I learned many things living in Turkey for three years, but perhaps the most prominent was that Turkish food is seriously underrated.
When I moved to Istanbul in 2014, I couldn’t believe how many mouth-watering dishes I was trying for the very first time and, frankly, I never knew existed. My knowledge of Turkish cuisine was sorely limited to late night kebabs in cities decidedly not in Turkey.
In that sense, I feel as if Turkish cuisine is a well-kept secret that is worth hopping on a plane to go and discover. After having had the privilege of eating literally thousands of meals in Turkey, I’m here to tell you what you need to try when you go there to ensure that you get the full flavour and essence of the nation. The truth is, with its array of unique spices and traditional methodology, Turkish cuisine is very much the beating heart of an exciting and dynamic nation.
It’s an exploration you’ll thank yourself for sip after sip, bite after bite. When it comes to food in Turkey, here are six of the must-try dishes.
Lahmacun may look like pizza from afar, but it’s no pizza, my friend. Lahmacun consists of thinly-rolled dough with a layer of minced meat, minced vegetables (tomato and onion), and a slew of herbs such as cayenne pepper and cumin.
In Turkey, you often add lettuce, onion and a little tomato onto the middle once it’s baked, then roll it up and dig in (think Turkish burrito). You might also include an ayran (traditional salty yogurt beverage) to drink if you’re feeling extra adventurous.
This is one of those dishes that has been around for forever, and will continue to be around for a long, long time. Humanity should be collectively thankful for that fact.
2. Turkish breakfast (kahvaltı)
At this point, I’ve visited 75 countries, and I’m willing to go on record in saying that Turkish breakfast is my favourite meal on the planet. Each restaurant specializing in kahvaltı puts their own twist on the meal, placing at the forefront what they think they do best.
In Istanbul’s Besiktas neighbourhood, there’s literally a “breakfast street” with dozens of restaurants, all doing things differently and packed to the brim every weekend.
There are some staples, though. A Turkish breakfast usually has olives (zeytin), white cheese (beyaz peynir), a variation of mozzarella cheese (kaşar peynir), fresh butter, honey and jam, bread, sliced tomatoes, and cucumbers. You’ll also usually add some hot elements such as menemen, which is essentially scrambled eggs mixed with tomatoes, and gözleme, a version of a Turkish crepe usually filled with spinach, potato, or cheese.
In my humble opinion, the two best breakfast joints in Istanbul are Nezih in the Bebek neighbourhood and Café Privato near the Galata Tower.
Iskender, often known as Iskender kebap, is one of the most famous dishes in Northwestern Turkey. It was created by a man named Iskender Efendi Konağı from Bursa, which is just a two-hour ferry from Istanbul, and a lovely place in its own right.
So, what is it and how is it made? First, they put pita on a cylindrical plate and pour on some tomato sauce. Then, they add a bed of thinly-sliced lamb on top, and cover that in melted sheep’s butter. Finally, they add a scoop of yogurt next to it. It’s one of my favourite dishes in the country!
If you’ve got some free time in Istanbul to play with, think about heading to Bursa but, if not, there are good Iskender restaurants in most major cities, especially in the west.
4. Turkish tea (çay) and coffee (kahve)
Everyone in the world seems to know about Turkey’s famed coffee rituals while Turkish tea sits aside, seemingly forgotten. Yet, when you’re in Turkey, you’d think it must be the other way around. You can’t walk for 30 seconds in any direction without seeing those lovely, petite curved tea glasses.
That being said, kahve is unique, and worth a taste! In stark contrast to the West’s filtration method, Turkish coffee, kahve, is all about slowly boiling the ground beans. It’s thicker, and it’s certainly got some kick to it.
Turkish tea, or çay, on the other hand doesn’t have a strong flavour, but it does have a strong cultural presence. It’s usually made with two kettles (one with water, one boiling loose tea leaves), then you use the water to “dilute” the tea, and add some sugar.
Generally speaking, the best place to get your hands on either is at the Grand Bazaar, which is one of Istanbul’s great, chaotic hangouts. Getting a çay on the ferry is also well worth it!
When in Turkey, you’d be remiss not to eat simit, which is more or less a circular, sesame-encrusted bagel. When done right (and vendors take simit baking seriously), it’s got a hard, crunchy exterior, and a soft, tender interior.
The simit has been a Turkish staple since the early 15th century and what’s special about it is that it’s ubiquitous in Turkey. It’s hugely popular in many parts of the nation, and it also tends to transcend class and status. You can find simitçis (literally “simit sellers”) on most busy street corners or squares in the nation, and, in Istanbul, you’ll see simitçis standing beside their red, circular carts waiting to greet you.
I’d recommend you also buy a packet of peynir (cheese) to spread on it as well. Simit is nice and cheap – it’s perfect if you’re hungry but in a hurry!
Tip: Tempted to try some Turkish food? Intrepid’s 10-day food trip in Turkey is full of tasty delights. There’s a kebab crawl and street food tour in Istanbul, a sunset wine tasting in Cappadocia, a cooking class in Goreme and so much more!
6. Çiğ köfte
The name “çiğ köfte,” literally translates to “raw meatball,” which is how it used to be made, but in modern Turkey it’s now made with bulgur, onion, tomato paste and spices. It’s a specialty of Southeastern Turkey, but you can find it almost anywhere nowadays, considering it’s one of Turkey’s favourite snacks. This is one of those dishes that I didn’t love immediately, but I probably miss the most now that I’m not in Turkey.
It’s great to take the hand rolled çiğ köfte and wrap them in lettuce, tucking just a bit of mint or parsley inside. It’s spicy, filling, and has an unmistakable flavour!
Honourable mentions: When in Turkey also don’t forget about going to a Meze (a variety of classic Turkish dishes to share) restaurant for dinner, eat some Turkish Delight (lokum), and drink a little rakı, which is the alcohol in Turkey.
Honestly, I could have included at least a dozen more dishes to this list, but start with this if you’re looking for some variation of flavour, and to get a start into diving into Turkey’s dynamic and delicious culture.
The food in Turkey will leave an impression on your soul, but the trick is to get on a flight and go experience it for yourself. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.
Are your taste buds tempted? Check out Intrepid’s 10-day Turkey Real Food Adventure for the tastiest trip of your life.
(Image credits from top to bottom: April Wong for Intrepid Travel x2, iStock/Muratani, Chris Mitchell x3, April Wong for Intrepid Travel x3.)