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At its finest, Turkish food is among the best in the world – indeed it is sometimes ranked alongside French and Chinese as one of the three classic cuisines – with many venerable dishes descended from Ottoman palace cuisine. The quality of produce is reliably exceptional with most ingredients available locally. Prices aren’t going to break the bank, with three-course meals starting at around 14TL (€6.5/£5.80). However, you’ll pay more (often considerably more) at resorts, where standards have often sadly declined. Unadventurous travellers can get stuck in a kebab rut, berating the monotony of the cuisine; in fact, all but the strictest vegetarians should find enough variety to satisfy them.
Places to eat and specialities are summarized below. Generic “Mediterranean” restaurants and burger/pizza chains, needing no translation, are almost everywhere.
The so-called “Turkish” breakfast (kahvaltı) served at modest hotels and pansiyons is invariably a pile of spongy white bread slices with a pat of margarine, a slice or two of processed cheese and (beef) mortadella, a dab of pre-packed jam and a couple of olives. Only tea is likely to be available in quantity; extras such as sahanda yumurtalar (fried eggs) will probably be charged for. In the better hotels and top-end pansiyons you can expect a variety of breads and pastries, fresh fruit slices, a choice of olive and cheese types, and an array of cold and hot meats, plus eggs in various styles.
You can breakfast better on a budget by using street-carts or büfes (snack cafés), the source of börek, a rich, flaky, layered pastry containing bits of mince or cheese. Alternatives include a simple simit (bread rings speckled with sesame seeds) or a bowl of çorba (soup) with a lemon wedge.
With breakfast over, vendors hawk lahmacun, small, round pizzas with a thin meat-based topping. Unlike in Britain, kebabs (kebap in Turkish) are not generally considered takeaway food unless wrapped in dürüm, a paratha-like bread; more often you’ll find döner or köfte in takeaway stalls, served on a baguette or hamburger bun. A sandwich (sandviç) is a baguette chunk with various fillings (often kokoreç – stuffed lamb offal – or fish). In coastal cities deep-fried mussels (midye tava) are often available, as are midye dolması (mussels stuffed with rice, pine nuts and allspice) – though these are best avoided during summer, especially if sold unrefrigerated by street vendors.
Unlike lahmacun, flat bread stuffed with various toppings – pide – is served to diners in a pideci or pide salonu from 11am onwards. The big advantage of this dish is that it’s always made to order: typical styles are kaşarlı or peynirli (with cheese), yumurtalı (with egg), kıymalı (with mince), and sucuklu (with sausage).
Other specialities worth seeking out are mantı – the traditional Central Asian, meat-filled ravioli, served drenched in yoghurt and spice-reddened oil – or gözleme, a stuffed-crêpe-like delicacy. At kuru yemiş stalls, also known as leblebecis, nuts and dried fruit are sold by weight – typically in 100g shots. Aside from the usual offerings, keep an eye out for increasingly rare cezeriye, a sweetmeat made of carrot juice, honey and nuts; the east Anatolian snack of peştil (dried fruit), most commonly apricot and peach, pressed into sheets; and tatlı sucuk, a fruit, nut and molasses roll (not to be confused with meat sucuk or sausage).
A “restoran”, denoting anything from a motorway-bus pit stop to a white-tablecloth affair, will provide ızgara yemek or meat dishes grilled to order. A çorbacı is a soup kitchen; kebapcıs and köftecıs specialize in kebab and köfte respectively, with limited side dishes – usually just salad, yoghurt and a few desserts. A lokanta is a restaurant emphasizing hazır yemek, pre-cooked dishes kept warm in a steam-tray. Here also can be found sulu yemek, “watery food” – hearty meat chunks swimming in broth or sauce. Despite their often clinical appearance, the best lokantas may well provide your most memorable taste of Turkish cooking. İskembe salonus are aimed at revellers emerging from clubs or taverns in the early hours, and open until 5 or 6am. Their stock-in-trade is tripe soup laced liberally with garlic oil, vinegar and red pepper flakes, an effective hangover cure. They also sell piliç (small chickens), often seen spit-roasting in the window.
