Brief history of Turkish Cuisine
Before we list the popular Turkish foods, a brief history of Turkish cuisine will help you to understand this cuisine better. A 700-year history dating back to the kitchens of the Ottoman Empire has formed the distinctive flavours which feature prominently in Turkish cuisine as we know and enjoy it today. One of the most highly regarded cuisines in the world, Turkish cuisine has a broad and diverse range due to its historical background and geographical diversity. Owing in part to the vast spread of the Ottoman Empire, Turkish cuisine influenced and was influenced by Balkan, Middle Eastern, European, Mediterranean and Asian cultures.
In modern-day Turkey, the distinctive cuisine styles vary according to geographic and climatic diversity of the country, especially so in the Black Sea, Southeastern and Central Anatolian regions. For example, plants and dishes made of various herbs are standard on the western side; whereas, seafood and fish are abundantly consumed in the Black Sea, Aegean and Marmara regions; just as Central and Eastern Anatolian regions favour pastries and grain dishes.
Ingredients and side dishes in Turkish Cuisine
Ingredients such a garlic, onion and tomato paste (salça) bring unique flavours to the meat dishes of Ottoman and traditional Turkish cuisine. Some of these meat dishes are cooked long and slow over a fire; while others are prepared in the oven, on skewers, like casseroles, on a barbecue, a grill, with a tandoor or inside a clay pot. Most commonly, meat dishes are serves with a side of salad, roasted peppers, tomatoes, french fries or eggplant salad. The meal table (sofra) is laden with appetisers (such as dips, green salads, yoghurt and pickles that vary according to the region) and pilav. Pilav (pilaf) made with rice, bulgur or couscous is eaten with almost every meal and can include such additives as tomato, chicken, eggplant, chickpeas, peanuts, almonds or grapes. Rice pilaf is the most popular, and one can find 27 different kinds of rice pilaf in Turkish households.
Vegetables and grains
Ottoman and modern Turkish cuisine frequently makes use of fresh vegetables such as green beans, eggplants, leeks, cabbages broad beans and zucchinis, as ‘olive oil’ dishes. Just as crucial to Turkish cuisine are dishes made from dried pulses such as lentils, split peas, chickpeas, haricot beans, broad beans and kidney beans.
So what are the first dishes that come to mind when attempting to identify the most discerning flavours of Turkish cuisine? Below, we recognise 13 of Turkish cuisine’s most iconic dishes and their flavours; those dishes and flavours that identify what it is that makes Turkish cuisine so distinctive. (And, as a bonus, you can find our recipes for these dishes by clicking on the links so that you can recreate these at home, yourself.)
What are the most popular Turkish foods?
Mantı / Lamb-Filled Dumplings
Commonly referred to as Turkish ravioli, mantı is considered one of the most delicious dishes of traditional Turkish cuisine. Although prepared in and predominantly eaten in the Central Anatolian region, mantı is unique to Kayseri, in particular. Thanks to its growing popularity across Turkey, it has recently taken its place in markets as ready-made frozen food. As such, it has become a readily and frequently consumed meal for those who lack the time or skill to prepare it from scratch, traditionally, both at home and abroad.
To prepare mantı, we fill small pieces of pasta dough with ground meat (usually, lamb) seasoned with various spices, and cooked in boiling water. It is then traditionally topped with yoghurt (or garlic yoghurt), tomato paste and melted butter, as well as dried sumac, mint or basil.
In creating mantı, Anatolian people have successfully combined dough, meat and spices to craft a hearty and satisfying dish. Although mantı is made with plenty of meat and less dough, the dumplings made in Kayseri are much smaller. The reason for this is a tradition dating back hundreds of years. According to this tradition, if the young women of Kayseri could fit 40 of the mantı dumplings they made in one spoon, they were thought to be talented and delicate cooks and, thus, excellent marital candidates.
Click here for our homemade Mantı recipe.
Lahmacun / Pita topped with Spicy Lamb
The crispy dough of lahmacun is one of the most well-known tastes of Turkish cuisine. Also known as Turkish pizza, lahmacun is one of the best-selling street delicacies since it is healthy, hearty, affordable and extremely tasty. A favourite way to eat lahmacun is to wrap it around greens, like rocket and parsley, before giving a big squeeze of lemon over the top.
Lahmacun is for everyone – it is possible to find lahmacun in the most luxurious restaurants and the most shabby establishments. During summer, beachgoers, holidaymakers, and just about everyone enjoy the iconic and familiar taste of lahmacun.
Click here to try our delicious homemade Lahmacun recipe for yourself.
