Turkish food is among the best in the world and is sometimes ranked alongside French and Chinese as one of the world’s three great cuisines. Many venerable dishes are descended from Ottoman palace cuisine. The quality of produce is exceptional, with most ingredients available locally. Eating out is often very good value and many locals do so frequently. The cheapest sit-down meals are to be found in establishments which do not serve alcohol (içkisiz), where it’s possible to find a hearty three-course meal for TL18 (€9). However, you’ll often pay considerably more in resorts not so frequented by Turkish tourists. It’s easy to get stuck in the kebab rut, but show a little adventure and there are plenty of dishes available – more than enough to satisfy all but the strictest vegetarians.
Places to eat and specialities are summarized here. Generic “Mediterranean” restaurants and burger/pizza/coffee chains, needing no translation, are almost everywhere.
The standard “Turkish” breakfast (kahvaltı) served at modest hotels and pansiyons usually comprises a basket of soft white bread, a pat of butter, a slice or two of feta-style cheese and salami, a dab of pre-packed jam, a scattering of black olives, a boiled egg and a few slices of tomato and cucumber. Only tea is likely to be available in quantity, and extras such as omelette will probably be charged for.
Things are far more exciting in the better hotels, where you can expect a range of breads and pastries, fresh fruit slices, a choice of olive and cheese types, delicious fresh yoghurt, dried fruits and nuts, and an array of cold and hot meats, plus eggs in various styles, though freshly squeezed orange or pomegranate juice will be extra. Turks are very fond of their breakfast, and often on a Sunday invite friends or family round for a big spread. Alternatively, they head out en masse to cafés that offer a full Turkish-style breakfast deal for as little as TL10.
Unlike in Britain, kebabs (kebap in Turkish) are not generally considered takeaway food unless wrapped in dürüm, a tortilla wrap-like bread; more often you’ll find döner or köfte in takeaway stalls, served on a baguette. A sandwich (sandviç) is a baguette chunk with various fillings (often kokoreç – stuffed lamb offal – or fish). In coastal cities deep-fried mussels (midye tava) are often available, as are midye dolması (mussels stuffed with rice, pine nuts and allspice) – best avoided during summer because of the risk of food poisoning. In İstanbul and some other cities, look out for vendors (often street-carts) selling nohutlu pilav (pilau rice with chickpeas) and roast chestnuts.
A flat, pizza-like bread stuffed with various toppings, pide is served to diners in a pideci or pide salonu from 11am onwards. Its big advantage is that this dish is always made to order: typical styles are kaşarlı or peynirli (with cheese), yumurtalı (with egg), kıymalı (with mince) and sucuklu (with sausage).
Other specialities worth seeking out include mantı – the traditional Central Asian, meat-filled ravioli, served drenched in yoghurt and spice-reddened oil – and gözleme, a stuffed-paratha-like delicacy cooked on an upturned-wok-style dish.
A “restoran”, denoting anything from a motorway-bus pit stop to a white-tablecloth affair, will provide ızgara yemek or meat dishes grilled to order. Kebapcıs traditionally specialize in kebabs and at their most basic offer only limited side dishes – sometimes just salad, yoghurt and a few desserts. Many today, however, are veritable palaces, where you’ll get a free flat-bread to tear, share and mop up a few simple dips, then choose from a menu including soups, all kinds of kebabs, köfte (meatballs), lahmacun (a flat-bread “pizza” topped with spicy mincemeat) and pide. A lokanta is a restaurant emphasizing hazır yemek, pre-cooked dishes kept warm in a steam-tray. Here also can be found sulu yemek, “watery food” – hearty meat or vegetable stews. Despite their often clinical appearance, the best lokantas may well provide your most memorable taste of Turkish cooking. İskembe salonus are aimed at revellers emerging from clubs or taverns in the early hours, and open until 5am or 6am. Their stock-in-trade is tripe soup laced liberally with garlic oil, vinegar and red pepper flakes, an effective hangover cure. A çorbacı is a soup kitchen.