At an ocakbaşı, the grill and its hood occupy centre-stage, as diners watch their meat being prepared. Even more interactive is the kendin pişir kendin ye (cook-it-and-eat-it-yourself) establishment, where a mangal (barbecue with coals), a specified quantity of raw meat, plus kekik (oregano) and kimyon (cumin) are brought to your outdoor/indoor table. Such places are excellent value, and you get to inspect the state of the meat; they may also offer tandır kebap, a side of oven-roasted lamb or goat.
Most budget-priced restaurants are alcohol-free (içkisiz); any licensed place (marked içkili) is likely to be more expensive. A possible exception is a meyhane (tavern), where eating is on a barely equal footing to tippling. In the fancier İstanbul ones, though, food – often unusual delicacies – can be very good and not always drastically overpriced. In Ankara and İstanbul (especially in Beyoğlu and Kumkapı) groups of “respectable” Turkish women attend such establishments, though elsewhere unaccompanied foreign woman may baulk at patronizing meyhanes, and some will seem dodgy to Western men too. That said, any foreign men or couples bold enough to visit the more decorous meyhanes will be treated with utmost courtesy.
Prices vary widely according to the type of establishment: from 2.5–3TL per item at a simple boozeless soup kitchen up to 15–20TL at the flashier resort restaurants and big-city establishments. Portions, especially in meyhanes, tend to be tiny, so if you’re a big eater you may need to order two ostensibly main courses. Having your plate whisked away before you’re done with it is irritatingly common – not so much a ploy to hurry you along, but from the Turkish custom of never leaving a guest with an “empty” or “dirty” plate before them. Kalsın (“may it remain”) is the term to stop this practice in mid-air.
DISHES AND SPECIALITIES
The most common soups (çorbas) are mercimek (lentil), ezo gelin (a thick rice and vegetable broth – an appetizing breakfast), or işkembe (tripe). Çoban (shepherd’s) salatası means the ubiquitous, micro-chopped cucumber, tomato, onion, pepper and parsley salad (approach the peppers with caution); yeşil (green) salad, usually just some marul (lettuce), is less often available. The more European mevsim salatası (“seasonal” salad) – perhaps tomato slices, watercress, red cabbage and lettuce hearts sprinkled with cheese and drenched in dressing – makes a welcome change from “shepherd’s” salad.
Meze and vegetable dishes
In any içkili restoran or meyhane, you’ll find the meze (appetizers) for which Turkey is justly famous. They are also the best dishes for vegetarians, since many are meat-free, while the variety of vegetables and pulses used will sustain your dietary needs.
The most common platters include patlıcan salatası (aubergine mash), piyaz (white haricot vinaigrette), semizotu (purslane weed, usually in yoghurt), mücver (courgette croquettes), sigara böreği (tightly rolled cheese pastries), imam bayıldı (cold baked aubergine with onion and tomato) and dolma (any stuffed vegetable, but typically peppers or tomatoes). Note that during Ramadan, meze may be unavailable as few chefs reckon it worth their while to prepare them for after-dark consmption.
In hazır yemek restaurants, kuru fasulye (haricot bean soup), taze fasulye (French beans), sebze turlu (vegetable stew) and nohut (chickpeas) are the principal vegetable dishes. Although no meat may be visible, they’re almost always made with lamb or chicken broth; even bulgur and rice may be cooked in meat stock. Vegetarians might ask İçinde et suyu var mı? (Does it contain meat stock?).
Bread and cheese
Bread is edible hot out of the oven, but otherwise is spongily stale, mainly for scooping up puréed meze. Flat, unadorned pide is served with soup, during Ramadan and at kebapcıs; kepekli (wholemeal) or çavdar (rye bread; only from a fırın or bakery) afford relief in larger towns. In villages, cooked yufka – the basis of börek pastry – makes a welcome respite, as does bazlama (similar to an Indian paratha).
Many people return from Turkey having sampled only beyaz peynir (like Greek feta) at breakfast but other Turkish cheeses deserve mention. Dil peynir (“tongue” cheese), a hard, salty cheese comprised of mozzarella-like filaments, and the plaited oğru peynir, can both be grilled or fried like Cypriot halloúmi. Tulum peynir is a strong, salty, almost granular goat’s cheese cured in a goatskin; it is used as börek stuffing, although together with walnuts, it makes a very popular meze. Otlu peynir from the Van area is cured with herbs; cow’s-milk kaşar, especially eski (aged) kaşar from the Kars region, is also highly esteemed.
