Guide to Turkish Cuisine
Istanbul is built across seven serious hills, and if you think the trek from Lewis to Olin is a thigh-burning wonder, come here for the magic these significantly steeper slopes will inspire. The bright side of all this climbing, is that you work off the love you’ve been giving to delicious Turkish food. And, as I’ve found, there is plenty to love in Turkish cuisine.
Turkey is a sprawling nation whose land lies across different soil types and climates —seven, to be precise— an agriculturist’s dream.
From the breezy Mediterranean sunshine of the Southwest, to the harsh heights in the East, Turkey’s natural bounty sees all kinds of produce flourishing. Add its 500km coastline with all the fish the fishermen can find, and you get an idea of how fecund this generous land is. But that’s only one factor toward a delightful culinary heritage. The other, lies in Turkey’s history: of swelling empire, of free-flowing immigration, and of trade.
As one of the oldest permanently settled regions in the world, present-day Turkey has seen its fair share of kingdoms, empires and their accompanying feasts. From the Persian empires, to the rulers of Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman heritage, Turkey enjoys the best of many worlds.
The peak of the Ottoman empire stretched from Algiers to Żurawno in present-day Ukraine, including parts of Egypt, Greece and Azerbaijan; you can imagine the level of interaction within the vast lands.
After nearly two months of happiness in Turkey, Turkish food makes me think of meat (chicken and mutton especially), eggs, cheese, sweetness, bread-based confectioneries and delicious desserts. Of course, there are fish aplenty, but I hardly get seafood. Chefs have been cooking the spoils of the soil for centuries, and people treat homegrown ingredients and a respectful tender spot for food as something natural.
Next, for liquid delight unique to Turkey: çay (Turkish tea), ayran (the cold yoghurt drink is considered a national drink), rakı (another national drink, this anise-flavored alcoholic beverage can be up to 158 proof) and Turkish coffee (a grainy drink with the status of ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of the Turks’ by UNESCO) impressed me quite a bit.
In a word, cuisine here can be described as hearty. In two words, hearty and heartfelt: even when the restaurant/café/eatery is not independent or family-run but a franchise chain, Turkish hospitality emerges. The difference between rich food and hearty food could be in the quality of satiety it evokes. Rich food, with its connotation of decadence, leaves you feeling faint from intense excess. Hearty food, while supremely filling too, warms your tummy gently.
Food here is revered, and breakfast is the king of the day.
It is nearly a category on its own.
Now we move to the wheres and whats.
The photos above show “kahvaltı” fare, aka breakfast. The word literally means ‘before coffee’, and the breakfast menu can be had all day. There is no one typical Turkish kahvaltı, and it could comprise bread, cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, sweet spreads like pekmez (a molasses-like syrup), tahini (which tastes of roasted sesame since that’s what it’s made of), honey, clotted cream (tastes like the dream it sounds like) and nutella. But you could also have a breakfast devoid of carbohydrates with menemem (a kind of omelette cooked with anything including peppers and spiced sausages) or little side dishes, which brings us to our next category: the meyhane.
Meyhanes serve alcohol and accompanying mezes which are small appetizers, little dishes of deliciousness. You can pick as many plates as you like: the restauranteur will come by with a trays of vegetables, meats and fish, and you can err on the side of abundance. Expect white cheese, squid, meatballs, stuffed vegetables (dolma, sarma) yoghurt salads, eggplants and any number of variations on meat.
Next, another place where you can customize your plate, the esnaf lokantası, or, the tradesman restaurant, catering to the busy working crowd. Imagine steaming dishes waiting to catch your attention, before being scooped up to join your pilav or pasta. You’ll find all kinds of vegetables cooked in gravies and curries, as well as beans and even whole chickens.
Turkey is famous for kebaps —skewered meat, roasted or grill, drenched in juices— but there is a particular kind of kebap restaurant you should definitely visit when in Turkey, the Ocakbaşı. A large open grill with charcoal embers, its cooks skewers of meat and assorted vegetables before your eyes and watering mouth. Remember to get some ayran along with all that barbecued meat.
Finally, along many streets there are food stores. You can easily find yourself a simit (sesame-encrusted bread), a döner kebap (aka gyros in Greek or shawarma in Arabic), dürüm (like a burrito with döner ingredients), böreks (pastries filled with meats, olives, cheese etc.), kokoreç (spiced sheep’s intestines), and kumpir (baked potatoes, stuffed with mayonnaise salad, corn, cheese, and more).
My flatmate’s mother recently sent us a box of homemade food from Izmir with kısır, dolma, sigara böreği, köfte, gözleme and more. From this single encounter, I would venture to say that traditional Turkish cuisine is as delightful and warm as anything found in restaurants.
– Min Yi Tan