Another kind of place that has become very popular over the last few years is Ev Yemekleri (home-cooked foods) cafés. Typically these are run by women and dish up good-value meals more typical of those you’d find in a Turkish home rather than a standard restaurant, with hazır and sulu yemek, börek, dolma (stuffed vegetables) and mantı all usually figuring. Many feature excellent-value three-course lunches for as little as TL6.
At an ocakbaşı, the grill and its hood occupy centre-stage, as diners watch their meat being prepared. Even more interactive is the kendin pişir kendin ye (cook-it-and-eat-it-yourself) establishment, where a mangal (barbecue with coals), a specified quantity of raw meat, plus kekik (oregano) and kimyon (cumin) are brought to your outdoor/indoor table.
Meyhanes are taverns where eating is on a barely equal footing to tippling. Once almost solely the preserve of men, the fancier İstanbul ones, as well as some in the bigger cities and resort towns of Western Turkey, are frequented by “respectable” Turkish (and foreign) women. They can be great fun as well as dishing up excellent food. Plenty of meyhanes are not really suitable for foreign couples or female travellers, however, so examine the place before making your choice. Balık Restoran (fish restaurants) are ubiquitous in Western Turkey, made viable by the fish-farming industry, which produces an endless supply of sea bass and sea bream.
Prices vary widely according to the type of establishment. Expect to pay from TL7 for a hearty pide in a pideci, TL10 and up for a kebab or köfte. A simple grill or kebab in a licensed restaurant is likely to be twenty percent more expensive than in an unlicensed kebabcı. A meyhane meal is likely to set you back TL25–30 for the food, plus whatever you drink. Many have set deals, typically involving an array of cold and hot meze, a grilled-fish main and fruit dessert for around TL80 – which includes as many local drinks as you desire. A main course in a hazir yemek joint usually costs around TL5 for a vegetable dish, TL8 and up for meat. A meal in a flashy fish restaurant serving wild-caught rather than farmed fish may set you back well over TL100 without drinks.
Dishes and specialities
The most common soups (çorbas) are mercimek (lentil), ezo gelin (a thick rice and vegetable broth – an appetizing breakfast) and işkembe (tripe). Çoban (shepherd’s) salatası means the ubiquitous, micro-chopped cucumber, tomato, onion, pepper and parsley salad (approach the peppers with caution); yeşil (green) salad, usually just some marul (lettuce), is less often available. The more European mevsim salatası (“seasonal” salad) – perhaps tomato slices, watercress, red cabbage and lettuce hearts sprinkled with cheese and drenched in dressing – makes a welcome change from “shepherd’s” salad.
Meze and vegetable dishes
Turkey is justly famous for its meze (appetizers). Found in any içkili restoran or meyhane (and some unlicensed places as well), they are the best dishes for vegetarians, since many are meat-free.
Common platters include patlıcan salatası (aubergine mash), piyaz (white haricot vinaigrette), semizotu (purslane weed, usually in yoghurt), mücver (courgette croquettes), sigara böreği (tightly rolled cheese pastries), imam bayıldı (cold baked aubergine with onion and tomato) and dolma (any stuffed vegetable, but typically peppers or tomatoes).
In hazır yemek restaurants, kuru fasulye (haricot bean soup), taze fasulye (French beans), sebze turlu (vegetable stew) and nohut (chickpeas) are the principal vegetable dishes. Although no meat may be visible, they’re almost always made with lamb or chicken broth; even bulgur and rice may be cooked in meat stock. Vegetarians might ask İçinde et suyu var mı? (Does it contain meat stock?).
Bread and cheese
The standard Turkish loaf is delicious hot out of the oven, but soon becomes stale. Flat, unadorned pide is served with soup, during Ramadan and at kebapcıs, as is delicious lavaş, a flat bread brought hot to the table puffed-up like a balloon. Kepekli (wholemeal) or çavdar (rye bread; only from a fırın or bakery) afford relief in larger towns. In villages, cooked yufka – the basis of börek pastry – makes a welcome respite, as does bazlama (similar to an Indian paratha).