Grilled meat dishes – normally served simply with a few pide slices and raw vegetable garnish – include several variations on the stereotypical kebab. Adana kebap is spicy, with sprinkled purple sumac herb betraying Arab influence; İskender kebap, best sampled in Bursa, is heavy on the flat bread and yoghurt; while kiremit kebap appears on a hot clay tray. If you’ve any appetite, order bir buçuk (a portion and a half – adequate) or çift (double portion – generous). A karışık ızgara (mixed grill) is always good value. Chicken (piliç or tavuk) is widely available and usually cheaper than other meats, served as şiş, pırzola (grilled breast), or kanat (grilled wings). Offal is popular, particularly böbrek (kidney), yürek (heart), ciğer (liver), and koç yumurtası (ram’s egg) or billur (crystal) – the last two euphemisms for testicle.
More elaborate meat-and-veg combinations include mussaka (inferior to the Greek rendition), karnıyarık (a much better Turkish variation), güveç (clay-pot fricassee), tas kebap (stew), hunkar beğendi (lamb, puréed eggplant and cheese), saray kebap (beef stew topped with béchamel sauce and oven-browned), macar kebap (fine veal chunks in a spicy sauce with tomatoes and wine) and saç kavurma, an inland speciality of meat, vegetables and spices fried up in a saç (the Turkish wok).
Fish and seafood
Fish and seafood is good, if usually pricey, and sold by weight more often than by item (40–45TL per kilo in remote spots, more than double that in flash resorts), though per-portion prices of about 15–20TL prevail for less bijoux species. Choose with an eye to what’s in season (as opposed to farmed, frozen and imported), and don’t turn your nose up at humbler varieties, which will likely be fresher. Budget mainstays include sardalya (grilled sardines), palamut (autumn tuna), akya (liche in French; no English name), and sarıgöz (black bream). Çipura (gilt-head bream) and levrek (sea bass), when suspiciously cheap, are almost invariably farmed. Fish is invariably served simply, with just a garnish of spring onion (soğan) and rocket (roka).
DESSERTS AND SWEETS
Turkish chefs pander shamelessly to the sweet-toothed, who will find a huge range of sugary treats at a pastane (sweet shop).
Turkish Delight and baklava
The best-known Turkish sweet, lokum or “Turkish Delight”, is available from most pastanes and the more touristy shops. It’s basically solidified sugar and pectin, flavoured (most commonly) with rosewater, sometimes pistachios, sprinkled with powdered sugar – and laced with far too many chemical additives. There are also numerous kinds of helva, including the tahini-paste chew synonymous with the concoction in the West, although in Turkey the term usually means any variation on the basic theme of baked flour or starch, butter, sugar and flavoured water.
Of the syrup-soaked baklava-type items – all permutations of a sugar, flour, nut and butter mix – the best is antep fıstıklı sarması (pistachio-filled baklava) – pricey at 3–4TL per serving; other baklava tend to be cevizli (walnut-filled), and slightly cheaper. Künefe – the “shredded wheat” filaments of kadayif perched atop white cheese, baked and then soaked in syrup – has become an ubiquitous dessert in kebab and lahmacun places; both baklava and künefe are often served, luxuriously if not exactly healthily, with large dollops of ice cream.
Puddings, ice cream and fruit
Less sweet and healthier are the milk-based dishes, popular everywhere. Süpangile (“süp” for short, a corruption of soupe d’Anglais) is an incredibly dense, rich chocolate pudding with sponge or a biscuit embedded inside. More modest are keşkül (vanilla and nut-crumble custard), and sütlaç (rice pudding) – one dessert that’s consistently available in ordinary restaurants. The most complicated dish is tavukgöğsü, a cinnamon-topped morsel made from hyper-boiled and strained chicken breast, semolina starch and milk. Kazandibi (literally “bottom of the pot”) is tavukgöğsü residue with a dark crust on the bottom – not to be confused with fırın sütlaç, which is actually sütlaç pudding with a scorched top baked in a clay dish.
If you coincide with the Islamic month of Muharrem, you’ll be able to sample aşure, a devotional dish of Turkey’s Alevî and Bektaşi communities (also available in many pastanes year-round). A sort of rosewater jelly laced with pulses, wheat berries, raisins and nuts, it supposedly contains forty ingredients, after a legend which claims that after the Ark’s forty-day sail on the Flood, and the first sighting of dry land, Noah commanded that a stew be made of the forty remaining kinds of food on board.
