After living in Turkey, and traveling all around the country, I can tell you one of the major reasons I keep going back is for the food. Turkish cuisine goes back centuries, and because of the Ottoman Empire spread throughout many parts of Europe.
Today you can find Turkish restaurants in many major cities, because once you’ve really delved into traditional Turkish food, like our famous Traditional Turkish Borek, you won’t ever be able to get enough.
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Why Is Turkish Food So Good?
Turks still cook the way their mothers taught them. They have the biggest markets and bazaars where picking up the freshest ingredients is quick, cheap, and easy. The markets are fun to walk around, and you can find everything from seasonal produce, eggs, milk, cheese, flour, baked goods, meat, really anything.
The vendors are both commercial vendors as well as the neighborhood ladies who have picked or made something to sell. Every village, town, city has at least one bazaar, just check to find out what days they are held by asking the hotel clerk.
Turkish Cuisine and What to Eat
Breakfast in Turkey is a smorgasbord of bread, tomatoes, cheese, olives, cucumbers, honey, and whatever else they have on hand. On weekends, especially, you will see Kahvalti (breakfast) served all over. It’s similar to a western brunch, and the restaurant kahvalti can be eaten into the late afternoon. One of the best places to experience this is the restaurants right near the bus stop at the Rumeli Hisari in Istanbul.
Turkish Street Food and Snacks
- Simit – a bread ring sold everywhere, oftentimes the tray is balance on the head.
- Gözleme – Flat bread with stuffing of your choice
Pide or Lahmacun – Turkish pizzas
- Borek – can be filled with potoatoes, cheese, meat.
- Kokoreç – intestines, usually eaten after drinking all night.
- Kumpir – baked potatoes, toppings can include peas, corn, sausage, pickles, mushrooms, esme.
In Turkish, appetizers are called meze. There are so many to choose from that you can easily make your entire meal out of mezes. I have done this, but traditionally the waiter comes around with a “tepsi” or tray highlighting the meze of the day. You can take them right off the tray or point and he will serve them to you.
Usually a few to share are a good way to start your dinner. There are so many mezes, that I couldn’t possibly write them all down, but here are some of the regulars.
- Acili Esme – a spicy tomato topping
- Fried Eggplants and Peppers
- Haydari – yogurt with mint
- Peppers stuffed with cheese- red peppers baked with cheese
- Pickled anchovies – Just what you envision and tasted better than you think.
- Russian salad – similar to a mayonnaise-y potato salad
- Midye Dolma – Stuffed or fried mussels
- Lahana Sarma – stuffed cabbage rolls
- Yaprak Sarma – stuffed grapeleaves olive
Turkish Main Dishes
The Turks do love their meat, but surprisingly you can find a lot of vegetarian foods as well. I love eating the lamb and chicken. In fact, Jim and I pine for Turkish grilled chicken. I think it’s the best, tenderest I’ve ever eaten. Of course, there is no pork at all, and the beef is really not something I would order.
Power Tip: Most Turkish people like to share foods, so the best way to enjoy a variety of dishes is to order 2-5 mezes, a couple of main dishes, and of course a couple desserts, put them in the middle of the table and have everyone enjoy.
- Döner Kebab – one of most iconic foods, with the lamb and beef on a vertical skewer and sliced off.
- Iskender Kebab – a pide, with the döner meat on top, then tomato sauce, and butter on top of that.
- Beyti Kebab – almost like a tortilla wrapped meatball with sauce.
- Adana Kebab – skewered spicy meatballs (köfte).
- Guveç” – Meat, vegetables cooked in clay dish. Shrimp are delicious.
- Mantı – Like small raviolis, with a garlic yogurt sauce.
- Fresh fish – our favorite is levrek, which is Sea Bass.
Turkish Desserts and Drinks
- Firin Sutlaç – Which is a rice pudding (made with milk).
- Chocolate soufflé – wetter in texture than other soufflés, it’s decadent and tasty.
- Dodurma – Turkish Ice Cream.
- Turkish Chicken Breast Pudding – yes, no kidding. It’s a dessert with chicken bits in it and tastes much better than you might think.
- Kunefe – dessert offered in almost every restaurant, best in Şanliurfa.
Can you find Vegetarian Food in Turkey?
Of course you can! It just might not be as obvious as some places, but there are plenty of choices for the vegetarian in your life. When we lived in Turkey, one of our friends, Patti, was vegetarian and it could get difficult to order. She would usually try starting out in Turkish, but oftentimes it would go to English pretty quick.
Usually her ordering went something like this:
Patti: Etsiz yemek varmi? (Do you have any meatless dishes?)
Waiter: No meat?
Patti: Yok (technically means nothing, but is slang for no and is better used here than the word for no, which is “hayer”).
Waiter: No chicken?
Waiter: No fish?
Well, you get the picture. Many restaurants, especially outside of Ankara or Istanbul, the more she had to try and explain. Of course once she found a few dishes she could rely on, it got easier.
The easiest were the mezes and pides. There were many appetizers that didn’t have meat, and if you order off of the tepsi (tray) they bring around, you can see what is in the dish. The same with pide, gozleme, or borek. They all have fillings or toppings of all kinds, and vegetarian ones are very common.
More Vegetarian Dishes
- Patlican Biber Kizartmasi – fried pepper with yogurt sauce, which is one of our favorites.
- Menemen – spicy scrambled eggs, not just for breakfast.
- Dolma like Yaprak Sarma – stuffed grapeleaves. They are only stuffed with rice.
- Kuru Fasulye – white beans. You can have the in a salad or in a stew.
- İmam Bayıldı – a stuffed eggplant dish. Just make sure to ask if it has meat first. (Et var mi?) You are looking for the to say yok or hayer.