The showcase of neighborhoods
By Kornelia Binicewicz. Photos: Kaan Walsh.
Chapter I: History, culture, and function of markets in Istanbul
A market has been the heart of every city all around the world, and also in Turkey. The exchange between a village and the metropolis has happened right there - in the middle of the urban space. Sellers and producers have brought fresh produce, scattered animals, and delivered various services and craftsmanship.
Back in the day, the Ottoman Empire shaped local economies and the distribution of goods. The principle of provisionalism was the most crucial rule of Ottoman economic policy within the entire structure of the empire. The rulers believed that the availability of essential goods at affordable prices in the markets was the most significant factor in preserving social order and political balance. The marketplaces in the Ottoman Empire were a vital source of goods and a fundamental core of social interactions.
Everything here is transparent
Today, urban markets have retained their communal and economic importance. Turkey and Istanbul have two primary collaborative spaces selling food and other goods: pazar and çarşı. Both bring people together in search of the best possible exchange. But pazars in Istanbul, with their unique architectural character, and open-air structure, perfectly reflect the neighborhoods' history with their local colors and identities.
A mirror of society and its needs
There are around 350 weekly markets in Istanbul, but this is only an official number, as many are half legal or secret, therefore not included in any statistics. The food and culture of everyone who somehow passed through the city are alive in the marketplaces. Their diversity is a mirror of society and its needs. Markets fulfill many appetites and desires of Istanbul's inhabitants. They provide impoverished citizens with affordable and fresh products, minorities with their regional food and goods, chefs and foodies with inspiration and culinary know-how, and tourists with a taste of the East. Last but not least, they keep the local character of the neighborhoods alive.
Pink plastic bags, onions, a pair of scales and pazarcı (seller in a market)
Chapter II: The relationship between markets, neighborhoods and locals
Semt pazarı (market set up specifically in a neighborhood) happens in the exact location once per week. Visiting a semt- pazarı in Istanbul feels like going to a weekly festival in the neighborhood. The regular streets, squares, and parking lots turn into multicolored and vigorous centers of local life, trade, and tastes. Long rows of racks with a cornucopia of fresh vegetables, fruits, dairy products, olives, olive oils, local sweets, and nuts are mixed with stands with colorful textiles and cheap home decor products. A Coco-Chanel carpet waving in the air hangs just next to dried sucuk (spicy and fermented sausage) and a selection of women's head scarfs. Fluorescent lamps dance above joyful and noisy sellers at the fish stands, where you can get seasonal goods at the best possible price. The passages are not only crowded with visiting and bargaining clients but also with spontaneously appearing sellers of döner, köfte, süt mısırı, baklava, tulumba tatlısı, or basbousa. Every neighborhood in Istanbul has different, unique, social and demographic characteristics.
No matter in which district, the local community gathers here
The markets mirror those realities with the sellers' goods, prices, behavior and language, aesthetics of the stands, and types of music played by the traders. Also, various models of pazar arabası (shopping trolley) reflect the social and economic positions of the clientele of each market. The pazar of Tarlabaşı, a neighborhood inhabited by low-income citizens of Istanbul's center, is busy with the multicultural crowd of women and men in terlik (slippers) and home-wear. On the contrary, the visitors of the pazar in Feriköy, situated in the middle of the Şişli/Bomonti neighborhood, visit it in a more elegant and chic outfit. No matter in which district, the local community meets at the markets in every location, discusses prices, shares their stories and opinions, and eats gözleme or drinks at least one glass of çay (tea) served in a pazar tea garden.
Chestnut mushrooms 50 TL and strawberries 18 TL per kilo
Chapter III: The market guide
The best markets are the local ones. We reach them quickly as they are within walking distance from our houses. For that reason, according to me and Italo, the markets of Burgazada and Tarlabaşı are the best.
Pazar-hopping on islands
Burgazada Pazarı is relatively small (around 30 stands) and happens on Fridays. It finishes pretty early, about 01:00 p.m., so sometimes it is not easy to catch it. In that case, making a pazar-hopping the other day is an excellent idea. Taking a ferry to a neighboring Heybeliada Island, where the same traders set up their stands on Wednesday, allows one to keep up with the routine of getting fresh goods every week and meet favorite sellers.
The island markets are set not far from the Marmara Sea coast, and all the sellers come with their produce by early morning ferries from other parts of Istanbul and Yalova.
