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)!

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