Beyaz peynir (like Greek feta) is the commonest Turkish cheese, but there are many others. Dil peynir (“tongue” cheese), a hard, salty cheese comprised of mozzarella-like filaments, and the plaited oğru peynir, can both be grilled or fried like Cypriot halloúmi. Tulum peynir is a strong goat’s cheese cured in a goatskin; it is used as börek stuffing, although together with walnuts, it makes a very popular meze. Otlu peynir from the Van area is cured with herbs; cow’s-milk kaşar, especially eski (aged) kaşar from the Kars region, is also highly esteemed.
Grilled meat dishes – normally served simply with a few pide slices and raw vegetable garnish – include several variations on the kebab. Adana kebap is spicy, with sprinkled purple sumac herb betraying Arab influence; İskender kebap, best sampled in Bursa, is heavy on the flat bread, tomato sauce and yoghurt; sarmı beyti is a ground-beef kebab wrapped in durum bread and baked in the oven. Chicken kebab (tavuk or piliç şiş) is ubiquitous, and chicken is also served as şiş, pırzola (grilled breast) or kanat (grilled wings). Offal is popular, particularly böbrek (kidney), yürek (heart), ciğer (liver), and koç yumurtası (ram’s egg) or billur (crystal) – the last two euphemisms for testicle.
More elaborate meat-and-veg combinations include mussaka (inferior to the Greek rendition), karnıyarık (a much better Turkish variation), güveç (clay-pot fricassee), tas kebap (stew), hunkar beğendi (lamb, puréed aubergine and cheese), saray kebap (beef stew topped with béchamel sauce and oven-browned), macar kebap (fine veal chunks in a spicy sauce with tomatoes and wine) and saç kavurma, an Anatolian speciality of meat, vegetables and spices fried up in a saç (the Turkish wok). Şalgam, a fiery drink made from fermented turnip and carrot, is an acquired taste that makes the best accompaniment to Adana kebab.
Fish and seafood
Fish and seafood is good. Usually sold by weight (TL40–45 per kilo in remote spots, more than double that in flash resorts), though per-portion prices of about TL15–20 prevail for less bijoux and fish-farmed species. Choose with an eye to what’s in season (as opposed to farmed, frozen and imported), and don’t turn your nose up at humbler varieties, which will likely be fresher. Budget mainstays include sardalya (grilled sardines), palamut (autumn tuna), akya (liche in French; no English name) and sarıgöz (black bream). Çipura (gilt-head bream) and levrek (sea bass) are usually farmed. Fish is invariably served simply, with just a garnish of spring onion (soğan) and rocket (roka).
Desserts and sweets
Turkish chefs pander shamelessly to the sweet-toothed, who will find a huge range of sugary treats at a pastane (sweet shop).
Turkish Delight and baklava
The best-known Turkish sweet, lokum or “Turkish Delight”, is basically solidified sugar and pectin, flavoured (most commonly) with rosewater, often stuffed with pistachios or other nuts and finally sprinkled with powdered sugar. There are also numerous kinds of helva, including the tahini-paste chew synonymous with the concoction in the West. Yaz halvası (summer helva) is made from semolina flour – the chocolate and nut-stuffed version is delicious.
Of the syrup-soaked baklava-type items – all permutations of a sugar, flour, nut and butter mix – the best is antep fıstıklı sarması (pistachio-filled baklava), though it’s pricey at TL5–8 per serving. Other baklava tend to be cevizli (walnut-filled), and slightly cheaper. Künefe – the “shredded wheat” filaments of kadayif perched atop white cheese, baked and then soaked in syrup – has become a ubiquitous dessert in kebab and lahmacun places; both baklava and künefe are often served with large dollops of glutinous Maraş ice cream.
