The Wet Istanbul Burgers That You'll Need Some Napkins To Eat

In a world full of over-the-top hamburgers, Istanbul's humble islak burger stands out for its simple yet satisfying taste. This Turkish street food consists of a juicy beef patty cooked in a blend of milk, garlic, and mint, a tangy tomato sauce, and two soft buns. The result is a deliciously messy and addictive burger that you'll need plenty of napkins to devour. As Anthony Bourdain exclaimed in the Istanbul episode of "No Reservations," "It's like a big, spicy slider!"

While classic burgers are known for having overstuffed buns with an array of toppings, this Turkish alternative takes a minimalist approach, relying on succulent meat and savory tomato sauce to steal the show. Its melt-in-your-mouth texture and burst of flavor have made the burger a staple on Istanbul's vibrant street food scene, with vendors serving them up hot and juicy at all hours of the day. 

But it's not just locals who have fallen under the islak burger's spell. The snack also enjoys a cult following among foodie tourists who are seeking something special after spending a night exploring the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul. So, on your next visit to the city, grab some napkins, brace yourself for a serious mess, and enter the mouth-watering world of wet burgers.

The history of Istanbul's islak burgers

When speaking with Epicurious, Ansel Mullins, founder of Culinary Backstreets and a resident of Turkey for 15 years, said, "The islak burger is kind of like a diner burger," before describing the meat as garlicky. According to Mullins, the patty is served in a soft bun that's been doused with a ketchup-like tomato sauce made with paprika.

Most seem to agree that Istanbul's wet burger first appeared in a Kristal Büfe kitchen in the 1970s. Its arrival came as no surprise. As Hande Bozdogan, chef and founder of the Istanbul Culinary Institute, pointed out to Epicurious, "It is popular in the culture to eat moistened bread." And while you'll still find (and smell) islak burgers all along Taksim Square, the popular snack isn't necessarily an authentic Turkish dish.

"It's not particularly native," Mullins revealed. "It's more inspired by the American hamburger culture." Still, it's a great comfort food, especially when enjoyed on the go. Like a slice of pizza after a night out in New York or a doner kebab after downing pints at a London pub, Mullins says that "part of the fun of the wet burger is getting it while you are out."

How and where to eat an islak burger

If you want to try Istanbul's famous wet burgers, street vendors sell them all over the city. However, Kizilkaya in Taksim Square is where most locals and tourists flock to satisfy their cravings. When ordering one of these delicious burgers in Turkish, Condé Nast Traveler recommends asking for "Bir islak hamburger, lutfen." 

When it comes to eating an islak burger, make sure you have plenty of napkins on hand. The burgers are drenched in that tomato sauce and can get messy quickly. Some people prefer to eat them with a knife and fork, but traditionally you simply grab the burger with two hands and enjoy. If one burger simply isn't enough to satiate your cravings, it's okay to order more, too. One shopkeeper told VICE that two patrons once "bet they could eat 14 each. They stopped at five ... but the record is 22." 

Our top tip? Don't stop at islak burgers. There's an entire world of Turkish cuisine to explore in Istanbul. For something sweet, try traditional Turkish delight, baklava, or dondurma, a stretchy ice cream made with orchids. For savory dishes, sample the flavorful döner kebab or the cheesy pide. And, of course, no trip to Turkey is complete without a cup of strong Turkish coffee.