Simit are to Istanbul what bagels are to New York City—the individually-portioned, ring-shaped breads not just an anytime staple, but an iconic part of what it means to be an inhabitant of that city, the object of habit, preference and memory.
Simit are made with a yeasted dough which is allowed to rise, then shaped into narrow rings. Following the second rise, the breads are dipped into water mixed with a bit of molasses (pekmez), then fully coated with sesame breads before being baked in a hot oven. The resultant breads tend to have a well-browned crust with a bit of resistance, giving way to a slightly sweet, soft yet chewy dough.
Just as with bagels, simit are not really made by home bakers. They are sold by bakeries and at a few new simit-specific chains. Most people, however, tend to buy them from one of the hundreds of carts located across the city. While the cart operators obtain a license to operate in a fixed location, there are also still some itinerant vendors, mostly in markets and some older neighbourhoods, who sell the breads from a tray balanced on their heads. Prices, while no longer government-subsidized, are fixed for both wholesale and retail; the maximum price which can be charged to a customer is 1 TL, or about 35p.
Like most breads, simit are at their best when fresh. While the carts have unmistakable charm and convenience, bakeries present the obvious advantage of happening upon a just-baked batch. Beyond that, some prefer their simit a bit sweeter (likely a product of more molasses in the dipping water), with a harder crust, or with slightly saltier dough.
Simit vendors keep a box of processed cheese triangles (like Laughing Cow) for those customers who believe that the first meal of the day must contain a bit of cheese. The new chains use them, much like bagels, as the basis for filled sandwiches, while cafes serving breakfast platters of cheeses, hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, olives and cucumbers often throw a few segments into the bread basket.
It was snowing on my last morning in Istanbul. The local simit vendor was standing inside the vestibule of a nearby bank to keep warm, but dashed out when he saw me. That simit may not have reached the acme of ideal texture or flavour, but it’s the one I remember best.