To make the Turkish cuisine’s many facets easier to understand, some basic categories are used to group together certain foods. The dishes mentioned below are an introduction and mentioned restaurants are some of our favorite places to sample those dishes. For more options, please see our comprehensive Restaurant Listings.
It’s almost unthinkable in Turkey to begin a meal without soup and in some parts of the country it is still regularly consumed for breakfast. The most commonly encountered versions are mercimek (lentil), ezogelin (made with lentils, bulgur and tomatoes), and tavuk suyu (chicken) and yoghurt based varieties such as yuvalama. In a departure from Western versions, they are all served with fresh lemon, to be squeezed over the top. İşkembe (tripe) soup is also renowned as a hangover preventative and is usually laced liberally with garlic oil, vinegar and bubbling hot butter infused with hot red chili flakes, which help to mask the taste if it isn’t initially to your liking.
With branches all over the city, this humble restaurant chain is a reliable source for extraordinarily smooth and tasty mercimek çorbası (lentil soup).
Kebabs are undoubtedly one of Turkey’s most popular exports and come in a number of different forms: döner is layers of meat cooked on a vertical spit, şiş is cubes cooked on skewers over a grill, Adana and Urfa kebabs are made from spiced minced meat (with Adana being the spicier version). The other ubiquitous meat favorite is köfte (meat patty), which comes in many different ways, including: kuru – mincemeat combined with breadcrumbs, egg, finely chopped onion and spices; Izmir – cooked in the oven with potatoes and a tomato sauce; kadınbudu– minced meat mixed with rice and dipped in egg, flour and fried; içli, minced meat and nuts encased in a crispy bulgur shell.
The köfte sold from a pushcart grill 40 years ago is still prepared with no spices and served with red cabbage, tomatoes, tomato paste and onions.
Turks are also very partial to offal, with ciğer (liver) being a particular favorite. This comes cooked either Edirne (yaprak) style in thin slices, or Arnavut style in fried cubes. Other popular body parts are işkembe (tripe), kelle paça (head and foot), koç yumurtası (sweetbreads), kokoreç (stuffed intestines), böbrek (kidney), yürek (heart), and beyin salatası (brain salad). The area on the eastern banks of the Golden Horn is filled with some more rough-and-ready offal focused restaurants.
Zeytinyağlı covers a whole range of vegetables cooked in olive oil and served at room temperature and was developed as a way of preserving the season’s bounty. You will find everything from celeriac and leeks in the winter to artichoke hearts and zucchini in the summer. Usually delicately flavored with some fresh dill, lemon juice, and sometimes shallots. One of the most overlooked but central components of Turkish food are salads. This can be served as simple as a few leafs of rocket dressed in lemon juice, but the most ubiquitous is the çoban (shepherd) salad, a mixture of diced tomato, cucumber and peppers, dressed in olive oil and the essential Turkish store cupboard ingredient, nar ekşisi (pomegranate concentrate). One of the most popular types of vegetable dishes are dolma – stewed or roasted vegetables stuffed with rice, meat or bulgur mix. İmam bayıldı is another very popular dish – aubergine split open and stuffed with tomato, and onion mix, cooked in olive oil.
An upscale Istanbul classic since 1927, Borsa serves excellent olive oil dishes and other essentials of the Turkish kitchen.
Basic Turkish rice is buttery chewy and delicious. Pilafs are often made with chicken stock and sometimes mixed with orzo pasta, which give extra texture. Bulgur pilaf is also popular and is usually enhanced with some tomato paste. These two form the basis of many meals. In the South East, another wheat product, firik is commonly consumed. Lentils are also popular and used in main dishes as well as soups. The most popular bean dish is kuru fasülye, made from white beans, in a tomato sauce, sometimes including small pieces of stewed meat.
Located not far from the water’s edge, this restaurant specializes in kuru fasülye cooked for 4 to 5 hours and served alongside buttery rice and organic yoghurt from Adapazarı.
If you’re visiting the beautiful Süleymaniye Mosque, it’s well worth stopping off for a bite to eat in one of the many kuru fasülye joints just opposite, for a cheap and filling lunch. Ali Baba's is the most well known.
Despite being eaten in various forms across Eastern Europe and the Middle East, börek is one of the most characteristic dishes of Turkish cuisine. Tepsi, su, sigara, puf, and gül are just some of the variations, though they are almost always filled with either minced meat, white cheese, spinach, spicy potatoes, or a combination of the above. They are made from yufka,which is a paper-thin dough. Bread, usually white and crusty on the outside and pillow soft in the middle, is a Turkish food staple. Plain pide (thick flatbread) falls into the bread category. The same dough is also used to make a tasty boat shaped snack, cooked in a wood fired oven, and topped with cheese, meat, eggs, and more.
Made fresh to order, this restaurant is a reliable and delicious choice for pide, close to Taksim Square and just off Istiklal Caddesi.
“Eat Sweet, Talk Sweet” is a Turkish expression emphasizing that a satiated sweet tooth can raise spirits. Baklava, and its derivatives, may be the best known of the Turkish sweets, made with layers of thin yufka pastry, chopped nuts, and syrup. The sticky sweet treat is sometimes served with Turkish ice cream, which has a unique elastic texture. One of the central families of desserts are milk-based puddings, with the most popular being muhallebi (made with mastic), tavuk göğsü (made with strands of chicken breast) or kazandibi (with a caramelized top). Another favorite is helva, which comes in a myriad of forms, the most common being the crumbly rectangular form made with various nuts or swirls of tahini, that is sometime baked and served with dried fruits. Another popular version, irmik helva is made from semolina and is often served complimentary at the end of a meal, or distributed to friends and relatives after a funeral.
Open since 1935, this is a humble restaurant chain that serves Turkish food, with an emphasis on desserts.
Apart from the ubiquitous glasses of tea and Turkish coffee (see our article on page 120), there are a number of other local drinks that are popular with young and old. The most popular of these in undoubtedly ayran, which is a frothy mix of yoghurt, water, and salt that is usually drunk with kebabs and spicy food. In the South East however, it is replaced by şalgam, a drink that hails from Adana and consists of fermented turnip, black carrot, and bulgur. Şerbet was a typical Ottoman drink made from water, sugar, fruits or petals and is still consumed during special occasions. More popular with visitors is salep a hot drink made from the root of wild orchids with a pleasant creamy taste and texture. Boza may look similar but is served cold and is made from fermented millet. Both the latter are peddled from street carts during colder months.
For a taste of nostalgia bedecked in old world charm, pay a visit to this niche café. Whether you like the idea of ‘drinking’ fermented millet with a spoon or not, it’s worth seeking out.
This article was part of our Turkish Food special in the March/April 2014 issue. Also included were a look at the history of Turkish food, regional variations in Turkish food, different types of restaurants in Istanbul, and the face of Modern Turkish cuisine.