In Istanbul, the city’s food scene tells hidden stories of exile. Here’s what I discovered on a refugee-led culinary tour of the Turkish metropolis.

By Richard Collett

“Culture is mix. Culture means a mix of things from other sources. And my town, Istanbul, was this kind of mix.”

Orhan Pamuk, Turkish writer. 

Mohamad Yaman fled his home in Aleppo, Syria, 11 years ago. He made the perilous journey to Istanbul, where he joined the ever-growing community of Syrian refugees struggling to get by in the sprawling Turkish city. 

Amongst the Syrian-run restaurants of Fatih, one of the city’s most historic districts, dishes like Kibbeh, Falafel, Fattoush and Hummus remained an edible, lasting link to a homeland he’d left behind. Fed by chefs longing for a country many can never return to, two years ago, Yaman led his first food tour through the Syrian community’s best cafes, restaurants and dessert parlours, showcasing a hidden side of Istanbul to hungry tourists looking to delve deeper into the city’s multicultural cuisine. 

I joined Yaman’s foodie tour of Fatih, the focal point for Syrians in Istanbul, on my last trip to Turkey in January 2024. I not only dug into a delightful diaspora of Syrian dishes but was introduced to a wider story of exile, in a city that’s welcomed refugees for centuries. 

Chickpea central in Buuzecedi Restaurant

The heavens had opened when I met Yaman outside Emniyet’s metro station in Fatih. Located on the European side of Istanbul – a few metro stops down the line from famous sights like the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque – tourists were sparse on the ground a tshe call to prayer rang dull through the pattering rain.

Yaman was holding a black umbrella above his balding hair, and his rotund build gave him the look of a man who enjoyed eating out. That was good, because Yaman would be my guide through the dishes, flavours and spices of Syrian cooking. We didn’t hang around outside for long, and before every inch of us was soaked through, Yaman led me to a cramped but lively restaurant on Akşemsettin Street where chefs were busy throwing flattened speres of dough into a tandoor-style oven by the entrance.

“This is Buuzecedi,” Yaman said as we sat down in a corner seat by a counter piled high with raw chickpeas. “A Syrian family originally started the restaurant in Damascus. Now, the son runs this restaurant here in Fatih.”

There were signs and menus in Arabic and Turkish, and many of the patrons were wearing the conservative dress of Syria (including Abayas and Burkas) rather than the more liberal, western style of clothing you see in other parts of Istanbul. The waiters wore baggy Syrian-style pantaloons complete with colourful waistcoats, a traditional contrast to the iPads they were busy taking orders from. 

“The restaurant is made to be nostalgic,” Yaman explained. “It reminds people of home. If you go to the same chain in Damascus, all you’ll find is a modern restaurant. It’s very different from the one here in Istanbul.”

‘When you come to my house, how much you eat is a measure of how much you love me.’

Syrian proverb.

As Yaman translated the menu for me, he explained how the cooking at Buuzecedi is simple, but like the décor, is intended to satisfy the Syrian community’s desire for traditional cuisine. “Buuzecedi is all about the chickpeas, beans and tahini,” Yaman said with relish as he explained the restaurant’s offerings to me. “The menu is really only just hummus, mutabal and falafel, but you can see how popular it is.”

A plate of pickles to start, followed by a platter of Syrian-style falafel (distinctively made with a hole in the middle, which provides a larger surface area for a crispier finish, I’m told) and bowls of mutabal (an eggplant dip) and foul (Arabic-style beans) only made us hungry for more. Yaman kept re-ordering his favourite items on the menu for us, including what seemed like an endless stream of hummus.

“We never make hummus at home,” he explained, as yet more hummus arrived, its texture silky soft, the oily surface lightly sprinkled with cumin. “It’s cheaper to buy out like this; it takes hours to boil the chickpeas to soften them. If you like the hummus, please finish, and then we can order another!” 

In the kitchen, falafel was constantly sizzling away in the friers, feeding the hungry diaspora that filled the little wicker chairs and low-lying tables of the restaurant. Yaman’s longing for home was clear as he wistfully looked at the bread on the table. “Bread is one of the biggest culture shocks for Syrians in Turkey,” he said with a sad smile. “The bread here doesn’t work so well. It’s great for soups, but it doesn’t bend or break like we Syrians want it to.”

Yaman told me his story as we dug into Fatteh, a dish piled with flatbread, chickpeas and tahini yoghurt. He arrived in Istanbul in 2013, after fleeing his home city of Aleppo to escape the war. Like so many, he made his way to Fatih, where an established Syrian community were welcoming refugees. The area is more conservative than other parts of Istanbul, and with a large, Arabic-speaking population, it was easier to integrate than elsewhere in the city. Yaman found work in the tourism industry thanks to his command of multiple languages, then he began hosting couch surfers in 2020. After taking several guests to his favourite food joints (where they loved the Syrian cuisine), he started organising what he called “more official tours”. Now, he’s leading tours not only as a way to showcase Syrian cuisine but as an opportunity for tourists to learn more about the Syrian diaspora that’s found itself in Istanbul. 

Read more: The Eastern Express: How I Survived Turkey’s Epic 26-Hour Train Ride

An exiled Syrian community in Istanbul

On the wall, as we left after paying the bill, Yaman pointed out a sign written in Arabic. “It’s a famous saying,” he translated, as we walked back out into the rain. “In Syria, we say: ‘When you come to my house, how much you eat is a measure of how much you love me.’ So, if you have a small bite, you don’t like me very much. If you eat the whole table, it means you love me!”

We’d eaten what felt like the whole table, but as we strolled up the street, I quickly spotted the same ‘Buuzecedi’ sign on the exterior of a red brick shopfront. Buuzecedi is so popular that a second branch of the same restaurant has opened just a short walk away, feeding the insatiable hunger of Syrian exiles, and increasingly, Turkish locals too.