Without a doubt, it’s impossible to think of Turkish cuisine without dreaming up delectable images of baklava. Baklava is a staple dessert dish of Turkish, Middle Eastern, Balkan and South Asian cuisines. It is made by layering thin sheets of pastry with pistachio, walnuts or hazelnuts and topping with a thick, sweet sugar syrup (honey syrup is also sometimes used).
The origins and dates of baklava are unclear; however, some evidence suggests that the dessert is of Central Asian Turkish origin. Over time, it developed into its form as we currently know it in the kitchens of the Ottoman Topkapı Palace. On August 8th, 2013, baklava was registered under a European Union (E.U.) as a Turkish dessert.
In Turkey, the city most well-known for its excellent baklava is Gaziantep, in south-eastern Anatolia. Turkish baklava is generally a pistachio variety; however, this varies depending on geography. Homemade baklava in Southeastern Anatolia features pistachios which are plentiful to that region. But walnuts are commonly used in Central Anatolia, hazelnuts along the Black Sea, almonds in the coastal Aegean areas, and sesame seeds in Edirne and Thrace. The dessert can be served plain or with a side of ice cream or cream.
Baklava, which consists of the thinnest pastry, abundant with nuts and thick syrup, is considered the best quality. Additionally, excellent baklava is decided based on the sound it makes when being eaten – in the original Gaziantep-style baklava, for example, should make a beautiful rustling sound on the first bite if it is fresh. This sound, which comes from fried, thin filo pastry sheets, resembles the rustling sound of dry leaves in the wind.
Baklava is made and consumed in abundance during holidays and shared with visitors. Homemade baklava is also very popular and, as such, baklava is one of the most popular desserts for Turks.
Click here for our homemade Baklava recipe.
Zeytinyağlı Biber Dolması / Stuffed Peppers
Stuffed peppers are made in a variety of ways and are one of the most recognisable foods of Turkish cuisine. The preparation involves filling any outside ‘shell’ with a mixture of rice, onions and various spices, before cooking in the oven or on the stovetop. Especially popular in summer, it is one of the most popular dishes as it makes a healthy, light and extremely delicious meal, commonly served with yogurt.
The vegetable used as the shell of the dolma mortar may vary depending on taste or availability. Delicious flavours are developed by preparing the rice and spices with either lemon for sour-taste lovers or cinnamon, currants and pinenuts for those with a sweeter palate. Most commonly, dolma is prepared with green bell peppers (biber), but colour peppers help to bring out different flavours. Decorating the tops with tomato adds another flavour element and creates a visual appetite.
In addition to being a meal all by themselves, stuffed peppers are also enjoyed as cold appetisers at dinner parties, special occasions and weddings. Such is their prominence in Turkish diet; you can find some version of stuffed peppers at almost every restaurant you visit across Turkey.
Bring the taste of Turkey into your own home by trying out Biber Dolması recipe, here.
Pirinç Pilavı / White Rice Pilaf
Pilav is a staple side to just about every main dish in Ottoman and Turkish cuisine thus makes it one of the most popular Turkish foods.
Most commonly, white rice is fried off in butter before adding boiling water and cooking by the absorption method. It is also common to substitute the water with chicken broth to both add flavour and increase its nutritional value. Although pilav may seem easy to make, it is quite a skill to obtain the right consistency of the finished dish. There is even a joke among Turks to indicate the intricacies of preparing pilav that says, “pilav can make every dish that can make pilaf grain”.
Pilav owes it’s popularity to the fact that the flavours can be adjusted to complement just about any dish. It can be prepared in a variety of ways so that it features as just a side (as with meatballs), or as the main part of the dish (like rice with chicken, beans with rice or bean pilaf).
Such is the popularity of pilav; it is common street food and is available in mobile cars at any corner. In recent years, restaurants specialising in pilav have even opened in many cities, especially in Istanbul. Due to its satisfying and affordable price, pilav dishes are very popular with tradesmen and students. There are even famous peddlers who go out from entertainment venues at night, especially to eat rice.
If served as a main meal and as street food, plain pilav is most commonly topped with chicken or chickpeas, and best enjoyed with a cold ayran, a salty yoghurt drink.
Click here for our Pilaf recipe.
Zeytinyağlı Yaprak Sarma / Grape Leaves stuffed with Rice
When describing the flavours of traditional Turkish cuisine, yaprak sarma is both a distinct and unique flavour, as well as one of the most popular Turkish foods.
Yaprak sarma is made by wrapping vine leaves around a rice mixture seasoned with different flavours, including meat, olive oil, bulgur, cherry, currant, pistachio and spices. Aside from vine leaves, sarma is also commonly prepared using either white or purple cabbage. Regardless of the filling ingredients or the wrapping type, sarma is a dish that requires a lot of time, effort and skill. In Turkish style sarma, it is desirable to wrap the parcels thinly, “like a pencil”. The wrapping of the sarma to not exceed the thickness of the little finger is the subject of jokes and as an indicator of skill amongst housewives.
