Turks are passionate about food; indeed, Turkish cuisine is world renowned for its diversity and flavour, drawing influences from all corners of the former Ottoman Empire, and each region today boasting its own specialities: generally, food is spicier and richer the further south and east you travel, whilst in the west, olive oil, seafood and vegetable dishes are more prevalent.
Food in Turkey is first and foremost a social occasion and always to be enjoyed with gusto. From home-cooked meals shared by family and friends to symbolic religious or celebratory feasts and the street theatrics of roadside sellers, food is closely intertwined with the fabric of society. Turkey is also self-sufficient in food production with surplus for export, meaning that fresh, local ingredients and seasonal produce are at the heart of its cooking culture.
Eating Out in Turkey
Restaurants are very much part of Turkish cultural life, with a huge array of regional varieties, styles and locations at your fingertips, from gourmet restaurants and Bosphorus-side cafes in the heart of Istanbul to charming coastal fish restaurants, traditional Turkish kebap houses and lokantas where home made dishes are the order of the day, Turkey is a food-lover’s paradise for all tastes and budgets.
Eating three meals a day is the norm in Turkey, starting with a Turkish breakfast, typically consisting of bread, beyaz peynir (white cheese, similar to feta), butter, honey or jam and Turkish tea – but will also often include boiled eggs or menemen (omelette), olives, tomato & cucumber salad and sliced beef sausages. A main meal, eaten either at lunch or dinner, will usually start with soup or meze, a selection of small cold and hot dishes which are made for sharing – anything from hummus and dolma (anything stuffed with rice such as vine leaves or peppers) to kalamar (fried calamari) and aubergine dips.
The main course is usually meat or fish, but at home, vegetable dishes and stews are also popular. Bread will always accompany a meal in Turkey, and main courses are usually served with rice – and a çoban salatası, a “shepherd’s salad” of tomato, cucumber and onion dressed with olive oil and lemon. Lamb and chicken are the most popular meats in Turkey, often prepared as kebab (cubes of meat on a skewer) or köfte, which are like small lamb burgers. Turks are also fond of stews or sulu yemek (food with sauce). There are restaurants which specialise in these, usually with large containers of the different varieties on display. Fish and seafood are also popular in Istanbul and the coastal resorts – and for the most part, it is simply grilled to bring out its natural flavour.
A meal is often rounded off with a plate of fresh fruit, most of which will feature karpuz (water melon) and kavun (melon). Those with a sweet tooth will enjoy the honeyed desserts to follow, of which there are many – but baklava (layers of filo pastry filled with nuts) is perhaps the best known. There are also many fruit and milk based puddings to enjoy in Turkey, as well as the famed Turkish delight, best washed down with black tea or thick Turkish coffee.
Although much of Turkish food culture revolves around sit-down meals, food on the go is also popular for snacking – although not as a means to replace sit-down meals with family and friends. Börek (filled fried or baked filo pastry), simit (bread ring) and poğagça (buns) are popular snacks, as are those bought from the array of street vendors: from döner kebab and pide or lahmacun (types of Turkish pizza) to roasted chestnuts, stuffed mussels and corn on the cob.
The traditional tipple is rakı, a clear, strong aniseed based spirit, sometimes known as “lion’s milk”; turning cloudy when water, ice or soda is added. Rakı is so entwined with eating meze, that the meze spread is often called a rakı table.
Did you know that wine production is said to date back to 4000 BC in Eastern Turkey? Today, Turkey is undergoing a renaissance in wine-making, with some excellent results in recent years from the big domestic players such as Doluca and Kavaklidere, as well as a whole host of newer brands and grape varieties from Cappadocia and the Aegean regions. Those who prefer beer will not be disappointed with the locally produced Efes pilsner and its light, dark and extra strong varieties, now exported around the world, as well as the Troy, Tuborg, and an increasing range of international brands. Locally produced vodka, brandy, whisky and gin are also available at much lower prices than imported brands, but can be somewhat rough and ready.
Popular soft drinks include fruit juices such as vişne (sour cherry juice) and şeftali (peach) – and ayran, a salted yoghurt drink, often enjoyed with meals at home, in restaurants or as a thirst-quencher from the corner shop. Bottled mineral water or su is cheap and easily available and fizzy drinks are sold everywhere.
Turkish tea or çay is flavoursome and aromatic when freshly brewed. This is done in a combined kettle/tea pot placed directly on the hob and drunk from small tulip-shaped glasses, always black and usually with plenty of sugar. Convenience however is catching on to the cities, and nowadays, unless you specifically ask for brewed Turkish tea, many hotels and restaurants will present you with a teabag in a cup and saucer. Herbal teas are also widely available – kuşburnu çayı (rosehip) adı çayı (sage tea) and ıhlamur çayı (linden flower tea) being the more common varieties.
Introduced to Europe via the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th Century, Turkish coffee is an indulgent pleasure and the perfect way to finish off a good meal. When ordering a Türk kahvesi, you will be asked how you take it – sade (no sugar), orta (with some sugar) or şekerli (sweet), as it is brewed with the sugar before serving in small cups. You may even find a local willing to tell your fortune from it, a popular custom across Turkey. Although in more rural parts you will often find instant coffee being served, cities are catching up with Italian coffee trends and in many of the more modern establishments you will find the usual fare of lattes and cappuccinos alongside the traditional varieties.
Why not combine a holiday to Turkey with a cooking course or culinary tour, where you could enjoy anything from speciality wine & cheese tasting and learning home cooking techniques (such as the 25 different ways to prepare aubergine) to sourcing fresh local ingredients from local farmers markets.