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Turkish Food – Discover Turkish Cuisine and Most Important Dishes

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For quite some time, Turkish food has been less known than other cuisines like Greek or Italian. Luckily, more and more people are recognizing and enjoying Turkish food as one of the top cuisines in the world.

Food, and the feeling of community that comes with cooking and eating together play a huge role in Turkish culture. When participating in a Turkish family meal, you not only appreciate the food but the feeling of community that it brings to the table.

With its rich history going back to the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, Turkish food is as exciting and diverse as the population of Turkey. In Turkish meals, you will find elements of Asian, European, and Middle Eastern cuisine, brought together in often surprising and fascinating combinations of flavors.

No matter whether you are a meat lover, are looking mainly for vegetarian dishes, or are most excited by the opportunity to try sweet desserts, Turkish food has something for everyone!

 

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Turkish Food in Turkey

Turkey is a large country with regions that can have vastly different climates. This, of course, influences the kind of food that is traditionally eaten in a certain region. In the Eastern Black Sea region, for example, the heavy rainfall makes it impossible to cultivate wheat – this is why a lot of dishes made with corn and cornflour come from this part of the country.

The famous kebab is especially central to Anatolian cuisine since this is where a lot of cattle are kept. Traveling to the coastal areas, on the other hand, is a perfect opportunity to enjoy dishes made with fresh fish. The versatile anchovies are especially popular. In a dish that is as simple as it is delicious, these small fish are covered in cornflour and then deep-fried.

In the Aegean and Mediterranean regions, the warm climate makes it possible to grow fruits and especially vegetables throughout the whole year. Fans of veggie dishes will find lots to enjoy in Turkish food! Some of the vegetables that are most important in Turkish meals are, for example, eggplants, cauliflowers, zucchinis, and artichokes. Olives and olive oil also have a prominent position in many meals.

When you travel to a big city like Istanbul, you will find very diverse food options. A metropolis like this has immigrants from all over Turkey and other countries, who all bring their favorite foods, and their tastes in seasoning and preparing meals. Therefore, you can explore interesting and innovatively prepared meals there.

Turkish food is also known for the way it is seasoned – spices like rosemary, cumin, mint, coriander, turmeric, and saffron play a huge role in this flavorful cuisine.

Cheese is another central element of Turkish food culture, and a lot of different regions of the country have different specialty cheeses. There are many dishes, whether breakfast, dinner, or even dessert, that are prepared or served with cheese, making this country a cheese lovers’ paradise.

Fruit also plays a large role in Turkish food, due to the country’s many fertile regions that are great for cultivating fruit. Pears, apples, grapes, and plums can be found in Turkey, but also more exotic fruit like pomegranates, figs, mandarins, and apricots.

Fruits are eaten both fresh and dried in Turkey, and often as a dessert after dinner. There are some Ottoman-inspired main courses, though, that combine fruit with salty and savory flavors and integrate them into main dishes.

Bread has been an important staple of Turkish cuisine for thousands of years and accompanies almost every meal to this day. Statistically, Turkish people consume the most bread per person in the world!

There are more than 200 kinds of soup in Turkey. If you were to try one soup every single day, you would need almost a year to finish this challenge. Soups in Turkey are also very versatile, and you can have soup for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Now, let’s take a look at what is traditionally eaten at every meal throughout the day.

 

Breakfast

During the week, breakfast is often something simple that is quick to prepare, like soup. On weekends, though, breakfast is something special and the whole family comes together. The meal here is also a social event and an opportunity to catch up and spend time with your loved ones. This breakfast can last for hours and is accompanied by lots and lots of Turkish tea.

You will find lots of different food on the breakfast table, with a stronger focus on savory food than you might be used to. Turkish breakfast can, for example, include small plates of olives and fried vegetables like tomatoes or potatoes. For those with a sweet tooth, there is butter and jam to put on bread.

There are also usually eggs, which are eaten boiled, fried, or in menemen, a traditional breakfast dish that is made with tomatoes, eggs, and green peppers that are heavily spiced and cooked in olive oil.

