Galata Tower in Istanbul

There is much to this insight. In fact, as I think about it after a lifetime of traveling in the Mediterranean, I decided to write about it because it is still vivid in my memory, and yet, so rare a memory and a sight.

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