Shopping at the Istanbul Spice Bazaar 101

Spice stand at the Istanbul Spice Bazaar

Spice stand at the Istanbul Spice Bazaar

There are many bazaars and market places to explore in Istanbul. One of the most popular and well known is the Spice Bazaar. While many markets have a shop or two selling spices, there is a certain magic that the Spice Bazaar possesses. Also known as the Egyptian Bazaar, since it initially was economically sustained by the fees placed on Egyptian goods, it was built in 1660 as part of the New Mosque complex. Around the time of its establishment, the market was conveniently situated at the end of many trade routes. In addition to spices (which were the main commodity) it sold various goods and rarities from across the globe. Today, the bazaar is geared towards tourists, but it never fails to be a crowd pleaser. It is certainly nothing like buying a container of spices at the grocery store. As those who have been inside and shopped at the Spice House know, buying your spices fresh from specialists is an experience not to be missed! For those who have not been to the Spice Bazaar, and or have not yet visited one of our Spice House locations here is what you need to know to shop like a pro.

Tip 1: Who goes to the Spice Bazaar?

Tourists make up the vast majority of the patrons as many flock to find gifts for friends and family. However, you will see Istanbul locals passing through and carrying on with their routine including men with trays swiftly maneuvering through the crowds to deliver teas and coffees. You will see the bargaining that goes on between merchants and you will observe some of the cleverest methods to lure people into shops.

Tip 2: What can you find at the Spice Bazaar?

The market offers a lot of desired treats and gifts. You can find nuts and dried fruit, sweet confections (especially Turkish delight) and various souvenirs around every turn. However, the herbs and spices are the real show stealers. There is nothing quite like being surrounded by clusters of stands and displays of jewel colored spices and their enticing aromas. The spice merchants make sure the mounds of their products, usually arranged neatly into pyramids, are in easy view of shoppers.

Tip 3: What spices are sold?

As a spice market, almost any pure herbs and spices you can name are sold. Naturally, those that are considered “classic” to Turkish cuisine such as cumin, sumac, cinnamon/cassia and dried oregano are readily available. Numerous varieties of chile flakes can be found (the difference between them can become very confusing, especially since the same chile may be labeled by a different name from store to store). They are crucial to Turkish cuisine, and finding a good chile pepper is worth the search and tastings. Some of the names will be unfamiliar to an American, but the product will generally be recognizable. For example, the spice labeled as “Indian saffron” or curcuma is none other than our good friend turmeric.

The market is also known for its blends, sometimes referred to as “Ottoman spices” due to their attempt at replicating “Ottoman recipes”. While locals prefer to make their own mixes, the market’s blends are popular amongst tourists because they are flavorful and user friendly. They are typically named for specific uses such as “Ottoman chicken spice”, salad spice or soup spice. Each vendor will most likely have a blend for kofte (Turkish meat balls) which commonly have cumin (a classic spice for kofte). You might be surprised by the more “foreign” blends offered including “Indian curry” (frequently a turmeric based mix) and Ras El Hanout (a North African blend). It just goes to show how various influences continue to develop within Turkish cuisine.

Dried fruit stand at the Istanbul Spice Bazaar

Dried fruit stand at the Istanbul Spice Bazaar

Tip 4: The shopping experience

Every spice shop has employees to assist customers throughout the entire process including sampling (which is highly encouraged), providing information (some stores are better with spice novices and tourists than others) and measuring out the product. Customers may also be offered tea while shopping, especially since most spice stores also sell tea. While friendly, customer service at the Spice Bazaar (and elsewhere in Istanbul) is typically very targeted and the sales pitch is hard.

Tip 5: Enjoy and take it all in…oh and make sure you get a sample of Turkish delight from one of the confectionary shops (no further details needed)!

Chile Peppers In Turkey

Chile peppers hold a very special place in Turkish cuisine. Varying in flavor and heat levels, they are frequently sprinkled onto dishes at the end of cooking and offered as condiments. Their hot red peppers, while providing heat do not by any means compare to Ghost Chiles on the Scoville scale (the chiles I discuss below do not even rival cayenne in heat). In Turkey, chiles are typically used in savory dishes, especially meat dishes; however, Turkish peppers are very versatile and compliment many dishes ranging from vegetables to soups. After Christopher Columbus discovered chile peppers in the New World (in a failed attempt to find westward routes to India for peppercorns) the use of chiles was adopted by cultures across the globe. Introduced to present day Turkey via Greece, Anatolia (the Asian side of Turkey) provided dry, warm and fertile soil that was very hospitable to chiles. Certain areas of Turkey such as Maras (pronounces Marash) and Urfa became known for their peppers. There are so many chile peppers (and different names by which they can be labeled) that it can be rather tricky to navigate your way through them. Below, I have attempted to scratch the surface by selecting three very specific chile peppers; the pul, maras and urfa peppers (or as they call peppers in Turkey biber); as well as generically reviewing paprika (which is complicated in its own way). These are popular chiles that are commonly found throughout Istanbul.

Pul Biber at a spice shop in the Istanbul Spice Bazaar

Pul Biber at a spice shop in the Istanbul Spice Bazaar

Pul biber is a common red chile found in Istanbul spice shops. It is also called, and more commonly known in the US, as Aleppo pepper. This fruity chile offers a moderate heat level and has a beautiful red hue. This pepper has become increasingly popular within America. It has served me well as a reliable “go to” whenever a Turkish recipe calls for red pepper and I personally favor it over standard crushed red pepper.

Maras biber is another red chile pepper that is sometimes referred to as Turkish red pepper. Similar in flavor to pul biber and of a medium heat level, it is frequently used throughout Turkey. Many restaurants have small dishes of maras biber on the table alongside the salt and pepper. Many list it as a must for kebabs and kofte (Turkish meatballs).

Urfa biber flakes have a beautiful dark color (almost black) with purple hues. At some Istanbul spice shops, you may find it labeled as “black chile pepper”. While it is a red pepper, the dried Urfa chile develops its darker coloring during the drying process. Its flavor is mildly smoky, with raisin tones and its heat level is medium. While popular in savory dishes in Turkey, many are touting its use in desserts and sweet dishes, including pairing it with chocolate. I am very fond of Urfa pepper and particularly enjoy it on eggplant.

Hot paprika at a spice shop in Istanbul

Hot paprika at a spice shop in Istanbul

This might be a surprise to you, but paprika really is a chile pepper and it is popular in Turkish cuisine. Used when a sweeter and milder flavor is desired over red pepper flakes, paprika‚Äôs’ heat level and strength can vary between regions in Turkey. One fun tale, for all you romantics, about how paprika came to be in Hungary involves the Ottoman Empire. As the story goes, during the Ottoman domination of Hungary, a Turkish pasa (a Turkish man of prominence, pronounced pasha) fell for a beautiful Hungarian woman and moved her to his harem (forcing her to leave behind her Hungarian lover). This harem had a garden in which red peppers, used by the Turks as a spice, grew. The woman took seeds from these peppers and gave them to her lover who she met using a secret passage. Her lover planted the seeds which eventually spread all throughout Hungary.

It is impossible not to be exposed to chile peppers when eating Turkish dishes. A crucial element in Turkish food, it took root in Turkey’s cuisine as perfectly as it did in Turkey’s soil.