Despite all the effort spent in its preparation, the consumption of this food is quick and easy! Therefore, it is usual to wait until times when women gather together to make them in bulk, as the one-by-one rolling of the leaves is often tedious. Yaprak sarma is especially enjoyed during the holidays.
The origin of the unique flavours in yaprak sarma is rooted in Ottoman palace cuisine. During the Ottoman period, wrapped vine leaves coated in olive oil were cooked with cherry or coconut water, thus making the dish sourer. Although similar dishes feature in other European and Mediterranean cuisines, the flavours present in the Turkish style were developed and handed down through generations from the cuisine of the Ottoman palace.
If you can spare the time to make these, a delicious, healthy and unique meal will reward you. Meet a few friends or enlist the help of your children and you will find you can pass the time wrapping the leaves without too much bother and even, perhaps, turn into a wonderful event.
Click here to try our homemade Yaprak Sarma recipe.
Taze Fasülye / Green Beans with Olive Oil
We’re not exaggerating when we say that olive oil dishes have a special place in Turkish cuisine. We might even say that almost every olive oil dish is famous in itself and that they all have a unique flavour. The fact that you can find entire restaurant menus specially dedicated to a variety of olive oil dishes is testament to their popularity.
Perhaps one of the most-loved of these olive oil dishes is the one prepared with fresh green beans, taze fasulye. Plentiful during summer, even beans have different varieties according to the climate of each region, each with distinct flavours. When cooked together with fresh summer tomatoes and plenty of olive oil, an insatiable flavour appears. It is common to add meat on occasion, and tomato paste may be used instead of fresh tomatoes for a stronger flavour. Taze fasulye is easy and quick to cook, making it a favourite summer dish. Add pilav as an accompanying side to this healthy, light and nutritious dish, and you have a full and hearty meal. We recommend you also serving with cacık, mint and cucumber yoghurt. You will try a classic Turkish family menu all at once!
Click here to try our Taze Fasulye recipe for yourself.
Zeytinyağlı Barbunya / Roman Beans with Olive Oil
Another popular Turkish food and a fellow olive oil dish is zeytinyağlı barbunya, kidney beans. It is a mainstay at the Turkish table in both summer and winter since either fresh or dried kidney beans are used, and enjoyed hot or cold. Other vegetables are often added, such as onion, carrot, celery stalk, potato, garlic, and tomato, increasing its nutritional value. And, of course, it is both easy to prepare and extremely flavoursome. The flavours of zeytinyağlı barbunya continue to develop after cooking, and many Turkish people prefer to consume it 2-3 days after cooking.
Click here for our delicious Zeytinyağlı Barbunya recipe.
Kabak Mücver / Zucchini Fritters
Mücver (fritters) of many kinds was one of the most important dishes of the Ottoman table. Although recorded in history as “kommer” at the time, it is now known as mücver. Today, mücver is commonly known as a dish made with zucchini; but mücver was the name given to this method of the cooking in Ottoman times. This dish is still one of the most popular Turkish foods. It is hard to find a reference to a single recipe prepared using zucchini during the Ottoman period: eggplant, kadayıf, egg, ground beef, liver and green beans are the most common ingredients prepared this way in Ottoman cuisine.
In Ottoman cookbooks, dishes prepared as mücver were usually included in the köfte section, as it was considered a kind of vegetable meatball because of the use of egg and flour within the recipe.
Although generally fried, mücver can also be baked in the oven as a healthier and lighter dish. Mücver is both a simple snack or even an entire meal.
Click here for our easy Mücver recipe, which you can prepare in as little as 15 minutes.
İşkembe Çorbası / Tripe Soup
History tells us that işkembe çorbası held its place in the Ottoman kitchens. This tasty dish is still enjoyed today, especially during Kurban Bayramı (Sacrifice Feast, Eid al-Adha), to ensure that no part of the animal will be wasted. This soup is one of the most popular Turkish foods thanks to its cost and health benefits.
Turkish people consider İşkembe çorbası as a healing food because it is easy to digest and works to relax the digestive system of the consumer. As such, it is one of the first dishes Turks turn to when they feel unwell or want to strengthen the immune system. Further, Turkish people commonly accept that işkembe çorbası, flavoured with lots of garlic and lemon, has many health benefits. It is also common to believe that it is a good hangover cure and will heal headaches after a big evening of alcoholic fun; hence, many Turks make a ritual of drinking işkembe çorbası in the morning following a night out.