I could be red, I could be green
Shopping in markets is all about relationships - the more you know the sellers, the better and cheaper your groceries are. For a new customer, it is essential to follow teyzeler (aunties), who know who sells the best tomatoes and the sweetest pumpkin. Besides shopping at crowded stands, it is advised to taste and experience the tastes of the goods. In the case of cheese, tasting is obligatory. After a few mini bites of a few kinds of cheese, you find the perfect one. If the product is good and the seller treats you well, you must come back the next time and ask for the same product. You need to establish a genuine connection with a seller, which can eventually develop into a beautiful market friendship (a kind of friends-with-benefits relationship). Even though the island markets are small, they abound in numerous intriguing personalities: A silent and humble spice and tea seller from Yalova, a Bosniak cheese seller, Burgazada- based vegetable seller who grows much of his produce in his garden or a pumpkin/ artichoke cutter who entertains the visitors with traditional, very often obscene songs.
A hot spot of the market: Tarlabaşı
Tarlabaşı Pazarı, which operates every Sunday, is our local market in Istanbul. This massive food market is one of the best reasons to live in this neighborhood. It is located in the center of the Beyoğlu district, just a 10-minute walk from the famous İstiklal Caddesi and Taksim Square. Historically, the district was primarily inhabited by non-Muslim communities of Levantines, Jews, Armenians, and Greeks who worked in numerous international institutions, embassies, and entertainment venues of the Taksim and Pera. Now it is populated mainly with low-income Turkish, Kurdish, Syrian, and African citizens of Istanbul. The variety of produce —fresh vegetables, fruits, seafood, dairy, olives, spices, nuts, and dried fruits— makes the markets of Tarlabaşı one of the most beautiful in the city. Hundreds of professional merchants of fresh products set up their stalls along Kurdela Sokak.
Guess who knows who sells the best apples
Every Sunday morning, pazarcılar (sellers) build their light architectural structure with poles, ropes, and tarps between historical buildings on the streets to create their temporary open-air market. The market is considered to be generally cheap, meeting the expectations of its residents: the lower-class citizens of Beyoğlu. The variety of products and sellers in Tarlabaşı pazarı allows us to find what we are looking for. Pazar is an excellent place to get fresh and carefully selected Turkish cheese and village dairy. Two outstanding cheese sellers in the market sell a high-quality peynir from Çanakkale. One of them sells his products at the very top of the market, close to the Beyoğlu side, where you can get fresh village eggs and homemade bread. The second one operates at the end of the market, close to Dolapdere. In recent months of high inflation, which is also visible in the local food markets, the second stand has become more convenient and affordable.
The pazar experience would never be completed if not for gözleme. Almost mid-way to Kurdela Sokak, the artery of the Tarlabaşı Pazarı, you can find a small gözleme station (where you can also buy fresh yufka). It is a perfect idea to make a pit stop there for a delicious, hot, and made-on-spot snack. Plenty of vegetable and fruit stands allow you to choose the best spot which offers good quality products according to the season changes. One of our most desired greens, basil leaves, is available only at one of the stands at the top of the market. Exploration of the whole market of Tarlabaşı and finding your desired goods can take a while, but it pays back by meeting fascinating people and observing inspiring situations.
Shop on shop
On the mainland, it is even easier to make pazar-hopping, as many markets in the city take place on the same day. Luckily, just a short walk from Tarlabaşı, another excellent market, operates on Sundays: Kasımpaşa İnebolu Pazarı is situated in Kasımpaşa district.
Every Sunday, a little street changes into a colorful open-air Black Sea village food festival with unique products from Tosya, Kastamonu, and Inebolu. There are usually not more than 35 stands. Still, all of them belong to the farmers or merchants with seasonal vegetables, village dairy —butter, milk, süzme yoghurt— homemade loaves of bread, village eggs, fresh and alive chickens, organic honey in many variations, handmade jams from mulberry and rosehip, and a selection of wild plants like borage (starflower), fresh mint, and wild herbs. Visiting Kasımpaşa and Tarlabaşı markets on one of Sundays shall make you feel fulfilled for the whole long week ahead.
Editor's Note: All photos are taken in Tarlabaşı Pazarı and Kasımpaşa İnebolu Pazarı.
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🚏 ROUTE: PAZAR-HOPPING IN ISTANBUL
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A weekly journal of neighbourhoods to dig into urban culture, people stories, and sociocultural dynamics. In every issue, we meet an inhabitant in their hood where they live, create or belong.