 

Lunch

Lunch generally consists of light dishes that can be made quite quickly, like salads or soups – the time for heavy, filling meals comes at dinner when work or school is over for the day. A typical lunch will feature whatever vegetables are in season.

A lot of vegetable dishes in Turkey are prepared with the same base of olive oil, chopped onions, and tomato or pepper paste. To this base, seasonal vegetables and hot water are added. Fried vegetables are often eaten cold in Turkey, which is very refreshing, especially during the hot summers.

 

Dinner

Dinner is the main meal of the day and is usually more elaborate than lunch. The family members have returned now from school or work and can enjoy a meal together.

Most often, dinner begins with a warm soup. Then follows a dish that contains vegetables, legumes, and meat or fish boiled in a pot. This main course is served with starchy food like bread, rice, or bulgur. Afterward, the family enjoys a green salad or cacik, a dip or soup made from yogurt with garlic, cucumbers, olive oil, and salt.

The vegetable or meat stew of the main course is often accompanied by rice pilaf, one of the staples of Turkish cuisine. A classic, plain pilaf is cooked only with butter, but there are also a lot of tasty varieties that make use of all the spices that are part of Turkish food.

While pilaf is mostly served to accompany the main course, there are also more satiating and elaborate pilafs that can be served just with salad as a full meal. In the summer, plain pilaf is often eaten cold with yogurt as a refreshment.

When it comes to meat dishes, lamb, chicken, and beef are the most popular kinds of meat. Meat can be roasted in spicy sauces, prepared as meatballs, or boiled in a pot together with vegetables or legumes (lentils, beans, chickpeas).

The most famous meat dish in Turkey is probably the kebab. You will most often find kebab as street food, where it is roasted on skewers, but it can also be prepared at home in pots without any water.

The kinds of meat dishes that tourists find most unusual are likely offal dishes – these are meat dishes made of entrails like brain, liver, or kidneys.

When you go to a Turkish market, there will always be at least one butcher selling entrails. Not only are they cheaper than meat, but they are also very nutritious. It is well worth trying them – maybe you will become a fan!

After dinner, later in the evening, there is often a small, additional meal. Yatsilik refers to a snack that is eaten in the evening at 9 or 10 pm. Like in many warm countries, people in Turkey often go to bed pretty late. This snack consists of mostly nuts, like pistachio or walnuts, roasted chickpeas or sunflower seeds, as well as fresh and dried fruit. This is served with black tea.

 

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Turkish Street Food

Most people do not have time to prepare elaborate meals every day, and on especially stressful days, many working people do not even have time to sit down for a meal in a restaurant. This is where the large selection of street food comes in – this kind of fast food is prepared quickly, is filling, and delicious, and you can eat it while walking or standing.

Turkish street food is probably what foreigners associate most with Turkish cuisine since there is hardly a city all over the world where you cannot find döner kebab places. The iconic sight of a cone of döner meat turning slowly while it is being roasted is known to everyone. But, of course, döner kebab is not the only kind of street food you will find in Turkey!

Two street food dishes that are often compared to pizza are pide and lahmacun. Even though they are both baked dough with toppings, it is quite easy not to confuse them with one another: Pide is made of thick dough and has a long and oval form, like a little boat.

Lahmacun, on the other hand, is made of thin dough shaped into a circle and therefore looks much more similar to pizza. Both can be topped with various combinations of meat, sausages, vegetables, and cheese.

Lahmacun is traditionally covered by a base layer made of minced meat mixed with tomato and onion and spiced with salt, parsley, and red pepper. As opposed to an actual pizza, it is then filled with fresh tomatoes and lettuce, and you roll it up before you eat it. Maybe a comparison to a burrito would make more sense.

Köfte ekmek is another example of the Turkish Food in the street for filling bread with delicious toppings. This street food is often sold from vans and consists of bread (ekmek) filled with meatballs (köfte), tomatoes, lettuce, and onion. The vegetarian and healthier version of this is called çiğköfte – while this literally translates to “raw meatballs”, the meatballs in this case are made mostly without meat nowadays. Instead, they are balls of bulgur which are served wrapped in lettuce and sprinkled with tomato juice.