Puddings, ice cream and fruit
Less sweet and healthier are the milk-based dishes, popular everywhere. Süpangile (“süp” for short, a corruption of soupe d’Anglais) is an incredibly dense, rich chocolate pudding with sponge or a biscuit embedded inside. More modest are keşkül (vanilla and nut-crumble custard) and sütlaç (rice pudding) – one dessert that’s consistently available in ordinary restaurants. The most complicated dish is tavukgöğsü, a cinnamon-topped morsel made from hyper-boiled and strained chicken breast, semolina starch and milk. Kazandibi (literally “bottom of the pot”) is tavukgöğsü residue with a dark crust on the bottom – not to be confused with fırın sütlaç, which is actually sütlaç pudding with a scorched top baked in a clay dish.
Aşure is a sort of rosewater jelly laced with pulses, wheat berries, raisins and nuts. It supposedly contains forty ingredients, after a legend which claims that after the Ark’s forty-day sail on the Flood, and the first sighting of dry land, Noah commanded that a stew be made of the forty remaining kinds of food on board.
Traditional Turkish ice cream (dondurma) is an excellent summer treat, provided it’s genuine Maraşlı döşme (whipped in the Kahraman Maraş tradition – a bit like Italian gelato). The outlandishly costumed dondurma street-sellers of yore have been overtaken by upmarket parlours selling every conceivable flavour; the best chain of these is Mado, with high prices but equally high quality.
Summer fruit (meyve) generally means kavun (Persian melon, honeydew) or karpuz (watermelon). Autumn choices include kabak tatlısı (candied squash with walnut chunks and kaymak, or clotted cream) or ayva tatlısı (stewed quince served with nuts or dried fruit, topped with kaymak and dusted with grated pistachio).
Slightly more healthy options include cezeriye, a sweetmeat made of carrot juice, honey and nuts; the east Anatolian snack of peştil (dried fruit), most commonly apricot and peach, pressed into sheets; and tatlı sucuk, a fruit, nut and molasses roll.
Coffee and tea
The Ottomans introduced coffee – and the notion of the coffee house – to the West during the seventeenth century. Intermittently banned as hotbeds of sedition and vice by the religious authorities, coffee houses had nonetheless become fixtures of İstanbul society by the mid-sixteenth century. The coffee was prepared, as it still is today, using finely ground coffee brewed up in a small pan and served, in tiny cups, sade (without sugar), orta şekerli (medium sweet) or çok şekerli (very sweet). Coffee fell out of favour during the early Republican period as, following the loss of the coffee-producing Arab territories, it had to be imported. But after decades of being both exorbitantly expensive and hard to find, coffee is making a major comeback. Traditional Turkish coffee is widely available today, and in the big cities and resorts there are plenty of cafés serving filter, latte and other types of coffee, though in more remote areas the usual standby is (invariably over-strong) instant coffee.
Tea has, however, become the national drink, especially in rural areas and among the less well off, as it’s still much cheaper than coffee. Home-grown in the eastern Black Sea region since the 1920s, it’s an essential social lubricant. It’s prepared in the çaydanlık or demlik, a double-boiler apparatus, with a larger water chamber underneath the smaller receptacle containing dry leaves, to which a small quantity of hot water is added. After a suitable (or unsuitably long) wait, the tea is decanted into tulip-shaped glasses, then diluted with more water to taste: açık is weak, demli or koyu steeped. Sugar comes as cubes on the side; milk is never added.
Herbal teas are also popular, particularly ıhlamur (linden flower), kuşburnu (rose hip), papatya (camomile) and ada çay (“island” tea), an infusion of a sage common in coastal areas. The much-touted apple tea (elma çay) contains chemicals and not a trace of real apple essence.
Fruit juices (meyva suyu) nowadays usually come in cardboard cartons or cans, and are refreshing but high in added sugar. Flavours include kayısı (apricot), şeftali (peach) and vişne (sour cherry). Fresh orange juice is widely available in tourist areas and big cities, as is nar suyu (pomegranate juice).
