Before heading to Turkey, I had no idea of the food that awaited me. In fact, my knowledge of the local gastronomy was limited to Turkish Delight and assumptions about its similarity to Greek cuisine. Boy, was I mistaken.
While it’s true that certain recipes share similarities, like stuffed vine leaves — known as Dolma in Turkish or Dolmades in Greek — the history and geographical location of each country had a great impact on their respective versions. In ancient times, the Greek’s often chose to maintain fresh flavour profiles with lemon, olive oil and oregano, while on the other side of the Aegean, the Turks opted for additions like spices and dried fruit. Both variations are delicious, but taste completely different.
As Turkey is uniquely located in both Asia and Europe and is an honorary part of the Middle East, its food is a masterful fusion of cultures. Many dishes are reminiscent of those in neighbouring countries but have been shaped throughout history into deliciously unique creations. Whether you love savoury food or have a penchant for sweets, Turkish fare is sure to delight your taste buds.
My short time in Turkey had me trying as many dishes as my stomach could handle. I was feasting from morning to night, ensuring I ticked off as many traditional meals as I could find and devour. In the process, I realised two things:
1. Some of the Turkish food popularised in Australia isn’t commonly eaten in Turkey.
2. Two weeks isn’t enough time to try everything.
So if you’re heading to the former home of the Ottoman Empire and are looking for culinary guidance, read on…
Kick off the day with a sensory bang and dig into a traditional Turkish kahvalti spread. This meal has a mediterranean feel to it and includes things like olives, cheese, cold cuts of meat, bread, fruit preserves and some chopped up vegetables. This breakfast may sound peculiar if you’re used to toast and cereal, but the combination of both savory and sweet elements is very moreish and full of nutrients to energise your morning.
If you’re more of a carb fan, get your hands on a simit. A popular Turkish street food, simit’s are rings of bread encrusted in sesame seeds. The toasted seeds, coupled with the sweetness of the bread, makes for a tasty portable snack.
Stomach rumbling after a busy morning of sight seeing? Never fear, lunchtime is here and do the Turks know how to cook a midday meal. There are truly unlimited options for lunch in Turkey, but most revolve around barbequed meat or veg. Turkish kebaps come in all different forms, from the classic shish (or şiş) on a metal skewer to the shaved döner, typically served with rice or pita and of course, refreshing cacık (AKA Turkish tzatziki).
Vegetarians can opt for a number of plant-based dishes including grilled veggie shish kebaps or pide, a boat-shaped flat bread cooked with toppings like cheese and vegetables. No matter your preference, there’s a Turkish dish to suit even the fussiest eaters.
4pm has rolled around; you’ve had a long day of exploring the vibrant streets of Turkey and need a snack to quell your appetite until dinner. Gözleme is perhaps the most versatile of all Turkish foods and certainly one of the most ubiquitous. Head to any cafe, street stall or even a roadside rest stop and you’re bound to see a station set up with a hot plate and a lady rolling out dough from scratch. The dough pockets are filled with a variety of things — most popular being spinach and locally-made cheese — before being brushed with butter and cooked until golden. A great gözleme is salty, crispy and chewy all at the same time. It’s the culinary equivalent of a warm hug.
Finally, the main event. All of your walking, shopping and photographing has led to a rumbling stomach. Thankfully, Turkish dinners are a two-course affair. Whet your appetite with an overwhelming amount of mezes (appetisers). From cacik to stuffed vine leaf dolmas, eggplant to braised octopus, a taste of each is the perfect way to try a lot of different Turkish foods without committing to one big portion.
Next, a serve of Manti or Turkish ravioli (pictured at top) is the perfect way to sample many of the traditional flavours of Turkey. A flavour explosion in the best sense of the expression, Manti are small dumplings filled with spiced ground meat, topped with garlicky yoghurt sauce and ground sumac. The ravioli has a complex, Middle-Eastern flavour, while the yoghurt sauce adds a tangy new dimension to the dish. It’s melt-in-your-mouth delicious and I’m not ashamed to admit I tucked into a plate of Manti on six separate occasions.
Oh, you thought you were done? A day of Turkish food isn’t truly complete without a delectable dessert. While the Turks make a killer Baklava — filo pastry filled with chopped pistachios and slathered in sugar syrup — I recommend ordering a more unique dish. Künefe is a dessert made from cheese (yes, you read that correctly) and a shredded dough known as kadayıf. It’s coated in butter before baking, then served straight from the oven with sugar syrup and pistachios on top.
Variations of the dish are available all over the Middle East, with each country boasting their own unique versions. No matter where you are, I truly recommend trying this strange but delightful dish.
Bonus Tip: Ayran
If you’re feeling daring, order an ayran with your meal. The cold, yoghurty drink is strangely savoury but quite refreshing.
Hero image by Nadir Keklik via Shutterstock.