Gourmets rank Turkish cuisine, along with French and Chinese, as one of the world’s three classic cuisines. Turkey’s rich and varied cooking derives from its multi-ethnic Ottoman heritage and food is often the highlight of a visit. To whet your appetite, here are some of the best traditional Turkish dishes.
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Turkey is justly famous for its meze, which in many ways is the heart of Turkish 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, but still worth trying. Another favourite is künefe, a southeastern Turkish treat made from mild goat’s cheese, topped with shredded wheat and soaked in rose syrup. It is served warm after being baked in the oven.
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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 and 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.
Iskender Kebab is named after its inventor, Iskander Efendi, who lived in the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. It is one of the most popular dishes in traditional Turkish cuisine.
Iskender kebab can be made from thinly sliced lamb or chicken meat cooked on the grill. The meat should be placed on pita slices drizzled with a spicy tomato sauce and then drizzled with melted sheep's milk butter and yoghurt on top. In eateries, the sauce and butter are usually poured over the kebab while it is being served, as an element of entertainment for the diners.
Kebab (kebap in Turkish) has figured prominently in Turkish cuisine for over 10 centuries, and its meaning has enlarged to include meats that have been boiled, baked or stewed. Meat is usually cooked with vegetables – for example with şiş kebabs, pieces of green pepper, tomato and onion add flavour to the morsels of meat.
If you are into spicy Sis kebabs - in the far southeast, (Şanlıurfa, Gaziantep and Antakya), the food becomes much spicier. Şanlıurfa is known for its onion-laced şiş kebabs. Sis Bebab is one of the staples of Turkish cuisine.
Another famous meat dish in Turkish cuisine is Karniyarik. It consists of aubergine stuffed with sautéed chopped onions, garlic, tomatoes and minced meat seasoned with ground black pepper. Optionally, green peppers and parsley can be added to this dish. If you're looking for vegetarian options, the traditional Turkish dish İmam bayıldı is very similar to Karniyarik but does not include meat in its composition.
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Turkish kofte, also known as köfte, is a popular and traditional meatball dish in Turkish cuisine. Kofte is made by mixing ground beef or lamb with onions, herbs, spices, and breadcrumbs, then shaping the mixture into balls or patties. The mixture is then grilled, baked, or fried until cooked through and browned on the outside.
There are many variations of kofte, with different regions and families having their own unique recipes and preparations. Some popular types of kofte include Adana kofte, which is spicier and made with ground lamb, and Izmir kofte, which includes herbs and vegetables such as parsley and grated carrots.
Süpangile (“süp” for short, a corruption of soupe d’Anglais) is an incredibly dense, rich chocolate pudding with a sponge or a biscuit embedded inside. Or try other deserts such as keşkül (vanilla and nut-crumble custard) and sütlaç (rice pudding).
The most complicated dish is tavukgöğsü. This is a cinnamon-topped morsel made from hyper-boiled and strained chicken breast, semolina starch and milk.
Offal, or "sakatat" in Turkish, is a type of cuisine that is commonly consumed in Turkey. It refers to the internal organs and entrails of animals such as liver, kidney, heart, and stomach, and it is considered a delicacy in Turkish culture. Turkish offal dishes can be prepared in many ways, such as grilled, fried, or stewed, and are often seasoned with spices and herbs.
Some popular offal dishes are Böbrek (kidney), yürek (heart), ciğer (liver), and koç yumurtası (ram’s egg) or billur (crystal) – the last two euphemisms for testicle.
Çoban (shepherd’s) salatası is the generic term for the widespread cucumber, tomato, onion, pepper and parsley salad. Beware, the peppers are sometimes very spicy. Yeşil (green) salad 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 staple of lunch-time lokantas (from the Italian locanda) is sulu yemek (literally, “liquid food”), vegetable- and meat-based stews, or hazır yemek (ready food), including more involved oven casseroles. Even simpler are the çorbacıs (soup kitchens), open long hours while purveying a range of soups.
The most frequently encountered soup is mercimek (lentil soup), The main ingredient is lentils. It can be vegetarian or include meat. Any kind of lentil can be used in the soup, but red or yellow lentils will make it thicker.
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.
Turkish Delight, or "lokum" in Turkish, is a popular confectionery that originated in Turkey. It is made from a mixture of sugar, cornstarch, water, and flavourings such as rosewater or lemon juice. The mixture is boiled until it thickens and then poured into trays to set.
Once set, it is cut into bite-sized cubes and coated in icing sugar or a mixture of icing sugar and cornstarch to prevent sticking. Turkish Delight comes in a variety of flavours such as pistachio, hazelnut, and orange, and it is often served as a dessert or a sweet snack with tea or coffee.
Pilav is a traditional Turkish meal of rice cooked in broth with spices and other ingredients such as a variety of vegetables and meat. Pilav is cooked using a special technique that prevents the grains of rice from sticking to one another. Over the years this method has spread around the world and given us dishes like Spanish Paella, South Asian pilau or biryani.
Islak burger cannot be called traditional Turkish food in the full sense of expression, as it can only be tasted in the Turkish capital, Istanbul. "Wet burger" is a favourite Istanbul street food: a meat patty (usually beef) on a soft bun is drizzled with garlic spicy tomato sauce and left to simmer in a steaming box before being served to diners.
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Turkish coffee is prepared by combining finely ground, roasted robusta beans with water and sugar in a long-handled, tapering small pot (cezve). (You’ll be asked if you want your coffee plain – sade; medium sweet – şekerli; or cloying – çok şekerli). The brew is allowed to rise twice without actually boiling, the esteemed resultant froth decanted first into little cups, then the liquid, and the sediment (never drunk) last.
Given the higher cost of coffee, the staple of çayhanes is çay (tea): served black and sweet (never with milk) in small, tulip-shaped glasses. It’s prepared in a double boiler, typically aluminium, known as a çaydanlik or demlik – the tea is steeped in the bottom half, with the resulting brew combined with plain hot water from the top part.
You can ask for açık (mild) or demli (strong) tea – if you say nothing it will probably arrive stewed to the point of undrinkability.
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