A short list simply doesn’t do Turkish cuisine justice. The variety of food in Turkey that’s mouthwatering stretches back to the days of the Ottoman Empire, mixing in influences of Central Asian, Middle Eastern and Balkan cuisines to create the Turkish tastes we know today. When you’re greeted with traditional meals served on a sini (large tray that were once used as alternatives to tables in rural areas), you take a bite out of Turkey’s history.
Influences and Turkic elements of the landscape and region have created a gastronomy that changes as you cross the country. In Istanbul and the Aegean region, Ottoman flavors reign supreme with lighter spices, a preference for rice and eggplant and vegetable stews in abundance. The Black Sea region turns to fish nearly exclusively, a specialty being hamsi (Black Sea anchovy). Travel farther to Adana for its famous kebabs and west to reap the produce of olive trees.
Clearly Turkish food cannot be defined by one dish. To get a taste of Turkey from border to border, combining the old world and new, try a sampling of the dishes that put Turkish cuisine on the map.
Menemen | You might have made menemen before, and not even known it. This traditional Turkish dish includes scrambled eggs, onion, tomato, green peppers and dashes of spices like black pepper, red pepper, oregano and salt. It’s Turkish breakfast at its best. Eat it with hot bread and spoon up the sautéed meal for a satisfying start to your day.
Switch out one letter and you’ll instantly recognize kebaps as your favorite kebabs. The word means “roasted,” typically referring to the meat of lamb or beef grilled over a charcoal fire on a skewer. In Istanbul kebap is at every corner, in a multitude of varieties. If you’re lost on what to order, try urfa kebabi. It’s lamb, dried red hot pepper, onion, tomato and parsley kneaded and mounted on skewers. After grilling, it’s served with pieces of pide (flatbread), parsley and gravy.
Döner | Perhaps the most famous of the kebaps, döner has swept the world, but it will always be best in Turkey. At its core, döner is beaten pieces of meat seasoned with suet, local herbs and spices and skewered to be grilled vertically. It’s thought the original kebabs originated when nomadic tribesmen grilled meat over fires with their swords, eventually evolving to döner kebaps, which literally means rotating kebabs.
This dish is a must-try. It’s a meal of eggplants with minced meat and pan-fried onion, parsley, garlic and tomato filling. If you want to know you’re being served the best, check out the eggplants. The dark purple color of the peel shouldn’t smudge. The eggplant serves as an edible bowl, making this dish delicious to every last bite.
Kuzu Tandir | Kuzu tandir is the holy grail of lamb dishes in Turkey. It’s fragrant, tender and effortless falls off the bone and into your mouth. Tandir is the ancient cooking technique of heating meat in a special-made onion formed from a pit in the soil. The original pit ovens were lined with mud and goat hair, eventually filled with wood and coal to burn as the formation hardened. The whole lamb would then be hung, suspended over the coals and left to cook for hours.
Today tandir means to roast meat slowly in a marinade of its juices in the more conventional manner of the stove or oven.
You could spend all day trying the different pilav recipes, but the simplest is also the fan favorite. Plain rice is cooked in water with butter or oil and the noodle-like pieces of sehriye. As you broaden your horizons, try variations with eggplants, chickpeas or meat and spiced with cinnamon, thyme, cumin, pepper or almonds.
Kuru Fasulye | This Turkish classic of white bean stew is cooked with devotion and devoured with enthusiasm. It’s so significant, that you can stumble upon eateries in Istanbul serving nothing but kuru fasulye. This comfort food is made of tomato pasted, diced tomatoes, sliced peppers and of course white beans. It first grew in its popularity as a filling meal and alternative to meat, and has stayed around for its deliciousness.
Mozaik Pasta Tarifi |
Step into nearly any Turkish café and the go-to for a sweet craving of mozaik pasta tarifi will be on the menu. Fans of cocoa need only apply, as it’s a chocolate cake made with chocolate sauce and broken biscuits sprinkled in. It’s a favorite for Turkish moms to make, requiring no baking at all.
Köfte | You might know them as meatballs, but köfte can really come in any shape. The only requirements include ground meat, usually in the form of lamb or mutton, combined with crumbled bread, onions and spices. For vegetarians, you can try mercimek köftesi. This recipe appeals to those who steer clear of meat, using lentils, bulgur and chopped vegetables instead.
Any stuffed vegetable can claim the name dolma, but traditionally it refers to filled vine leaves. They’re packed with a flavorful mixture of rice, onion and spices. Other common vegetables that can serve as a vessel of tastes include tomatoes, peppers, onions, zucchini, eggplant and garlic.
Turkish Coffee | Thick and strong is the only way to serve Turkish coffee. The coffee beans are roasted and then finely ground and boiled in a cezve (pot) with sugar. The unfiltered brew is served in a cup, with the grounds settling to the bottom. The bitter beverage is so intertwined into Turkish life that it’s been deemed an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Turkey by UNESCO. Balance the robust taste with a piece of the light and fresh lokum (Turkish delight), a confection of chopped dates, pistachios and hazelnuts set in a gel.
Don’t try this at home, kids. Künefe is often the treat of choice when dining out, as it’s very difficult to make at home. This Turkish dessert is made from cheese baked with a shredded pastry dough and sprinkles of pistachio on top.
We hope you haven’t had your fill of the country yet. Check out Cappadocia: Turkey’s Diamond in the Rough.
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