If you are into snacks that are less spicy, Turkish street food got you covered, too. Simit is bread in the shape of a ring (looking a bit like a bagel or donut) covered with sesame. You can eat it plain or with some cheese. A softer version of this is called acma. This is another bread in a ring shape, and it can also be encrusted with sesame, but sometimes also cumin or nigella seeds.

Most places that sell Turkish street food also offer ayran. This refreshing drink is a staple of Turkish cuisine and you should absolutely try it – see whether your local kebab place might offer it! In its basic form it consists of water, yogurt, and salt, sometimes, mint leaves are added. It is a perfect accompaniment to any kind of food, especially spicy dishes because the milk in the yogurt helps your mouth and throat cool down a bit after consuming something really spicy.

 

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The Top 30 Turkish Dishes You Need to Try

Here are some of the best Turkish dishes you need to try! Let’s start with savory dishes first – later on, I’ll show you desserts and a couple of drinks.

 

Yuvalama Çorbası

We talked about the big role that soups play in Turkish food, and this festive soup is probably the Turkish soup that is most labor-intensive to prepare. If you get a chance to try it you should definitely do so!

It is traditionally made for the three-day celebration that marks the end of fasting during Ramadan. During this month, adult Muslims that are not sick or otherwise unable to do so, do not eat or drink between sunrise and sunset. The end of this month of fasting is celebrated with elaborate meals, and this soup is one of the dishes that you will find during this celebration.

It is based on a yogurt broth and contains spiced meatballs, chickpeas, olive oil, and other ingredients that depend on the tastes and customs of a family. The most difficult part, which requires a lot of patience, is to roll the countless little meatballs – often, the whole family as well as neighbors do this together, so that even the preparation of this soup is a festive, communal experience.

 

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Mercimek Çorbası

This is a soup made of orange or red lentils. Even though it is quite simple and an everyday staple of the Turkish kitchen, it is delicious and will surely warm you up on a gloomy day.

The lentils are pureed with spices, and before serving, this deceptively simple soup is topped with cilantro, melted butter, and lemon juice. It is often served with some pickled vegetables or warm pita bread on the side, but it is also filling and nutritious on its own.

 

Kuzu Tandır

This dish comes from the Akşehir region in central Anatolia, and you might already know it under a different name: lamb tandoori. Tandoori or tandır refers to the special oven that the meat is cooked in. A traditional tandır is large, shaped like an urn, and usually placed outside. This kind of oven is also often used to make large flatbreads.

Kuzu tandır is a dish made with lamb, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and onions. The lamb, which sometimes is a piece of meat, sometimes a whole lamb, is cooked for hours in the tandır until it is really soft.

 

Yaprak Sarma

You might have already spotted these fermented vine leaves stuffed with rice in your local supermarket, but the canned version cannot compare to those made fresh in a restaurant or even at home!

You can try making them yourself, since this is a dish that does not require many ingredients or complicated methods of preparation, but if you get the chance to eat them in Turkey or an authentic restaurant, you should take it.

Aside from stuffed vine leaves, in Turkey, you will also find other fermented leaves like those of cabbage or kale filled with a variety of grains and sometimes also minced meat. You can eat them both hot and cold and they taste good plain or with yogurt and other dips and sauces.

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Dolma

The dishes that are called dolma go way back to the Ottoman Empire – and if recipes stay in use for this long, it is usually for very good reasons. In general, the name dolma refers to a group of stuffed dishes, like for example the stuffed vine leaves I have already mentioned. Stuffed leaves are only one dish among many, though. Stuffed vegetables like eggplant, zucchini, or onions are also staples of Turkish cuisine.

The stuffing mainly consists of minced meat and spiced rice, but can easily be made vegetarian by leaving out the meat. Even fruits can be stuffed with savory and sweet fillings. Quinces, for example, are enjoyed stuffed with rice and meat, but also with a sweet mixture of rice and currant with cinnamon, sugar, and coriander. Many historians thinks Dolma is not predimantly a Turkish Food, but instead spread equally in all the middle east and Mediterranean Europe.

