The most common street food in Istanbul is the simit, a favourite snack of people from all walks of life. This crispy bread ring strewn with sesame seeds has been sold in Istanbul for generations. Simit are also made in other cities, but that of Istanbul is reckoned to be the best. In the street, on trains and ferry boats, in cafes, at the office, at school, or at home, simit can eaten either plain or with cheese. The simit seller carrying the rings piled up on a tray on his head could always be found at hand with Istanbul’s first fast food.
For the first-time visitor to the city these simit sellers are an interesting sight, and much photographed. Foreigners tend to assume that simit are sweet, but although the Turks have a reputation for loving confectionery, in fact they probably eat less than westerners, and most of their street food and snacks are savoury.
In the past making simit was generally the preserve of of bakers from Safranbolu and Kastamonu, and a profession which had its own rules and regulations. The best simit in Istanbul were those made at bakeries in Galata, Kumkapi, Samatya and Beylerbeyi, with a dough made of flour, water, milk, sugar, salt and yeast. When the dough had risen it was shaped into rings which were then dipped first into a mixture of cold water and grape molasses and then into sesame seeds. According to the old bakers the simit had to be baked until they were the colour of a 22 carat gold coin. In in the second half of the 17th century Evliya Celebi recorded in his famous Travels that a total of 300 bakers worked in 70 simit bakeries in Istanbul. In 1910 the simit bakers became part of a new association of Bread and Pastry Bakers.
Researcher Ugur Goktas explains in his study of the subject that in the past the simit sellers used to purchase freshly baked simit five times a day to sell in different districts of the city. The last batch came out after dark, and the simit sellers would thread the rings onto long sticks fixed into the corners of their baskets or trays, and hang a small lantern at the summit to attract the attention of the crowds on their way home after work.
Today still, people off to work or school who do not have time for breakfast buy a warm fresh simit on their way. The passengers on the ferry boats across the Bosphorus enjoy a simit with a glass of hot tea on this relaxing stage of their commuter journey.
It is becoming rarer to see the simit seller carrying his wares piled up on a tray balanced on a round pad on his head. Most now comply with municipal regulations which oblige food to be kept in a glass covered container on wheels. Although less picturesque this is undoubtedly more hygienic, and the simit are the same delicious crisp snack that they have been for centuries.