Food in Turkey
Turkish cuisine combines Mediterranean, Central Asian, Caucasian and Arab influences and is extremely rich. Beef is the most important (lamb is also common, but pork is very hard to find, although it is not illegal), and aubergines (aubergine), onions, lentils, beans, tomatoes, garlic and cucumbers are the main vegetables. A plethora of spices are also used. The main staples are rice (pilav), bulgur wheat and bread, and dishes are usually cooked in vegetable oil or sometimes butter.
There are many types of speciality restaurants, as most of them do not prepare or serve other types of food. Traditional Turkish restaurants serve meals prepared daily and preserved in a water bath. The meals are located at the entrance so that you can easily see and choose them. Kebapçis are restaurants that specialise in many types of kebab. Some kebab restaurants serve alcohol, others do not. There are subtypes such as ciğerci, Adana kebapçısı or İskender kebapçısı. Fish restaurants usually serve meze (cold dishes with olive oil) and rakı or wine. Dönerci’s are spread all over the country and serve kebab as fast food. Köfeci’s are restaurants that serve meatballs (Köfte) as the main dish. Kokoreçci, midyeci, tantunici, mantıcı, gözlemeci, lahmacuncu, pideci, çiğ köfteci, etsiz çiğ Köfteci are other types of local restaurants in Turkey that specialise in one food.
A full Turkish meal at a kebab restaurant starts with a soup, often made of lentils (mercimek çorbasi), and a series of meze starters, including olives, cheese, pickles and a wide variety of small dishes. The meze can easily be transformed into a complete meal, especially when eaten together with rakı. The main dish is usually meat: a common type of dish and Turkey’s most famous culinary export is kebab (kebap), grilled meat in various forms, including the famous kebab kebab (thin slices of meat scraped from a giant rotating skewer) and şişkebab (meat kebab), and many others. The köfte (meatball) is a variation of the kebab. There are hundreds of different types of köfte throughout Anatolia, but only 10-12 of them are known to residents of the big cities, e.g. İnegöl köfte, Dalyan köfte, sulu köfte, etc.
Mostly you eat at discount prices at kebab stands, which are everywhere in Istanbul and other big cities. For the equivalent of a few dollars, you can get a whole loaf of bread, sliced down the middle and filled with grilled meat, lettuce, onions and tomatoes. For North Americans familiar with kebabs wrapped in pita bread or wraps, look for the word “Dürüm” or “Dürümcü” on the windows of the kebab stands and ask for your kebab to be wrapped in a Dürüm bread or Lavaş, depending on the region.
Vegetarian restaurants are not common and can only be found in very central areas of big cities and in some tourist resorts. However, all good restaurants offer vegetable dishes and some of the restaurants that offer the traditional “ev yemeği” (“home cooking”) have specialities based on olive oil that have a vegetarian component. A vegetarian would be very happy in the Aegean region, where all kinds of wild herbs are eaten as a main meal, cooked or raw, seasoned with olive oil. But a vegetarian would have real difficulty finding food, especially in the south-eastern region, where a dish without meat is not considered a dish. This is where supermarkets can help by stocking their shelves with tinned vegetables or even dishes cooked in olive oil and tinned fresh fruit. If you are vegetarian and visiting the rural areas of the south-east region, it is best to take your tinned food with you, as there are no supermarkets to save you.
Some Turkish desserts are modelled on the sweet Arabic desserts with nuts: famous dishes are baklava, a puff pastry made of finely ground nuts and phyllo dough dipped in honey and spices, and Turkish Delight (lokum), a gummy confection made of rose water and sugar. There are also many other types of desserts prepared mainly with milk, such as kazandibi, keşkül, muhallebi, sütlaç, tavuk göğsü, güllaç, etc.
Turkish breakfast usually consists of çay (tea), bread, olives, feta cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers and sometimes spreads like honey and jam. This can become very monotonous after a while. A good alternative to try (if you have the chance) is menemen: a Turkish version of scrambled eggs/omelette. Red pepper, onion, garlic and tomato are combined with eggs. The food is cooked (and served) in a clay dish in the traditional way. Try spicing it up with a little chilli and make sure you also use plenty of bread for a hot and nutritious breakfast. Bread is ubiquitous in Turkey. You will be presented with a large basket of crusty bread at every meal.
