How many times have you heard someone say “I’m craving Turkish tonight?” Probably never. Unlike other ethnic cuisines, Turkish food has never had its It-food moment on this side of the Atlantic.
But for me, it’s usually my first choice. Growing up in Cairo in a Egyptian/Turkish family exposed me to a wide variety of rich flavors. After moving to the U.S., I was surprised by how little attention Turkish cuisine receives. With just a couple
good mediocre Turkish eateries in major US cities, exposure to Turkish food seems to be limited to kebap — the Turkish spelling of kebab — and baklava.
All this is about to change! Food Republic is prepping you for what will become the latest food obsession (mark my words!). Get in the loop with this guide t0 eating and drinking Turkish, in Turkey or wherever you can find good Turkish food.
- Turkish cuisine is essentially modernized Ottoman cuisine. During the Ottoman period, food was at the center of the empire, with high-ranking commanders in the army holding secondary titles like Chief Cook, Baker and Pancake Maker (my personal favorite). The kitchen was a competitive environment where heated political debates took place and hundreds of the Sultans’ chefs dedicated themselves to their profession, creating and perfecting dishes for the palace.
- Modern-day Turkish cuisine is a melting pot that fuses Middle Eastern, North African and Central Asian cuisines and flavors.
- Turkish cuisine is regional, varying greatly from one area to another. The cuisine of Istanbul, and the rest of the Aegean region, uses lighter spices with plenty of seafood and olive oil in the mix. The Black Sea region, also rich in seafood, is influenced by nearby Balkan and Slavic cuisine. The southeastern part of the country is meat central. Think döner (Turkish gyro,) kofte (meatballs) and kebap galore. Baklava also comes from the south (read more on baklava below.)
- Each morning, Turks start the day with a hearty breakfast. Common fare includes eggs with sucuk (spicy beef pepperoni), beyaz peynir (sheep’s milk cheese), kaymak (thick, clotted cream) with raw honey smeared on a thick slice of bread and a chewy piece of simit (a bagel-like sesame ring). Turkish tea is served at breakfast, while coffee comes later in the day.
- Meze are small hors d’oeuvres similar to Spanish tapas, usually served before a meal. Waiters present a large tray filled with a wide variety of small plates for you to choose from. Common meze include humus, barbunya pilaki (barotti beans stewed in olive oil) and various eggplant spreads.
- Street food is more like a religion. Everything from salted, burp-less (seedless = no burping) cucumbers to Islak (wet) burgers are featured in the stalls. Keep your eyes peeled for kokoreç (lamb intestines sandwich, stuffed with sweetbreads, heart, lung and kidney). Trust us on this one and take the risk — you won’t regret it. Also look for pilav carts. If you spot a steaming cart loaded with rice pilaf, chickpeas and shredded chicken, that’s your cue to queue up fast, and get it while it lasts. Other staples include lahmacun (a round, paper-thin spicy sauce and ground lamb) and midye dolma (mussels stuffed with rice, cinammon and raisins).
- Turkey has two national drinks, the first being a salted yogurt–based beverage that usually accompanies kebap or pilaf dishes. Give it a shot: You’ll be surprised by how refreshing it is. The second, more exciting drink, is rakı — also known as the lion’s drink. Popular throughout the region, with aliases such as ouzo or sambuka, this anis-flavored lion’s milk will make you forget all about your troubles. Possibly forever.
- Turkish desserts are often split into two categories: dairy-based and non-dairy-based. Be sure not to miss the glorious tavuk göğsü, a sweet pudding made of milk and chicken. Yes, chicken, in a dessert — and it’s amazing. Non-dairy-based desserts include baklava, a rich, sweet pastry made of layers of phyllo pastry filled with chopped pistachio or walnuts and sweetened with syrup. A heated debate with neighboring Greece about baklava ownership has gone on for centuries, and tends to make Turkish blood boil.
- The Istanbul Culinary Institute, located in the heart of Istanbul, offers a variety of cooking classes for amateurs. Choose one of the many Turkish cuisine workshops offered and learn how to replicate your favorite Turkish dishes at home. Stay tuned for an interview with Hande Bozdoğan, Istanbul Culinary Institute’s founder, coming soon to Food Republic!
- Turkish coffee. Enough said.
So there you have it. Now that you’ve brushed up on your knowledge of Turkish cuisine, book your flight to Turkey and try this amazing food for yourself.
For more Turkish and Mediterranean flavors, check out these Food Republic stories: