“Turkish food is different in every corner of the country and it is very typical to find certain ingredients and cooking techniques to be capsulated in their homeland (ingredients grown and consumed in that specific region without ever leaving the geography). Therefore regional definitions and influences overlapping is the right way of talking about Turkish food.” Tarik M. Bayazit of the pioneering Istanbul restaurant, müzedechanga.
With that in mind, below are the seven geographical regions of Turkey, their unique dishes, and some of our favorite places to enjoy them.
Please be aware that there is a lot of crossover: Gaziantep is located in South Eastern Anatolia, but has more in common with the Hatay region in the Mediterranean. Likewise the city of Kaş in the Western Mediterranean shares many dishes with cities on the Aegean coast – so treat them as flexible guides.
The Aegean coastline is one of Turkey’s most fertile regions, with temperate climates and arable lands resulting in rich olive groves. The olive oils of this region are some of the most treasured nationwide and have also spawned a whole class of vegetable dishes. Fruits, vegetables, and herbs grow in abundance, and some vegetables are pickled with their pickling juice enjoyed as a refreshing drink. The seafood has also found favor both with the local population and its many summer visitors while a shared history means that there is also much in common with Greek cuisine.
Dishes: Enginar dolması – stuffed artichoke in olive oil; yaprak sarması – rolled vine leaves either served cold filled with rice, or served warm filled with meat; Aegean Herb Salad (see page 22 for more information).
The Black Sea is famed for its wet and windy climate. While this grey drizzle may have put a damper on more than a few seaside holidays, it has proven to be ideal for growing the area’s renowned produce including tea, corn, and hazelnuts. Tiny, delicious Black Sea anchovies known as hamsi are revered and have inspired many poems. They are also used in a multitude of ways including in bread, stew, rice, and more. The Laz people of this coast have their own dishes while Balkan and Slavic influences are also to be found.
Dishes: Mıhlama -a filling corn meal, butter, and cheese fondue; hamsi pilavı – spiced rice enclosed in fried Black Sea anchovies; kuru fasülye – white beans in a tomato sauce; Laz böreği – a custard filled baklava like dessert; Karadeniz pidesi – an elongated and closed form of the popular pide dish.
Wheat and mutton are the main produce of the Anatolian plateau and this is reflected in their regional specialties; it is the grain center of the country. Extreme variations in temperature between hot dry summers and snowy winters account for the preservation techniques that have developed here. Examples include dry-cured meats and tarhana soup, which is made from a dried mixture of fermented yogurt, flour, and vegetables. Konya is also the home of the Mevlevi Sufi order, which has its own culinary traditions. Roasted meat, pulses, dried fruit, and bulgur make up a lot of cuisine with flour-based desserts.
Dishes: Keşkek, a traditional wedding dish made with wheat and meat; from Konya: etli etmek (minced lamb pide), and fırın kebabı (oily roasted mutton); from Kayseri: mantı, pastırma (cured, spiced beef)
The stunning Kaçkar mountains of the East, and the volcanic landscape that gives rise to the country’s highest mountains such as the mythical Ararat come with a harsh climate that is unforgiving for growing vegetables. As a result, based on grain and meat dishes are more common. Winters are long and cold, meaning that even meat has to be preserved and this has given rise to the unusual Kars Goose, which is preserved in salt water before being hung to dry. It is a seasonal delicacy, that you select only occasionally seen on the restaurant's menus. With this extreme weather, it's also right Necessary to start the day, the breakfast spread is nationally revered as an epic feast of Van.
Dishes: From Erzurum: Cağ kebabı – meat cooked on a horizontal spit; from Van: kavut - roasted wheat flour blend of honey and walnuts, jajı – a dip made of yoghurt and cottage cheese
Stretching from the popular tourist destinations in the West to the finger of land that juts into Syria in the East, this region enjoys sunny weather and the warm waters of the Mediterranean Sea. A wide range of fruits, vegetables, and herbs are grown here, and enjoyed throughout the year. Hatay is renowned for its cuisine, and its location on the silk and spice trading routes brought influences from around the world creating a spicy cuisine that includes nut-based kebabs and yoghurt-based mezes.
Dishes: Adana kebab – heavily spiced minced meat cooked on a skewer; from Mersin: tantuni – small pieces of beef cooked and served in a wrap with spices and herbs; from Hatay: künefe - cheese based dessert, and katmer – sweet or savory pastry filled with pistachio
Istanbul’s cuisine is inextricably linked to the Ottoman palace’s, whose best chefs were supplied to the palace from the city of Bolu, which still has a reputation for producing the country’s top cooks. It also serves as a melting pot for the different minorities that call this metropolis their home and the cuisine and range of restaurants reflects this. One of Turkey’s most popular kebab dishes, İskender was invented in Bursa in the late 19th century, where Kebapçı İskender is still a family business. Another meaty destination is Edirne, a border town and an old Ottoman city. Offal lovers flock here to feast on liver, which is good enough to tempt the unconverted.
Dishes: From Bursa: İskender Kebab - slices of döner meat with bread, tomato sauce, yoghurt and melted butter; Edirne ciğer – thin slices of fried liver; Sultan’s Pilaf - aromatic rice studded with currants and pine nuts
Restaurants: Yavuz Iskenderoğlu (for Iskender), Ihlamur Yokuşu, Yıldız Yolu No.6, Beşiktaş; P: (0212) 236 55 71, Can Ciğer (for Edirne Ciğer) Barbaros Bulvarı No. 25/4, Besiktaş; P: (0212) 260 21 54
South Eastern Anatolian
Spices are one of the defining features of this region, a result of its location on the former spice and silk routes. The most common spices are hot red pepper flakes, paprika, dried sumac, and mint. These are used in popular snacks, çiğ köfte (originally made with raw meat, but more likely to be a vegetarian kneaded-spicedbulgur- mix in Istanbul) and lahmacun (a crispy dough base topped with spiced meat). It is also a paradise for carnivores. Spices are used in the region’s meat dishes, of which there is an astonishing variety from offal to kebab. Another preparation method is to slow-cook whole lamb in an underground well. Desserts, such as some of the best baklava available, tend to feature lots of pistachios and other nuts.
Dishes: From Urfa – çiğ köfte; from Gaziantep: beyran – soup made from lamb neck, tail fat, rice; from Siirt: Büryan kebabı – lamb cooked underground, and perde pilavı – spiced riced baked inside a thin dough crust.
While the restaurants below tend to focus on the food or dishes of one particular region, if you want to experience a tasting tour of Turkey whilst remaining in one restaurant, there are two excellent options:
Nar Lokanta Specializes in Anatolia’s all-natural regional products and recipes from the buffet to the a la carte menu.
Çiya Owner Musa Dağdeviren is an intrepid food pioneer hailing from Gaziantep and has scoured Turkey’s various regions to find the best recipes for his eclectic repertoire of dishes.
This article followed on from our article on the history of Turkish cuisine: From Pastures To Palaces, in our Turkish food special in the March/April 2014 of our magazine.