Turkish food is one of world’s top cuisines, joining the ranks of French, Chinese, Italian and the like. The food of Turkey, like the country’s cultural mosaic, is very colorful and contains countless different influences and tastes. The cuisine of the Turkey has continued to evolve over centuries, deriving influence from its the rich history of lands which hosted first the Byzantine, and then the Ottoman Empires.
Specific tastes in different regions of Turkey contribute to the complexity of the country’s cuisine. The availability of different foods in some regions also helped to shape the foods common to that particular area.The Eastern Black Sea region, for example, is not appropriate for wheat production due to heavy rainfall; therefore the residents developed dishes that rely mostly on corn and corn flour. Likewise, the Southeastern Anatolian region is famous for kebabs as a result of its abundant livestock. The Aegean region, known for its olive production, is famous for its delicious olive oil vegetable dishes and herbs; while pastries are the monopoly of Thrace.
Istanbul has always attracted a large number of migrants from other parts of Turkey, relocating to the city in search of work. Because of this, Istanbul has become the cultural heart of Turkey, sharing the most delicious foods from each region in its unique cuisine.
Turkish Food Habits
Traditional Turkish breakfasts are large and plentiful, consisting of a number of small dishes including cheese, olives, tomatoes, butter, jams and spreads, loaves of fresh bread and, of course, an abundant flow of tea. The breakfast in rural areas and of the poor is however, most commonly, soup.
Vegetables have an important place in Turkish cuisine. They can either be cooked with olive oil and served cool as mezzes; or with butter and a little meat, and served hot.
Soups are the most common starter to all Turkish meals. A variety of delicious soups are available, with the most common being a hearty lentil soup.
The star of the Turkish kitchen is rice, or ‘pilav’, which is served with most Turkish meals. A great tasting pilav is proof of a Turkish housewife’s good cooking skills.
Bread is another indispensable part of every Turkish meal. It is eaten, whether it is particularly suited to the meal, or not.
Entrails Dishes in Turkish Cuisine
Sakatat (or, entrails) dishes have great importance in Turkish cuisine, mostly because the offal parts of the animals are cheaper and more nutritious than the other cuts of meat. Almost all markets have a ratio of one entrails seller to every three butchers, and some regular butchers also sell entrails.
Most entrails dishes are grilled and flavored with thyme. The list of well-known Turkish dishes that are made with entrails is long, and includes: fried brains, brain salad (a kind of mezze), grilled livers, fried livers (Arnavut cigeri, a favorite kind of mezze), liver stew with thyme, tripe soup (iskembe corbasi), tripe with chickpeas, tripe au gratin, grilled spleen (especially useful as a treatment for anemia), grilled kidneys, grilled ram testicles, grilled sheep intestines (kokorec), sheep head (kelle) and trotter soups.
Tripe restaurants, commonly referred to as ‘the last stop of drunks’, are open 24-hours a day. Generally, the dishes are served with bread and plenty of chili and garlic, and are enjoyed as a hearty meal.
Turkish Fast Food
When Turks are not eating in their own homes, they like food which is satisfyingly filling, but which is cooked quickly. There are many favorite ‘fast foods’ of the Turks, including those listed below:
Doner: An old Turkish favorite that has also become popular in a lot of Western countries. A compressed lamb and beef combination is grilled slowly as it spins on a vertical rotisserie by open flame. As it rotates, the cone of meet is roasted by the flaved and then slowly carved down in very thin slices with a very long knife. The meat is then served on bread or lavas wrap (durum) with your choice of tasty tomatoes, onions, lettuce, yogurt and potatoes.
Gozleme: Known as the Turkish pancake, gozleme is a simple food, however it is often listed among the specialties at certain small eating spots. A very thin sheet of dough, similar to a crepe, is baked on a curved sheet of metal and then filled with cheese, potato, spinach, or ground meat, and is always served fresh.
Pide: Most commonly referred to as a Turkish ‘pizza’ because this fast food is made with a thick dough and topped with a selection of meats, vegetables and cheeses. Made fresh to order in a wood-fired oven, pide is usually long and oval-shaped as and cut into many slices to enjoy.
Lahmacun: This delicious Turkish version of pizza is made from a thin layer of pastry on which minced meat is spread with tomato, onion, salt and parsley, and spiced with red pepper to your liking. Generally Turks fill the centre with tomatoes, lettuce and onions and a sprinkle of lemon juice, and roll to eat.
Simit: One of the simple pleasures of Turkish cuisine is a ring-shaped bread covered by sesame seeds. Simit can be found easily everywhere in Turkey, and most commonly sold on the streets, displayed in small covered carts or small stands, and sometimes simply carried by a walking vendor with simit piled high on his head. The simit, looks like a plain bread roll, but is a favorite breakfast accompaniment, or snack on the streets of Istanbul, usually enjoyed with some cheese and ayran. (you can also read more about simit on our blog, here)
Kokorec: One of the favorite fast foods of Turks, this dish made from sheep intestines is flavored with herbs and served in bread tomatoes, onions and parsley. Despite how it sounds, it’s actually delicious and you can find the best kokorec in Kadikoy, Ortakoy and Balik Pazari districts of Istanbul.