However, not everyone is a fan of işkembe çorbası; there are as many people who dislike this soup, as there are who love it. Perhaps one reason for this is that it has a strong and unique smell along with a distinctive, heavy taste. Since the tripe offal needs to be cleaned carefully and meticulously, many people prefer not to consume this is restaurants, but prepare it inside their own homes where they have the peace of mind that it has been cleaned properly.
If you’d like to give this a go at home, click for our practical homemade İşkembe Çorbası recipe.
Karnıyarık / Eggplants Stuffed with Meat and Herbs
Karnıyarık is both a classic Turkish dish, as well as one that turns the table into a feast for the eyes. Aside from those who do not like eggplant, there is almost no one who can resist this dish.
Although this is a traditional Turkish dish that we know has a long history in Turkish cuisine, it is difficult to find information about the history of karnıyarık. According to the information that we do know, karnıyarık was first made and consumed during the Seljuk period. It then passed down from the Seljuks to the Ottoman tables, and its flavour and presentation have not changed to the dish we still prepare today.
However, there may be some slight variations in the way it different regions prepare it. For example, while it is made in the oven in some regions, in others, it is fried in oil in others, and with a soup surrounding it in other areas.
Turks regard karnıyarık as the most beautiful form of eggplant, which is one of the most popular vegetables of the Turkish kitchen. Although it may, at first, seem difficult to make, it is quite simple if you follow a recipe. It is one of the star dishes you can find in almost every lokanta (tradesman restaurants), as karnıyarık contains minced meat and plenty of onions, making it hearty, nutritious and very delicious.
Another distinguishing feature of eggplant dishes is the striped peeling of eggplants. It both accentuates visual pleasantries of the food as well as preventing the eggplants from breaking down during cooking. Karnıyarık is cooked by adding a mixture of minced meat, onion, tomato, pepper and spices into the centre of the eggplants.
Click on the link to try our delicious Karnıyarık recipe.
Kebab / Kebab
Kebab is definitely on top of the list of most popular Turkish foods. Kebab is synonymous with Turkish cuisine. The word kebab, which translates from Arabic to Turkish, comes from the root “kebuba” meaning to roast, embers. Although kebab is essentially cooking meat, it has a distinctive method and has emerged as a food culture in itself with its many varieties. Kebab was among the favourite dishes of many Ottoman sultans.
The first method of cooking kebab that comes to mind is generally threading chunks of meat or minced meat onto skewers and roasting them over coals or wood fire.
The unique flavours and preparation methods of kebab, of which there are many varieties, differs from city to city. In addition to tandır kebab, lamb kebab, taş kebab and şiş kebab (shish kebab), the popularity of döner kebab across the world has introduced Turkish cuisine to the masses. Aside from the meat versions, vegetable kebabs are also popular, especially eggplant, tomato and onion kebabs.
Kebab has been prepared in Anatolian and the Eastern Meditteranean regions for more than a thousand years, and we refer to these areas as the homeland of kebab. Cities such as Gaziantep, Şanlıurfa, Adana and Mersin are each known for their special kebabs and are have an ongoing friendly competition about whose is best.
We enjoy kebab with roasted tomatoes, onions, peppers, eggplant and other vegetables, as well as bulgur or rice pilav. Kebab ustas (masters) will tell you at every opportunity that lamb meat makes the best kebab.
To try our Lamb Şiş Kebabı recipe, click here.
Hünkar Beğendi / Sultan’s Delight
As the name suggests, Hünkar Beğendi means Sultan’s (Hünkar) Favourite (beğendi). The dish dates back to the Ottoman palace kitchens, although there are two different narratives of its exact history:
One account states that the dish was first was prepared for Napoleon’s wife in the period of Sultan Abdülaziz, towards the end of the 19th century. According to another version, Napoleon brought with him a French cook along with his wife. The French cook, who prepared meals with Turkish chefs while being hosted in the Beylerbeyi Palace, drew the attention of the Turkish cooks while preparing bechamel sauce. The Turkish chefs added roasted eggplants to the bechamel sauce and presented it to the Sultan topped with lamb meat.
Whatever the origin, the dish placed in front of the Sultan, was so loved by him it was known as Hünkar Beğendi from that day forward.
To prepare Hünkar Beğendi, roasted eggplants are mashed and mixed with milk, butter and flour then topped with lamb meat cooked in onions and tomatoes. Hünkar Beğendi is an exquisite dish which stands out among traditional Turkish dishes with its delicious flavours.
Click here for our Hünkar Beğendi recipe, which you can easily make at home. Or when you visit İstanbul, you can try Sultan’s Delight at Local Restaurants. Especially at the Hünkar Lokantası in Nişantaşı.