Often erroneously referred to as another version of steak tartare, the çiğ köfte (raw meatball) is constantly underestimated with its fiery spice, sweet yet sour pomegranate molasses, and it’s smooth texture.
Finely grounded fatless lamb, bulgur, onions, garlic, tomato, and hot pepper paste is treated with extremely hot spices (isot, pul biber) and kneaded until the lamb is cured (cooked) by these hot spices. As a result, it should be consumed fresh and can’t be stored overnight. This delicious food is usually wrapped in lettuce and eaten with a squeeze of lemon, and you can also have it wrapped in lavash bread. With its wavy hair and lovely lettuce coat, this dish is a tradition amongst Turks, Armenians, and Arabs.
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Çiğ köfte is sold all around Istanbul and is one of Turkey’s most famous street foods, but the original recipe above has been banned for commercial mass production due to health reasons.
Nowadays, in Istanbul, nearly all the Çiğ köfte places you will stumble upon prepare the dish without meat, making it a fantastic vegan food (yet not authentic).
However, few restaurants use raw minced meat, and, just as per tradition, they only use the highest-quality meat with no tendons or fat. If you’re curious as to what the hype is all about the original recipe, keep reading. But first, learn how to pronounce the çiğ köfte here.
Important note: The 6 restaurants listed below make the authentic çiğ köfte with meat. At the end of this blog post, you can find a list of çiğ köfte places where the dish is not made of meat and therefore vegan.
Important note 2: In Urfa, the authentic çiğ köfte is a main course, and locals eat dozens of them at one sit. However, in Istanbul, most people order çiğ köfte as a side dish to complement their kebab plate or main course.
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List of the best çiğ köfte restaurants in Istanbul:
1. Develi Kebap
Perhaps it’s the 104-year history, but this place really knows how to host a feast. They seem to favor hand mincing their meat instead of using machines to lock in the juiciness of the meat.
Appetizers and meze here are not an afterthought – Develi believes that each one should be eaten slowly and with the utmost pleasure. Perhaps that’s why their raw meatballs are presented so proudly and so openly with the lettuce on the side.
The English-speaking staff at this stylish spot are super helpful, so you may wish to ask them to recommend a good Turkish wine to go with your meal if you’re not drinking their fresh orange juice. As the main course, The Beyti kebab is a golden delight with hints of fresh green herbs on top. Don’t forget to leave room for dessert!
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2. Çanak Kebap & Katmer
If you’re exploring Istanbul with kids and you just want to enjoy a quiet meal, this pretty yet humble restaurant not only has a children’s playpen but also doesn’t hit the wallet too hard.
They only serve the çiğ köfte (raw meatballs) in the evenings, but if you miss out, the nettle soup is a fine adventure. Aside from the blushing çiğ köfte, which hides underneath a quilt of lettuce and colorful pink turnips, there’s plenty of no-fat meat dishes that’ll take it easy on your waistline.
If eggplants are your enemy, this is the place to reconcile with their dry eggplant stuffing or even the aubergine dessert, which tastes a million times better than what we could’ve expected.
When you’re done, you can grab some homemade items to take home like the pickles – free of those nasty artificial gunk-like preservatives.
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If you know the secret to taste is onions, then you’ll be glad to know that this refined neo-baroque spot adds spring onions as well as the normal kind to their çiğ köfte. Fiercely spicy, you may want to enjoy the cold-brewed liquorice sweet tea with it to cool yourself down.
After the çiğ köfte as a starter, it’s a hard pick between the Köşekeroğlu kebab with grilled cheese, finely chopped pastrami, and pistachio embedded in the meat or the Chef’s Special Kebab with cheese and nutmeg embedded in the meat and topped with yogurt with basil and tomatoey hot sauce. If you’re going for the latter, the ayran drink is your best friend.
When you’re done, you may wish to try the thyme tea to help you digest everything.
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4. Çiya Sofrası
This quaint, unassuming spot changes its menu as per the day of the week. On Fridays, and only on Fridays, you can get the çiğ köfte, while your vegetarian friend could try the drool-worthy selection of vegetarian and vegan dishes.
Although you can’t get the raw meatballs any other day, thankfully, the fig ice cream (think evaporated milk with fig inside) will soothe your disappointment away if you arrive on the wrong date. The sour, slightly tangy okra is scrumptious if you like tart food. Alternatively, the Tas kebab with its tomatoey sauce is more savory than sour. Plus, the Perde Pilavı (curtain rice) is like a lava cake/souffle, except it contains rice, raisins, crunchy pine nuts, and almonds. Yum.
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5. Kaşıbeyaz Florya
This flamboyant almost-Edwardian restaurant must love nature due to the manner in which their interior is decorated as well as the natural approach to their dishes.
Perhaps that’s why you can find seasonal fruit juice, seasonal fruit salad, and even seasonal fruit desserts here. If your favorite fruit isn’t in season, though, the tahini profiterole is a creamy touch of heaven.
Every day of the week, they have a different special – if you visit on Wednesdays, get the sour small meatballs soup (Ekşili Köfte), but Saturdays have the lamb cubes drizzled with buttery thyme and served with a delicious yogurt.
If you really want to amp up the spiciness of the raw meatballs, a crisp Turkish beer will have you calling the fire brigade. Finally, if you reserve early, this high-class restaurant can serve you in a private ‘family’ booth – that is when your kids aren’t having fun in the playpen.
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6. Pirpirim Gaziantep Mutfağı
This is another place where the çiğ köfte present themselves, loud and proud. When they taste like that, how could they not be? They pair excellently with the lahmacun, especially the one with walnuts and pomegranate molasses for a touch of spicy, sweet, and tangy.
Throw in one of the many colorful salads, and you may not have enough room for a liver kebab. However, if you want to keep things spicy, the Adana kebab will have you sweating as though you just finished up in the gym.
The desserts come in two sizes, so if you have a problem with being tempted, just go for the small size. Plus, this could be your first opportunity to try the menengiç coffee – a caffeine-free version of Turkish coffee made from wild pistachio.
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Vegan Çiğ Köfte Places
Our vegan friends are far more fortunate than devoted carnivores because a huge selection of chains and franchises have veganised the çiğ köfte recipe without sacrificing the taste. These chains and many other small çiğ köfte shops are scattered all around Istanbul and easy to find.
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Starting with Tatlıses Çiğ Köfte, which was founded by famous Kurdish singer, Ibrahim Tatlıses a.k.a The Emperor, or the similarly red but more serious Komagene or the lime green Oses Çiğ Köfte.
Meşhur Adıyaman Çiğ Köftecisi is slightly more mild and quite sweet with its pomegranate molasses.
Çiğ Köfteci Ömer Usta is famous for its gigantic portions.
Çiğköfteci Ali Usta may be the exception, with only one branch, but his hilarious antics accompanies his delicious çiğ köfte. Watch Ali Usta in action below.
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