Kumpir: Simply made from large baked potatoes which are then cut in half and filled with your choice of a variety of fillings, including cheese, olives, salads, pickles, peas, mushrooms, sausages, and corn.
Kofte ekmek (meat balls & bread): One of the best street foods you will find, usually sold from mini vans. The bread is filled with kofte (meatballs) and onion, hot spices, tomato, salad and parsley.
Cig kofte: This fantastically simple and healthy food is enjoyed in the streets all over Istanbul. Meaning ‘raw meatball’ the most common varieties now are made without meat, and are a raw bulgur meatball ‘cooked’ in spices. Cig kofte are generally served wrapped in a lettuce leaf and sprinkled with fresh lemon juice.
Turkish Tea (cay): Turks love tea, and most Turks drink many cups a day. Turkish tea is always offered first to visitors and guests to all homes and businesses. Turks prepare tea by brewing it in a teapot (not with ‘tea bags’), preferably porcelain, over a kettle, and a perfectly brewed Turkish tea should be a deep red colour. Although tea can be found served in porcelain cups at the major hotels and cafes, Turks prefer to have their tea served in glass cups. Although instant coffee (which Turks call ‘Nescafe’) is quite common, nothing can take the place of a good cup of tea.
Tea gardens (cay bahcesi) abound in Istanbul. These open-air gardens, usually located in areas with stunning panoramic views, also serve fruit juice and colas, sandwiches and ‘tost’ (grilled sandwiches). More traditional teas gardens serve their tea with a semaver (a metal teapot), and in some tea gardens you’ll even find nargile (water pipe) for smoking an array of fruit flavored tobacco. The tea gardens of Moda and Emirgan are popular choices among café-goers.
Turkish Coffee (Türk kahvesi): Turkish coffee is served in small porcelain cups (resembling espresso cups) and always with a glass of water. It is not usually consumed with breakfast; but, more commonly, it is enjoyed after meals with something sweet, usually Turkish delight or chocolate.
Turkish coffee is traditionally prepared in a small copper pot called a cezve, and is made by boiling an extremely finely ground coffee together with water and sugar. The coffee is served according to your taste – sade (without sugar) or sekerli (sweet). While drinking you should sip the coffee lightly, so as to leave the coffee grounds at the bottom of the cup.
Afterwards, you can perhaps find someone who is able to read your future from the coffee grounds, which is still very popular in Turkey among both the older and younger residents.
Ayran: This delicious drink made from yoghurt diluted with water and then salted and served cold, is very much enjoyed by Turks and is the perfect accompaniment to most meals, especially kebab or spicy foods.
Sahlep: This hot drink usually enjoyed on cold winter days is made from the dried powdered roots of a mountain orchid. Sahlep powder is mixed with milk and sugar and boiled. The roots are rich in starch and the mixture thickens naturally, resembling a cream-like texture. It is generally served plain and sprinkled with cinnamon, but you can also find it as a milk-replacement for lattes and other coffees during winter.
Turnip Juice (salgam suyu): A sour, sometimes hot, crimson-coloured drink prepared by boiling turnips and carrots in water, and adding vinegar. Originating in Southern Anatolia, it can relieve an upset stomach, helps the body to cope with heat, and is also one of the more preferred accompaniments of kebab and raki.
Boza: This thick, slightly sour drink is made from crushed millet and water, which has been left to ferment. Boza is most commonly enjoyed in winter, and Boza houses serve glasses of the drink decorated with cinnamon or chickpeas.
Raki: This is probably the most well-known of all Turkey’s alcoholic drinks – and certainly one of the most enjoyed food accompaniments among Turks. This aniseed-flavored drink contains a high degree alcohol and should not be consumed quickly. Rather, most people enjoy the colourless raki mixed with water, which turns it to a cloudy-white drink. Raki is widely said to aid digestion and is known as a kind of aperitif.
Turkish Delight (lokum): Even though the list of ingredients in lokum (sugar, water and starch) seems amazingly simple, the secret to making good lokum is in the way it is cooked together. However, in Istanbul, there are almost too many chances to experience fantastic versions of this favorite. Endless varieties abound, and many visitors will want to try tasting as many different flavors as possible while in Istanbul. And perhaps, take a little back home to enjoy…
Baklava: Baklava originates from the Gaziantep region in Turkey, famous for it’s pistachios, and is traditionally baked in a wood-fired oven. However, many varieties of the delicious filo-pastry with nuts and covered in syrup now exist.
Words to Know at the Turkish Table
Before eating, it is common for the the chef and others at the table to wish each other ‘afiyet olsun’, which is essentially the same as saying bon apetit.
As an compliment to the chef, the diners at the table will also say ‘elinize saglik’, which literally means ‘health to your hands’ but is interpreted as a sign of endearment or ‘very delicious, well done’.
Finally, before drinking, everyone will shout ‘serefe’, meaning cheers!