Bottled spring water (memba suyu) or fizzy mineral water (maden suyu or soda) are restaurant staples, but cheaper establishments usually offer free potable tap water in a glass bottle or a jug. Meşrubat is the generic term for all types of carbonated soft drinks.
Certain beverages accompany particular kinds of food or appear at set seasons. Sıcak süt (hot milk) is the traditional complement to börek, though in winter it’s fortified with salep, made from the ground tubers of a phenomenally expensive wild orchid (Orchis mascula) gathered in coastal hills near İzmir. Salep is a good safeguard against colds (and also reputedly an aphrodisiac), though most packages sold are heavily adulterated with powdered milk, starch and sugar. Ayran (chilled, watered-down yoghurt) is always on offer at pidecis and kebapcıs, an excellent accompaniment to spicy meat. In autumn and winter, stalls sell boza, a delicious, mildly fermented millet drink.
Since the accession of the nominally Islamist AK Party in 2002, the price of alcoholic drinks has risen sharply – mainly because of the eighty percent tax levied. Alcoholic beverages are still widely available, however, especially in the big cities of western Turkey and all resort areas. You’ll have more trouble finding a place serving alcohol in provincial and conservative towns in central and eastern Anatolia, such as Afyon, Konya, Erzerum or Diyarbakır.
Wine (şarap) comes from vineyards scattered across western Anatolia between Cappadocia, the Euphrates Valley, Thrace and the Aegean. Fine wine now has a local audience, with expensive imported labels available in most upmarket town-centre or hotel restaurants and the bigger supermarkets. Local wines are also now better distributed, resulting in a huge variety in trendy resorts, though quality remains inconsistent. Red wine is kırmızı, white beyaz, rose roze. In shops, count on paying TL12–30 per bottle of basic to mid-range wine. In restaurants, a standard table wine will set you back a minimum of TL30, but more usually TL40–50. Most places sell wine by the glass for TL8–12.
The market is dominated by two large vintners: Doluca (try their Antik premium labels, or Moskado Sek) and Kavaklıdere (whose Çankaya white, Angora red and Lâl rose are commendable). Kavaklıdere also produces a sparkling white, İnci Damalası, the closest thing to local champagne. Other smaller, regional brands to watch for include Turasan, Narbağ, and Peribacası (Cappadocia). Feyzi Kutman red in particular is superb, though rarely found outside the largest centres; another affordable Aegean producer worth sampling is Sevilen, which makes organic reds – Merlot and Cabernet – at premium prices, good whites and a palatable, MOR label, Tellibağ. Similarly confined to their areas of production are Majestik red, available only around İzmir, cheap-and-cheerful wines from Şirince, plus the vintners of Bozcaada.
Rakı and other spirits
The Turkish national aperitif is rakı, not unlike Greek ouzo but stronger (45–48 percent alcohol), usually drunk over ice and topped up with bottled water. The meyhane routine of an evening is for a group to order a big bottle of rakı, a bucket of ice and a few bottles of water, and then slowly drink themselves under the table between bites of seafood meze or nibbles of çerez – the generic term for pumpkin seeds, roasted chickpeas, almonds etc, served on tiny plates. The best brand is reckoned to be Efe, particularly its green-label line. However, Burgaz brand is often better value and nearly as good (again in green-label variety). Tekirdağ, especially its “gold series”, is also recommendable. Yeni is the most widely available at most establishments, with a double rakı in a meyhane running TL8–12. A 70cl bottle of Yeni Rakı in a Turkish shop costs around TL70, and all brands are much cheaper bought duty-free.
Stronger spirits – cin (gin), votka (vodka) and kanyak (cognac) – exist as imported labels or cheaper but often nastier yerli (locally produced) variants. Avoid drinking spirits that are suspiciously cheap; several tourists have died in recent years from drinking bootleg liquor made from deadly methyl alcohol.