Turkish cuisine is one of the country’s great markers of pride. At first it may be hard to see why – compared to complicated French dishes, fragile Chinese delicacies, and American extravagance, the Turkish table seems simple. What passes as ‘Turkish food’ in the US and Western Europe often appears as street food a festivals – doner, kebabs and sticky baklava. But this is as much Turkish cuisine as Domino’s Pizza is Italian.
Turkish people take their food seriously. Cooking is an art, passed down from generation to generation. And while western franchises are becoming more popular, even shopping mall food courts offer great Turkish classics.
The great secret to Turkish cuisine is in the fullness of taste and complimentary parings. Turkish food – real Turkish food – is never bland. Nor is it ever smothered in spice. Ingredients added always compliment and draw out the food’s full flavor. There is doner, and there is döner. Somehow even bread with fish tastes magical when paired with the right spices – mild savory fish, flaky white flesh paired with sour sharp lemon, the soft crunch of fresh shreddedlettuce, a bite of sliced onion, just enough red pepper to pique the roof of your mouth, juice seeping into a warm loaf of crusty golden-baked bread. The following is a small sampling of simple foods common across Turkey.
Gözleme: Gözleme a often (erroneously) translated as “pancake”, but it’s more of a flatbread. The dough is rolled around a rolling pin until it is very thin, then folded over cheese, spinach, potatoes or less-traditional ingredients like bananas and honey before being baked in a flat tandoor oven. It is often served with fresh cut cucumbers and tomatoes, and a side of cold ayran (salty kefir-like drink), and tastes best at 3pm after a long ocean swim.
Turkish breakfasts in the home are usually a bit simpler, but always involve breads accompanied by jams, honey or tahini; black and green olives, a cucumber-tomato salad, usually two types of cheese (mild yellow and soft white, or crem), and some kind of eggs. Oddly enough, breakfasts and egg dishes often come with friend potato wedges.
Eggs with Sausage (Sucuklu Yumurta): The Turkish sausage know as “sucuk” (pronounced “soo-jook”) is made with garlic and sometimes hot red pepper. Sucuk-making is an art and while grocery stores will sell it packaged and processed, the best sucuk is stuffed by hand and can sell for upwards of 40 Lira.
Menemen is an egg dish made by sautéing red and green peppers (and often onions) in a pan, then covering the peppers with scrambled eggs and covering for a minute or two until the eggs are almost done. It’s often served as part of Turkish breakfast, or with either fried potato wedges or lavash, a Turkish flatbread puffed up in the oven.
Köfte. Often referred to as “Turkish meatballs”, köfte more resemble small hamburger patties. They can be served with pilaf, in a sandwich, covered in yogurt sauce, or on bread and topped in tomato sauce and peppers, or in one of a hundred other ways.
Sosli köfte/Kofte with sauce. This dish was actually from a red-boothed restaurant in a mall. You know a nation takes their cuisine seriously when the mall food is this good (and still under $5)
Kayserı Mantası/Mantis from the city of Kayseri. Manta are sometimes (erroneously) translated as “ravioli”, which is a shame. Manti are basically thin squares of dough stuffed with meat, cheese or vegetables and then either boiled (somewhat like ravioli), steamed (kind of like dumplings) or baked. Kayseri Manta are tiny manti stuffed with meat, boiled, then covered in a sauce of yogurt, smoked red pepper, and mint, best accompanied by some aubergine. These we (again) had in a mall.
Midye/Stuffed Mussels. Usually sold from street carts in seaside towns and snacked on by beachgoers or downed with Efes beer, midye are mussel shells filled with rice pilaf packed around the actual mussel. To eat you slide off half the shell, use it as a scoop to pick up the packed pilaf, and give a liberal squirt of lemon. In Bodrum the “Brothers Sarı” (“Sarı kardeşler”) dominate the midye business, with the seven brothers all operating around different peninsula ports.
Cakes and sweets. Though not every cup of tea is accompanied by a plate of cookies and cake, it’s quite common to serve something sweet to visiting guests. Sweets are usually more aromatic and nut-heavy than in the US or UK. My favorite are cookies made with almond or hazelnut flour, sugar and egg whites – somewhat similar to a meringue.
Nut sweets. See above – nuts don’t often make their way into main courses, but they do feature heavily in Turkish cuisine, especially in desserts and dry snacks.
Baklava: It’s not just Greek and Italian! In fact, Turkish friends were really skeptical that I’d ever had Baklava before coming to Turkey. Here, there are basically two kinds: that made with honey and walnuts, and that made with pistachios. There are also the related pistachio, honey and phyllo dough rolls. Compared to baklava in the US, Turkish baklava tend to be less sweet and more intense in nutty flavor.
Kebabs: Here, you see two kinds: The traditional ‘Adana Kebab’ on the far side of the table, and the stuffed and rolled ‘Beyti Kebab’ in the forefront. While we often think of kebabs as just grilled meat on a stick, in Turkey kebab refers to a certain kind of meat, and kebabs can be prepared in dozens (if not hundreds) of ways, including in dishes like stews.
There’s much, much more to the Turkish table, and I’ve left out some of the most common dishes (like pilaf and pide), so check back for “A Sampling of the Turkish Table: Part 2” and “A Short History of Turkish Cuisine”