The ubiquitous simit (also called gevrek in some Aegean cities like Izmir), which resembles a bagel but thinner, crispier and with toasted sesame seeds everywhere, is available in street vendor carts in virtually every central district of every city, at any hour except late at night. Perhaps with the addition of Turkish feta (beyaz peynir) or cream cheese (krem peynir or karper), a few imitations make a very economical topping and breakfast (as each costs about 0.75 TL), or even lunch on the go.
Drinks in Turkey
Turkish coffee (kahve), served in small cups, is strong and tasty, but be careful not to drink the muddy grounds at the bottom of the cup. It is very different from the so-called Turkish coffees sold abroad. Sade kahve is served black, while the şekerli, orta şekerli and çok şekerli coffees will put a little, a little or a lot of sugar in your cup.
Instant coffees, cappuccinos and espressos are becoming more popular every day and are available in many different flavours.
Although coffee is an important part of the national culture, tea (çay) is also very popular and in fact the common drink of choice. Most Turks are heavy tea drinkers in their daily lives. It was only in the 1930s that tea came on the scene and quickly prevailed over coffee as Yemen, then Turkey’s traditional supplier, was cut off from the rest of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century. The first tea plants took root in East Karadeniz after some attempts to grow tea in the country were unsuccessful due to protectionist economic policies after the First World War. Although not typical of the region and rather touristy, you should try the special apple tea (elma çayı) or sage tea (adaçayı, literally island tea) from Turkey.
Ayran is a popular water-yoghurt drink, reminiscent of Finnish/Russian “buttermilk” or Indian “lassi”, but always served without sugar (and in fact usually with a little salt added). If you are travelling by bus in the Taurus Mountains, ask for “köpüklü ayaran” or “yayık ayaranı”, a variant of this popular local drink.
Boza is a cold, thick, traditional drink native to Central Asia, but also common in several Balkan countries. It is a fermented bulgur (a type of wheat) to which sugar and water are added. [www.vefa.com.tr/index.php?dil=en Vefa Bozacisi] is the best known and most traditional boza producer in Istanbul. In Ankara, you can get excellent boza from Akman Boza Salonu in the old town of Ulus. On the shelves of many supermarkets you can also find boza, especially in winter, packaged in one-litre PET bottles. However, these bottled bozas do not have the bitterness and consistency of traditional boza, they are sweeter and less dense.
Sahlep (or salep) is another traditional hot drink made from milk, orchid root and sugar, typically decorated with cinnamon. It is especially favoured in winter and can be found in cafés and pastry shops (pastane) and can easily be confused with cappuccino. You can also find instant sahlep in many supermarkets, sold under the name Hazır Sahlep.
Red poppy syrup is one of the traditional Turkish drinks made naturally from red poppy flowers, water and sugar. Bozcaada is famous for its red poppy syrup. [www]
International brands of cola, sodas and fruit juice drinks are readily available and commonly consumed alongside some local brands. Please note that soda in Turkish means mineral water, while what is called soda in English is called gazoz or sade gazoz in Turkish.
While a significant proportion of Turks are practising Muslims, alcoholic beverages are legal, widely available and much appreciated by the local population. The local firewater of choice is Rakı, an aniseed-flavoured liqueur double-distilled from fermented grape skins. It is usually mixed with water and drunk with another glass of ice water added. You can order a “tek” (single) or a “duble” (double) to indicate the amount of rakı in your glass. Try it out, but don’t overdo it because it is very effective. Remember not to mix it with anything else. Supermarkets have a wide range of different types. Mey and Efe Rakı are two of the biggest producers. Only connoisseurs know which type is the best. Yeni Rakı, which is a decent type for distribution and consumption wıdest.
As for Turkish wines, they are as good as the local grape varieties. Kalecik Karası from Ankara, Karasakız from Bozcaada, Öküzgözü from Elmalı, Boğazkere from Diyarbakır are among the best known varieties. The biggest winemakers are Kavaklıdere [www], Doluca [www], Sevilen [www] and Kayra [www] with many good local vineyards, especially in the western part of the country. In addition, the sweet fruit wines of Şirince near Izmir are worth tasting. A special sweet red wine to try during your stay is Talay Kuntra [www].