Gourmets rank Turkish food, along with French and Chinese, as one of the world’s three classic cuisines. The country’s rich and varied cooking derives from its multi-ethnic Ottoman heritage – when it was part of an empire stretching from the Middle East to the Balkans and the Caucasus to North Africa – and food is often the highlight of a visit. To whet your appetite, these are some of Turkey’s finest dishes, from A to Z.
Turkey is justly famous for its meze, in many ways the heart of the nation’s cuisine. The best and most common 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).
There are a variety of different baklava-related desserts, all permutations of a sugar, flour, nut and butter mix. The best is antep fıstıklı sarması (pistachio-filled baklava); cevizli (walnut-filled baklava) is usually a little cheaper. Also worth trying is künefe, another southeastern Turkish treat made from mild goat’s cheese, topped wıth shredded wheat soaked in syrup, and baked in the oven.
The standard Turkish loaf, sold from glass-fronted cabinets outside grocery stores across the city, is good if an hour or two old, but soon goes spongy and stale. Flat, semi-leavened pide bread is served with soup, at kebapcıs and during Ramadan. Unleavened durum, like a tortilla, is the wrap of choice in cheap döner joints. Mısır ekmeği (corn bread) is a Black Sea staple, sometimes makes an appearance.
There’s far more to Turkish cheese than beyaz peynir (like Greek feta), a ubiquitous element of the standard Turkish breakfast. Dil peynir (“tongue” cheese), a hard, salty cheese that breaks up into mozzarella-like filaments, and the plaited oğru peynir, can both be grilled or fried like Cypriot halloúmi. Tulum peynir is a strong, salty, almost granular goat’s cheese cured in a goatskin. Otlu peynir from the Van area is cured with herbs and eaten at breakfast; cow’s-milk kaşar, especially eski (aged) kaşar from the Kars region, is also highly esteemed.
Budget mainstays include sardalya (sardines – grilled fresh), hamsi (anchovies – usually fried) and istavrit (horse mackerel). Mercan (red bream), lüfer (bluefish), kılıç (swordfish) and orfoz (giant grouper) are highly prized and expensive. Çipura (gilt-head bream) and levrek (sea bass) are usually farmed and consequently good value – if less tasty. But whatever its price, fish is generally simply prepared and grilled.
Kebabs include the spicy adana, with its sprinkling of purple sumac herb betraying Arab influence; İskenderkebap, best sampled in the city of Bursa, is heavy on the flat bread and yoghurt. Köfte (meatballs), şiş (stewed meat chunks, usually mutton or beef) and çöp (bits of lamb or offal) are other options. Chicken (piliç or tavuk) is widely available, usually either as a skewer-cooked şiş or a breast fillet. Karnıyarık, aubergine halves stuffed with a rich mince-filling, is another delicious staple, as is güveç, a clay-pot fricassee. Hunkar beğendi (beef stew on a bed of puréed eggplant and cheese) has its origins in Ottoman times and is a must-try.
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 dishes are keşkül (a 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 looks the same but is actually sütlaç pudding with a scorched top baked in a clay dish.
Böbrek (kidney), yürek (heart), ciğer (liver), and koç yumurtası (ram’s egg) or billur (crystal) – the last two euphemisms for testicle, less commonly found of late – are just some of the more entertaining specialities, but far more readily available is kokoreç, seasoned lamb’s intestines often cooked on a charcoal grill and available from street vendors.
Çoban (shepherd’s) salatası is the generic term for the widespread cucumber, tomato, onion, pepper and parsley salad (beware, the peppers are sometimes hot); yeşil (green) salad, usually just some marul (lettuce), is only seasonally available. Mevsim salatası or seasonal salad – perhaps tomato slices, watercress, red cabbage and lettuce hearts, sprinkled with cheese and drenched in dressing – resembles a Western salad and often accompanies a kebab meal.
The most frequently encountered soups are mercimek (lentil), ezo gelin (rice and vegetable broth – thick enough to be an appetizing breakfast), paça (trotters) or işkembe (tripe) soup laced liberally with garlic oil, vinegar and red pepper flakes, an effective hangover antidote/preventative.
Dishes such as kuru fasulye (bean soup – rather like baked beans in tomato sauce), taze fasulye (French beans), sebze turlu (vegetable stew) and nohut (chickpeas) are usually found in lokantas (and the home). Meaty favourites include sebzeli köfte (meatballs stewed with vegetables) and various types of chicken stew.
The best-known Turkish sweet, lokum is ubiquitous. In its basic form, it’s just solidified sugar and pectin, flavoured (most commonly) with rosewater and sprinkled with powdered sugar. More expensive are versions liberally studded with nuts, usually either walnuts or pistachios.
Explore more of Turkey with the Rough Guide to Turkey.