When one talks about Turkish cuisine, not many know how vast and varied it is, especially when you start to get into regional delicacies.
Turkish cuisine owes its richness to Ottoman, Mediterranean, Balkan, and Middle Eastern influences.
This means you will see a lot of fish dishes, plenty of olive oil, as well as a lot of meat dishes seasoned with spices such as cumin, sumac, and the famed black-hued pepper flakes "isot".
- Regional differences in Turkish cuisine
From Iskender kebab and İnegöl köfte to yaprak ciğer (thinly-sliced sauteed liver) and kestane şekeri (candied chestnut), the Marmara region has a variety of specialty dishes.
Meanwhile, the Aegean region is not as meat-heavy and hence is perfect for vegetarians as it has many vegetable dishes and mezes. Good quality virgin olive oil and salad greens will always be a part of dinner tables here.
The south is similar, but the closer you get to the east, the more meaty and spicy dishes you will see. Piyaz (white bean salad) with tahini, a specialty of Antalya, and Adana kebab are some of the Mediterranean region's most famous dishes.
Central Anatolia is the grain silo of the country; hence you will see a lot of doughs or pastries combined with meats. Konya’s etli ekmek or mantı are classic delicacies.
Hamsi (anchovies), corn, and cabbage are staples of Black Sea cuisine. This region also likes to incorporate butter and cheese into its dishes.
The very east may not be as rich as the southeast, but delicacies such as cağ kebabı from Erzurum or Kars gruyere cheese will often be enough to change your mind.
Down further south, you will see that most dishes Turkey is famed for come from this region. This region never shies away from spice. Alinazik kebab and içli köfte are world-renowned delicacies.
The Turkish Diet
Just as it is wrong to put Turkish cuisine into a single category, the Turkish diet will change depending on where you are in the country.
However, in Europe, when one mentions the Turkish diet, the first things that come to mind are the olive oil and fish-rich classic Mediterranean diet with a variety of kebabs and more traditional meat dishes and street foods.
Breakfast is crucial for Turks, and they will always have a combination of cheeses, eggs, olives, tomatoes, or pastries. For lunch, Turks will often have salad, soup, or rice/bulgur. Dinner will either be similar to lunch or be centered around stews (sulu yemek), kebabs, or grilled fish.
Special Meals in Turkey
Turks like to create/make meals or specific dishes for special occasions, whether for weddings, religious festivals, or mourning.
Such foods are specially made or baked for guests or the household and express the meaning of the special days on which they are eaten.
- Keşkek: A popular ceremonial dish prepared for weddings or engagements, especially in the Aegean region. This stew-like dish is made with either meat or chicken and wheat or barley.
- Kavurma: After the ritual sacrifice of lambs or goats for the Festival of Sacrifice (Kurban Bayramı), the meat is sauteed in spices and cooked in special pans called "saç".
- Kandil simidi: These are traditional shortbread sesame rings/bagels made especially for religious holidays called "kandil" s.
- Helva: Made from flour or semolina, browned in melted butter, and drenches in sugar, water, or milk, this dessert is often distributed to mourners.
- Aşure: Also called Noah's pudding, this porridge-like dessert contains grains, fruits, dried fruits, and nuts.
- Güllaç: A traditional Ramadan dessert, güllaç is a milky pudding made of güllaç sheets infused with rosewater and sprinkled with nuts.
Popular Ingredients in Turkey
- Bulgur: From köftelik bulgur (super fine) to başbaşı bulgur (bigger, meatier looking), turks use bulgur in many dishes.
- Salça: There are very few dishes in Turkey that do not incorporate tomato paste. You can also use biber salçası (pepper paste) for an added spicy kick.
- Yufka: Paper-thin phyllo dough is the star of many pastry dishes, including böreks.
- Nar ekşisi: Pomegranate molasses is used in some types of dolmas and drizzled over salads.
- Yogurt: Look for “kese yoğurdu” or “süzme yoğurt” for a much thicker, creamier authentic Turkish yogurt.
- Cheese: You will always find some Beyaz peynir (similar to feta) and Tulum cheese at breakfast tables or rakı tables.
- Onions: This vegetable is the base of many classic Turkish sulu yemek (stews).
Famous Dishes in Turkey
- More than a dozen Turkish dishes are known and loved by many. Here are a few that almost anyone is familiar with.
- Iskender kebab: This is döner 2.0. On a bed of pita squares lay pieces of döner drenched in a tomato sauce and sizzling butter. It will often be served with grilled peppers and a healthy helping of Turkish yogurt or ayran, the traditional Turkish savory yogurt drink.
- Kayseri mantısı: You will surely like these tiny pastries filled with spicy ground beef if you are into all kinds of ravioli. It is either served with garlic yogurt or red pepper flakes and melted butter.
- Sarma and dolma: These are both stuffed rice dishes; the first is made of vine leaves, and the latter uses a variety of vegetables, including zucchinis, tomatoes, and even dried eggplants.
- Lahmacun: Likened to pizza, this thin and crispy dough is quite similar to pide in that it is topped off in a layer of minced lamb or beef, chopped onions, garlic, peppers, tomatoes, and parsley.
- Adana and Urfa kebab: These are spicy, long lamb mince kebabs from the cities they are named after. Served with flatbread, Turkish salad, and sumac onions, the difference between these two is that the first is much hotter/spicier.
Famous Desserts and Sweets in Turkey
- Baklava: This layered dessert is made of many thin and flaky phyllo sheets filled with pistachios or walnuts and sweetened with syrup.
- Lokum: Turkish delight comes in endless combinations and flavors. The most famous are probably either rose-infused or mandarin-flavored versions. They can contain nuts such as pistachios or be covered in desiccated coconut.
- Lokma: You will often see special trucks selling or distributing these fried dough balls drenched in syrup.
- Pişmaniye: Often referred to as Turkish cotton candy, this dessert is made by blending flour roasted in butter into pulled sugar, topped off with ground pistachio nuts.
- Mesir macunu: Created in Manisa, this is a special paste made of honey and over 40 spices, said to have various healing and aphrodisiac properties.
If you are into Turkish TV and know Turkish, cooking shows on TV will be an excellent place to learn the intricacies of Turkish dishes. Pelin Karahan'la Nefis Tarifler, Arda'nın Mutfağı, Memet Özer ile Mutfakta are great choices.
There are also countless blogs and Youtube accounts to follow, such as Turkish Food Travel, Pantryfun.com, or chef Danilo Zanna.