 

Mam Bayıldı

This specific stuffed dish also goes back to the Ottoman Empire – the name translates to “the Imam fainted,” that’s how good it is! Here, a whole aubergine is stuffed with onion, garlic, and tomato and then simmered in olive oil. This dish is not served hot, but at room temperature or warm. It is definitely worth a try – maybe you, too, will find it good enough to faint for.

 

Mantı

These tiny dumplings are filled with deliciously spiced minced beef or lamb which are then either boiled or fried. They are known in a lot of cuisines, and you can enjoy them with different sauces and garnishes. In Turkey, they are served most often with a sauce made of yogurt and garlic and then topped with melted butter, red pepper powder, and ground sumach or dried mint. If you want to eat them in a way that reminds you of ravioli, you can also eat them with tomato sauce.

 

Döner Kebab

I could not write about Turkish food without giving an honorable mention to the döner kebab! A döner is a piece of pita bread filled with seasoned roasted meat and vegetables or salad, for example, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and various sauces. Depending on the döner shop you go to, you might be able to ask for additional ingredients like sweet corn, feta cheese, or falafel.

The döner inside of bread as we know it today has been established by Turkish immigrants in the 1960s in Berlin, but the characteristic way of roasting the meat on an upright rotisserie goes back all the way to the Ottoman Empire. Known all over the world, the döner is as multicultural as it is delicious.

 

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Dürüm

Originally mostly sold as street food, you can now also find this in a lot of restaurants. Dürüm is often called the “Turkish burrito” since meat, salad, and fresh vegetables are served in a wrap made from yufka flatbread. While the filling is largely the same as in a döner kebab, a dürüm is easier to eat on the go without finding yourself covered in yogurt sauce and salad after a few bites!

 

Balık Ekmek

This is another popular street food. Balık Ekmek literally translates to “fish bread”, and it is a fish sandwich where a filet or grilled fish, usually oily fish like mackerel, is served inside a piece of Turkish bread, together with vegetables like pickles, onions, or lettuce.

If you visit Istanbul, make sure to drop by the waterfront area called Eminönü. There, you can buy balık ekmek directly from the ships that have caught the fish!

 

Kumpir

A kumpir is a Turkish baked potato and a popular fast food dish. It is most often filled with a mixture of pureed potato and kaşar cheese, a cheese made from sheep milk, and a small amount of goat milk. Other toppings like pickles, corn, or sausage slices, as well as condiments like ketchup and mayonnaise, can be added.

Especially in larger cities that are popular destinations for a lot of tourists, kumpir sellers will offer a lot of topics that foreigners are used to – trying kumpir can be an exciting experiment in a combination of Turkish and European cuisine.

 

Kapuska

This is a cabbage stew that is a traditional staple in Turkey and the Balkans but is also enjoyed all over Eastern Europe. In the Turkish way of preparation, the cabbage is cooked with garbanzo beans, rice, and bulgur.

You can then either add ground meat or keep it vegetarian. Even though it is a very simple meal and often considered poor people’s food, it is also hearty, filling, and flavorful – perfect for a cold winter evening.

 

Bazlama

This round Turkish flatbread is also called “village bread” and is traditionally roasted over an open fire. It is about 2cm thick and can have a circumference of anything between 10cm to as large as 25cm.

You can stuff it with vegetables like a big round sandwich, but it is also very delicious simply eaten fresh with a bit of butter or olive oil. Really good bread is often even better when there are not too many toppings to distract you from how delicious it is!

 

Kokoreç

This type of street food is something for more adventurous eaters, given that it consists of organs of goats or lamb which are wrapped in intestines. But it is well worth a try since you are not very likely to find this at home, whereas in Turkey, this is a popular dish sold by vendors on the street.

The organ meat is marinated in a sauce made of olive oil, lemon juice, oregano, salt, and pepper. Then, the meat is wrapped in the intestines and grilled until it is brown and crispy on the outside.

 

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Meze

Rather than a specific dish, meze is a meal experience you should not miss out on. Meze refers to a selection of small dishes which are usually served as appetizers.

Enjoying a meze platter can give you insight into some of the highlights of Turkish cuisine, like specialty cheeses, diverse seafood (like fried squid or octopus salad), and several dips. No matter what you desire, on a well-selected meze table, you are sure to find something that you like!

 

Hunkar Begendi

This dish, also called “sultan’s delight” will surely delight you, too, with its rich, smoky flavor. This characteristic taste comes from an aubergine that is grilled until the skin is slightly burned, and then pureed and mixed with bechamel sauce. You eat it topped with pieces of lamb meat, and/or vegetables if you want to go for a vegetarian option.

 

Piyaz

This salad is made from dried beans and onion, garnished with parsley and sumach. You often find it as part of a meze platter, but in some regions like Antalya it is also eaten as a main dish since the beans make it very filling. Whether you eat it alone or as part of a meal, this salad is sure to refresh.

 

Kisir

This is another delicious Turkish salad. Kisir is made from bulgur wheat, garlic, parsley, and mint. Depending on local traditions, there might be other ingredients added. In Antakya, in the south of Turkey, for example, pomegranate molasses and hot chili flakes are added to the salad, making it both sweet and spicy.

 

Börek

This delicious pastry is made of many layers of thin, flaky, dough. It is filled with various savory fillings, for example, feta cheese, green or red peppers, spinach, or meat. It comes in many different shapes and sizes, like squares, rolls, or spirals.

Sweet börek is comparatively rare, but there are Laz böreği, which are filled with pudding or custard, or Küt Böreği, which is a börek without filling that is sprinkled with powdered sugar. Whether sweet or savory, the flaky melt-in-your-mouth dough is sure to delight.

If the thought of sweet börek made your mouth water, you will enjoy the following Turkish desserts!

 

borek

 

Kayısı Tatlısı

Fruits play such a great role in Turkish food, so you should definitely make a point of trying some of their fruit-based meals. An example is this dessert consisting of stuffed apricots. Turkey is at the top of the world in the production of apricots, or Kayısı, as they are called in Turkish.

For this light dessert, which is the perfect ending to a heavy, filling meal, the fruits are stuffed with kaymak, a Turkish version of clotted cream. Because during the production of kaymak, no sugar is added, the only sweetness in this dish comes from the natural fruit sugar in the apricots. This makes it perfect for those who like their desserts not too sweet.

 

Künefe

This is a dessert that, in various names and various methods of preparation, is known throughout the Middle East, the Balkans, Greece, and Turkey. The Turkish variety is a plate filled with three layers: a middle layer of semi-soft cheese is sandwiched between two layers made of shreds of pastry dough. This dish is then cooked and served very hot. It is eaten with clotted cream and sweet syrup, often also topped with chopped nuts. The result is a dessert that is wonderfully sticky, soft, and crunchy, all at the same time.

 

Baklava

This famous Turkish dessert is known all over the world, but freshly made soft and crispy baklava plays in a different league than what you can find in a supermarket.

These sweet pastries are made with many layers of filo dough, which is a very thin unleavened dough. Baklavas are filled with chopped nuts and soaked in syrup, honey, or milk, which makes them deliciously juicy and sticky. There are countless varieties of baklava with different nuts and flavors, but pistachio baklava is probably the most famous version.

What many people don’t know is that for making baklavas, baby pistachios are used, rather than the big ones you get from the supermarket. These small pistachios have a greener color and more flavor, and they are also less bitter. Baklava can also be filled with hazelnuts, walnuts, or almonds. Sometimes, it is eaten topped with ice cream.

 

Mozaik Pasta

When reading this name it might surprise you that this is a cake and not a pasta dish – “pasta” is the Turkish word for “cake”! This particular cake is the Turkish version of something you might know as “chocolate salami,” the Italian dessert named for its sausage-like shape.

It is made of broken cookies, butter, eggs, and cocoa. Since this is a no-bake cake it can be made pretty quickly and is therefore a popular homemade dessert in Turkey, but you can also find it in the coffee houses of Istanbul.