It’s no surprise there’s such demand for Syrian cooking. Reuters estimates that some 3.3 million Syrians are living in Turkey, with as many as 532,000 living in Istanbul alone. Like Yaman, the vast majority fled Syria’s vicious Civil War, which broke out in 2011 and only really began to die down after the Idlib Ceasefire in 2020. Yaman lamented that the war has cost hundreds of thousands of lives, but little has changed, considering Bashar al-Assad still clings onto power.

Syrians like Yaman are caught between two worlds. The Turkish government aren’t particularly happy to have so many Syrian nationals living and working (often under the radar) in Turkey, and as we walked through Fatih’s ancient marketplace, where Syrian shopkeepers were whipping up smoothies and roasting chickens, he said that the community here is facing increasing discrimination from officials.

“I’m not sure if I can go back. But thank God, my family home is still there in Aleppo, it wasn’t destroyed.”

Mohamad Yaman.

“Look at the signage. The Turkish lettering is always larger than the Arabic script,” he said, pointing to a fast food joint that was simply named ‘Mr Food’. “Only twenty per cent of signage can legally be in Arabic script. Some shops have removed Arabic altogether. They fear for their safety; there are Turkish nationalists who don’t like it.”

The threat is all too real, given that political analysts believe Turkey’s far-right politicians are using the presence of so many refugees as a scapegoat for the nation’s ailing economy. The New Line Institute writes that in 2021, ‘82% of Turks want[ed] Syrians to be deported, up from 49% in 2017, and Syrian refugees in the country now report widespread and intensifying discriminations.’

Equally, many of the refugees are reluctant to leave Turkey. As we stood outside Fatih Mosque, a grand Ottoman building constructed after the Conquest of Constantinople in the 15th century, Yaman also explained how it’s very difficult – even life-threatening – for many Syrians to go back home. Even if hostilities have died down, young men fear being conscripted into the armed forces, while others will face consequences after fleeing to avoid military service. 

“I’m not sure if I can go back,” he told me. “But thank God, my family home is still there in Aleppo, it wasn’t destroyed.”

Read more: 18 Historic Places to Visit in Istanbul

Pizza, Pide and dessert in Zayar Oglu

Opposite the mosque, which was now lit up spectacularly as darkness had fallen on Fatih’s January streets, Yaman took us to Zayar Oglu, another of his favourite Syrian eateries. Behind a glass counter, trays of baklava and Syrian desserts glistened with sugar syrup under the light, while the smell of baking bread rolled through the restaurant. 

“This is primarily a bakery,” Yaman said, as he explained how the restaurant first opened in 1930, demonstrating the long-held ties between Turkey and Syria. “They do cookies and cakes, but they also do pizzas, bread and kebabs.”

Yaman ordered a selection of Syrian-style pizzas, round flatbreads topped with cheese, za’atar and sumac. I spotted a Turkish flag on the wall, and we followed the Syrian pizza with cheesy Pide (Turkish pizza) smothered in parsely. By now my stomach is cramping from the feast, but Yaman insisted that we could only be around “80% full,” so we must have room for dessert. 

He promptly ordered soft, colourful cakes similar to the Battambang we get in the United Kingdom. This was followed by Muhallebi, a creamy rice-pudding-like dessert and then a round of Kunefe, a cheesy, sugary dish popular across the Arab world. “The sugar and cheese,” said Yaman, as I reached bursting point. “They balance each other out deliciously.”

Read more: 14 Things to Do in Erzurum, Turkey

A history of exile in Istanbul

I said goodbye to Yaman as the rain continued to hammer down, and passed more Syrian supermarkets and falafel shops on my way back to the metro. Istanbul is no stranger to hosting exiled people, and indeed, the history of the Ottoman Empire was one of multiculturalism and diasporas. 

Yaman’s refugee-led food tour is just one of the many stories of exile and displacement that echo through the ancient streets of Istanbul. If you look deep enough amongst the city’s back alleys, you can still find the odd restaurant serving up the pickles and sardines of the ‘Rum’, the descendants of Istanbul’s original Byzantine inhabitants (the name ‘Rum’ is derived from ‘Roman’). Displaced by the Ottomans, the Rum arguably became exiles within their own city, and despite the vast Greek-Turkish population exchanges that followed the First World War, a few have still clung onto their culture and cuisine to this day.

In the 1860s, the Circassians, an ethnic group from the Caucasus Mountains and the Black Sea were forced out of their homes by the Imperial Russian Empire. They never returned, but today, their legacy lives on in Istanbul’s Circassian restaurants, including Ficcin, and their most famous dish, the Circassian Chicken, which is said to have been enjoyed by Ottoman Sultans. 

In the 1920s, many Russians escaped the Bolsheviks by fleeing to Istanbul. 1924 Istanbul was founded by Russian refugees and has since evolved into a Michelin-guide restaurant a century later. Uigher restaurants now abound in Istanbul, while Syrian and Palestinian restaurants are found on every other corner across the city. Despite the current concerns raised by Yaman and the Syrian community, historically, Istanbul was always a tolerant city, a city that thrived on its diversity.

As the Istanbul writer Orhan Pamuk once said, “Culture is mix. Culture means a mix of things from other sources. And my town, Istanbul, was this kind of mix.” As I jumped off the metro in Sultanhamet, full of hummus and flush with stories of Syria after Yaman’s tour, I hoped that this “mix” continues, long into the future.

Read more: Is Turkey in Europe or Asia? Everything You Need to Know.

You can book Yaman’s Syrian Food Tour through Air BnB experiences.