Balik ekmek

Balik ekmek, the fishermen’s meal

Balik ekmek is one of the most popular street food in Turkey. With balik ekmek we simply mean bread and fish and this sandwich is particularly popular in coastal areas: it was the fishermen’s meal. The fish – usually mackerel – is roasted (sometimes fried) on a hot grill, greased with extra virgin olive oil. On the same grill the bread is heated so that, at the same time, it gains flavor. Finally, the sandwich is stuffed with salad, onion, tomatoes and a squeeze of lemon. In some places on request you can add chilli, peppers and paprika.

What is Balik Ekmek?

The Istanbul fish sandwich was invented around the middle of the 19th century, when freshly caught fish from the Bosphorus was grilled and served on bread in the shore. In those days, fishermen built small grills directly on their boats to serve the public. In the 1990s, balık ekmek continued to be popular in the former fishing quarters of the Bosphorus. Many of the city’s oldest seafood restaurants began as moored boats serving a few tables on the shore.

After the late 1950s, the effects of industrialization, urbanization and rapid population growth hit the fishing industry. Fish stocks have decreased while demand has increased. Nowadays, Istanbul’s fishermen are unable to make a living and the famous fish within the balık ekmek is often imported due to the high demand and high price of local fish.

There are still a few places where you can eat authentic balık ekmek, a long way from the Ottoman-decorated Eminönü boat restaurants that aim to attract tourists. In Beykoz, Muradoğlu Balık Ekmek has a few wooden tables and chairs and no cutlery, because the main portion is fresh fish served in a sandwich and nothing else. In Yeniköy, Taka Balık Ekmek is also a great place right near the Bosphorus to eat an ekmek balık which is fresh and authentic.

fish sandwich in Turkey
fish sandwich in Turkey

How to make Balik Ekmek at home

Prepare the fish – Our mackerel is simply marinated with olive oil, a little chilli and paprika, sumac and minced oregano and parsley. Mix everything together, spread it over the fish and prepare the grill!

Preparing the salad – Balik Ekmek is made differently from stall to stall in Istanbul. Some serve fish with a little lettuce and nothing else, others add huge handfuls of tomatoes, fresh herbs and grilled peppers. We chose a nice middle ground, adding a few slices of tomato, a little lettuce and a fresh shallot to our sandwich.

Preparing the bread – If you don’t grill the bread, it can be a bit soggy and mushy, so what we like to do is brush the bread with olive oil and grill it alongside the fish until it is crisp. Giulio loves taking the crumb out of his sandwiches, which is what he did to these sandwiches before I could stop him! He is the son of a baker! what do you expect?