 

Tavuk Göğsü

Milk pudding with chicken breast might sound strange when you hear it first, but it is one of the most well-known and beloved Turkish desserts! It was a favorite of the sultans of the Ottoman Empire, and some say the recipe even goes back to Ancient Rome.

It is made from white chicken breast meat that is cooked until it is very soft and then separated into thin stripes. The meat is then mixed with milk, sugar, and rice flour. When it is cooked and has reached the desired thick texture, it is cut into squares or rolled into a log.

This dish is often sprinkled with cinnamon before serving. If you are someone who is intrigued by unusual combinations of flavors and ingredients, this is definitely something you should not miss out on.

 

Halva

This confection, which spread from Persia throughout the Middle East, is something that is often served on special occasions in Turkey. It is a staple at both sad events like funerals, and happy ones, like weddings.

Halva comes in many shapes, but what they have in common is that they are all based on a thick paste, which can be made from flour or ground nuts, and which is sweetened with sugar or honey. It can then be shaped into balls, squares, or little cookies.

 

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Lokum

This sweet confection is known all around the world as a Turkish Food delight. It is made from a gel that consists of starch and sugar and which hardens to small cubes that have a chewy texture. They are covered with a powdery substance like powdered cream of tartar or icing sugar so that they do not stick together when stored in a box or bag.

While traditional varieties are usually flavored with rosewater, orange, or bergamot, you can find many exciting flavors nowadays, as well as lokum that contains additional ingredients like nuts, fruits, or nougat.

 

Dondurma

Dondurma is the traditional Turkish version of ice cream. Its texture is a bit more stretchy and chewy than the ice cream you know. This is due to the inclusion of a powder that is made from the roots of wild orchids, which contains starch so that the mixture is quite thick. Other than that, it is made of goat milk and sugar, so it is as creamy and sweet as can be expected from ice cream.

Instead of just in ice cream cones or bowls, dondurma is often served as a side dish to other desserts, like baklava. It is available in a lot of flavors like pistachio or cocoa, but it is very delicious even in its neutral original taste. Sometimes, dondurma is prepared with an extra large amount of starch so that it becomes very thick – then, you can enjoy the experience of eating ice cream with a knife and fork!

 

Salep

This is the name of the flour that is made from powdered orchid root and which is also used for giving Turkish ice cream its unique chewy texture. The word can also refer to the delicious drink that is made by mixing this powder with hot milk or hot water. You can imagine it as a hot version of Turkish ice cream.

This cozy beverage is served sprinkled with cinnamon and is usually drunk during winter. Many places that sell ice cream in the warm seasons will change their menu to salep drinks during winter.

Firinda Sütlaç

Another extremely cozy and satisfying treat is the Turkish version of rice pudding. What makes it special is that after the rice pudding has been cooked it is baked in a clay dish – or any other ovenproof dessert cup if you cannot wait to make it at home straight after reading this! Before it is baked, a mixture of egg and milk is used to cover the pudding. This makes for a wonderful golden-brown crust.

This rice pudding is usually less sweet than its Western counterparts. Therefore, it is a healthy and practical dessert for families with children, but nobody ever grows out of enjoying this creamy pudding. It can be eaten with cinnamon and some also like to add raisins, but it is delicious all in itself.

 

Rakı

This strong alcoholic drink is considered the national drink of Turkey. It is made from twice-distilled grapes and flavored with aniseed. Therefore, it tastes similar to other drinks flavored with anis, like the Greek ouzo. It is rare, though, that rakı is drunken and undiluted. Mostly, either chilled water or ice cubes are added to the glass.

When water is poured into the drink, the mixture turns a milky color, which is how the drink earned its nickname “aslan sütü”, which means “lion’s milk.” In Turkish culture, the lion also stands metaphorically for a strong, brave man, so those who drink rakı are probably very courageous, too! Rakı goes well with seafood or a meze table, but you might also want to enjoy it after dinner.

This list is, of course, only a small glimpse into the diverse and rewarding world of Turkish food. There are many more things to explore, but I hope I have given you insight and made you excited to delve into this wonderful cuisine!

 

 

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