Last orders: Istanbul’s historic fish sandwich boats shut down by authorities
They come one after another, the correspondents of Turkey’s various TV channels: set pieces to camera next to dozens of frying fish; interviews with grizzled waiters in scarlet jackets; vox-pops with diners about how they feel about it. They’ve all come here, to Istanbul’s Eminönü district, to document the last day of the balık ekmek boats.
According to Istanbul lore, they have been catching fish here, cooking it on deck and selling it in sandwiches since the 1800s. The product is balık ekmek (“fish bread”) – fish (typically mackerel or a similar oily fish), onions, lettuce, a squeeze of lemon juice, all inside a white roll – its basic ingredients hinting at its origins, a way for fishermen to flog their excess catch after rich hauls.
And while the boats have dwindled over the years – with city authorities keen to clamp down on this mostly unregulated, sometimes unhygienic trade – it’s a tradition that has been carried on by three boats moored just off Galata Bridge, which spans the Golden Horn. More gaudy, golden, floating kitchens than fisherman’s skiffs, they have been operating under a municipality tender since 2007; the garsons in faux-Ottoman blazers and captain’s hats serving hundreds of Turks and tourists every day.
But no more. As İstanbullus found out this week, all three boats – together forming the Balık Ekmek Turızm Kooperatifi – see their lease expire on 1 November. The owners have vowed to stay open, and a dispute first with the police, and then in the courts, may ensue. But the municipality seemingly has no plans to replace them, with designs for a “more holistic” approach to Istanbul’s historic centre. As the mayor explained to journalists, “No-one owns a permanent property in any part of Istanbul.”
As a woman tells a TV camera how much she opposes the decision, the surrounding crowd burst into applause. It seems in part a confected controversy – stirred up by a media eager to show the new mayor as out of touch – and more than one resident rolled their eyes at the mere mention of the boats. Others pointed to online gossip about the darker side of it all, about the alleged connections the owners must have to have secured such a lucrative spot. But there is genuine sadness here too.
Ibrahim, a retiree with jet-black dyed hair and a military jacket, tells me with some sense of fury that he comes to the boats maybe every other day. With a lunch costing just 15 Turkish lira (£2), it is, he reasons, simply the cheapest meal around. Indeed, while Istanbul’s other central districts can be prohibitively expensive – particularly for those from the city’s fringes – Eminönü has retained some popular appeal. The famous lyrics of an 1980s Turkish song even long for the days of taking a minibus around town, and “köprüde balık-ekmek yemek” – eating balık ekmek on the bridge.
Which taps into something deeper too, for few places can be as ever-willing to embrace nostalgia – and the bitter-sweetness of loss – as Istanbul. Karin, who has now moved far away to the Black Sea coast, told me she lived here for years and did not go to the balık ekmek boats even once. Now, somehow, it’s the thing she misses most, the first place she visits when she returns. “There is no Eminönü without this,” she says.
It is an open secret that the balık ekmek fish no longer comes from the Bosphorous strait. The Golden Horn – the point where the strait meets the Sea of Marmara and so-called for the abundance of dolphin and fish that once passed through it – no longer teems with life. It now comes from Scandinavia, via Istanbul’s wholesale fish market.
It is but one small change in a city that has transformed beyond all recognition since its fishermen started selling sandwiches on the side two centuries ago. But no matter the boats’ tenuous connection to the past, for some İstanbullus, it was enough: this is the tradition now, in all its kitsch glory. As Ibrahim shouted to me, and all passers-by, ‘This is history!”