Fresh Fish in Istanbul – How to Pick and Order a Nice One

If you love to eat fresh fish, Istanbul is paradise on Earth. The various seas surrounding Istanbul offer over 20 different kinds of fish.
While nobody will argue over its nutritous value, it’s imperative that you pick a fresh one. Let me give you some tips and tricks on how to understand the freshness of a fish, and the best seasons for the different kinds of fresh fish in Istanbul.

Picture of a school of sardines.
A school of sardines. © Photo by John Loo

Different Sea, Different Fish

With its shores on Marmara, Aegean and Mediterranian Seas, Turkey is geographicly a very fortunate country. The characteristics of these seas vary, which provides a nice diversity. Istanbul adds a plus to this variety with plenty of excellent fish restaurants located by the Bosphorus, offering a splendid view.

Istanbul is a gifted city when it comes to eating fish. Every season of the year you can find several kinds of delicious fish. Locals mostly prefer smaller fish like anchovy, horse mackerel and small blue fish for home cooking.

Istanbul’s Fresh Fish by Month

Below you find an overview of fresh fish according to the months.

Picture of fresh fish on display at the market in Istanbul.
Fresh fish. © Maks Karochkin
  • January — anchovy, bonito, horse mackerel, mackerel, mussel, red mullet, small blue fish, whiting
  • February — anchovy, sea bass, red mullet and bonito. Turbot starts in this month and is good until the end of May.
  • March — red mullet is still good, best time for grey mullet, sea bass and turbot. Blue fish and bonito lose their fat, not that tasty
  • April — turbot and sea bass are the tastiest this month. Also sea bass, swordfish and red gurnard are rich in amount, meaning cheaper than other months. Red mullet and mullet are still available and good
  • May — sea bass, mullet, sole and swordfish are still very good. Shrimp and lobster are available
  • June — the least good month for fish variety and quality. Still you can eat goby, horse mackerel, tuna, mullet and red mullet, yet more expensive than other months
  • July — horse mackerel and mackerel are good when fried. Lobster and crab are available. Sardines pilchard starts this month and good until mid-September.
  • August — horse mackerel, sardines, tuna, swordfish (best in August), lobster, crab. Bluefish starts slowly, so it is expensive this month.
  • September — bonito (best in September), red mullet, sardines, small blue fish, swordfish
  • October — bonito, mullet, red mullet, sardines, small blue fish, swordfish, sea bass
  • November — whiting is the new comer and the rest is all the same as October
  • December — anchovy (best in December and January), bonito, lobster, crab, mackerel, small blue fish, whiting

Please note that in October the fish that live in the Black Sea all summer long come back to the Marmara Sea. So they are available both in good quantity and quality. After December, the sea water gets colder. This means that the fish get fattier, and also much tastier. So, if you are in Istanbul during the winter and the sun doesn’t welcome you warmly, at least you know now that you can have a delicious fresh winter fish.

How to Pick a Fresh Fish?

Most of the restaurants have their avalable fish on display. You are always invited to check and handpick the fish you want them to prepare for you. Here is the list of things your fish should and should not have.

Picture of restaurant with fish on display in Istanbul, Turkey.
Fish on display. © Shankar S.
  • The eyes have it all — They should be bright and clear, shouldn’t look caved in or cloudy as if they have cataract.
  • The gills should be red and wet — Some fish tough, tend to have less red, more like pink gills. Don’t be mistaken. They shouldn’t be completely white or too dark and dried out.
  • The flesh of the fish shouldn’t be soft — If after pressing the fish with your finger, the pressure point flattens back out, then it means that the fish is fresh. The fish tail should be hard, too. Another hint: if the scales of the fish fall off easily, then it isn’t fresh.
  • The smell — Let’s face it, raw fish does not smell that appealing yet it shouldn’t remind you off ammonia.

Natural or Farm Fish?

Which one is better, natural or farm fish?

When you go to a fish restaurant you might be puzzled with the question, “Natural sea (mevsim balığı) or farm fish (çiftlik balığı)”. Apperantly there are some differences, yet neither is better or worse. It is all about personal choice or taste.

Farm fish have an easy life compared to the natural fish. They are regularly fed with a balanced diet, so they are mostly bigger in size and fattier. Their flesh is softer and rich in fat. Their meat stays in shape longer via the frigofric storage and transportation.

Nature fish have to fight for food and protect themselves from predators to survive. So they have strong muscles, hence tighter flesh. Due to the natural environment which they are exposed to, they accumulate a variety of different pigments, hence are more colorful. Thanks to the natural food chain diet, their smell is more natural — like sea and seaweed. The quality of their meat is affected by enviromental factors such as the wind, sun, fluttering in a mass of crowd and different kind of fish.

Turkish Fish Glossary

  • Anchovy — Hamsi
  • Bonito — Palamut
  • Large bonito or toric — Torik
  • Cod — Morina
  • Crab — Yengeç / Pavurya
  • Goby — Kaya balığı
  • Grey Mullet — Kefal
  • Horse mackerel — İstavrit
  • Lobster — Istakoz
  • Mackerel — Uskumru
  • Mullet — Barbunya
  • Red gurnard — Kırlangıç
  • Red mullet — Tekir
  • Sardines (pilchard) — Sardalya
  • Sea bass — Levrek
  • Shrimp — Karides
  • Sole — Dilbalığı
  • Sturgeon — Mersin
  • Swordfish — Kılıç balığı
  • Tuna — Orkinos (tuna)
  • Turbot — Kalkan
  • Whiting — Mezgit

Blue fish has 6 different names ranged from small to bigger. The most favourite ones are:

  • Çinekop (in October, November and December)
  • Sarıkanat (in December and January)
  • Lüfer (in January and February)
  • Kofana (in March)

Further Recommended Reading

  1. Top 10 Fish Restaurants in Istanbul
  2. Our Top Turkish Dishes, the Best of the Turkish Cuisine
  3. What to Drink in Istanbul?
  4. How Much and When to Tip in Istanbul

Last updated on 04/07/2015