Traditional Turkish ice cream (dondurma) is an excellent summer treat, provided it’s genuine Maraşlı döşme (whipped in the Kahraman Maraş tradition – a bit like Italian gelato), not factory-produced rubbish. The outlandishly costumed dondurma street-sellers of yore have been overtaken by upmarket parlours selling every conceivable flavour; the best chain of these is Mado, with high prices but equally high quality.
Summer fruit (meyve), generally means kavun (Persian melon, honeydew) or karpuz (watermelon). Autumn choices include kabak tatlısı (candied squash with walnut chunks and kaymak, or clotted cream) or ayva tatlısı (stewed quince served with nuts or dried fruit, topped with kaymak and dusted with grated pistachio).
TEA AND COFFEE
Tea is the national drink and an essential social lubricant – you’ll most likely be offered some within twenty minutes of arrival. It’s prepared in the çaydanlık or demlik, a double-boiler apparatus, with a larger water chamber underneath the smaller receptacle containing dry leaves, to which a small quantity of hot water is added. After a suitable (or unsuitably long) wait the tea is decanted into tiny tulip-shaped glasses, then diluted with more water to taste: açık is weak, demli or koyu steeped. Sugar comes as cubes on the side; milk is never added. If you’re frustrated by the usual tiny glass at breakfast, ask for a düble çay (a “double tea”, served in a juice glass).
Herbal teas are also popular, particularly ıhlamur (linden flower), kuşburnu (rose hip), papatya (camomile) and ada çay (“island” tea), an infusion of a sage common in coastal areas. The much-touted apple tea (elma çay) contains chemicals and not a trace of apple essence.
Coffee is not as commonly drunk in Turkey, though instant is increasingly popular, available in several brands besides the inevitable Nescafé. It’s much stronger, however, than Anglo-Saxon formulas, more in line with German tastes. The traditional, fine-ground Turkish coffee is preferable, brewed up sade (without sugar), orta şekerli (medium sweet) or çok şekerli (very sweet). Only in the largest towns and more cosmopolitan resorts will you find Western notions (and Western pricings) of coffee, such as filtered or cappuccino. For extended tea- or coffee-drinking sessions, retire to a çay bahçesi (tea garden), which may also serve ice cream and soft drinks.
Fruit juice (meyva suyu) can be excellent if it comes as pulp in a bottle, most often as kayısı (apricot), şeftali (peach) and vişne (sour cherry); thin, preservative-spiked cardboard-packaged juice-drinks are distinctly less thrilling. Of late there’s a veritable craze for fresh-squeezed, pricey karadut suyu (red mulberry juice) and nar suyu (pomegranate juice).
Bottled spring water (memba suyu), or fizzy mineral water (maden suyu) are restaurant staples, but in some establishments chilled, potable tap water in a glass bottle or a jug is routinely provided, for which there should be no extra charge. Meşrubat is the generic term for all types of carbonated soft drinks.
Certain beverages accompany particular kinds of food or appear at set seasons. Sıcak süt (hot milk) is the traditional complement to börek, though in winter it’s fortified with salep, made from the ground tubers of a phenomenally expensive wild orchid (Orchis mascula) gathered in coastal hills near İzmir. Salep is a good safeguard against colds (and also reputedly an aphrodisiac), though most packages sold are heavily adulterated with powdered milk, starch and sugar – only in the İzmir bazaar will you find the real thing (which incidentally it’s illegal to export). Ayran (chilled, watered-down yoghurt) is always on offer at pidecis and kebapcıs, an excellent accompaniment to spicy meat. In autumn and winter, stalls sell boza, a delicious, mildly fermented millet drink. Similarly tangy is şıra, a lightly alcoholic grape juice acceptable to religious Muslims and available in late summer and autumn.
Since the accession of the nominally Islamist AK Parti in 2002, there’s good and bad news concerning alcoholic drinks (içkiler) in Turkey. These are still available theoretically without restriction in resorts – even within 200m of a mosque, normally a no-no – though booze has vanished from all municipally owned concessions in the many AK-run towns, and you will have some thirsty moments in conservative interior towns such as Afyon, Konya, Erzerum or Diyarbakır. The ruling party has also slapped a twenty percent tax on all alcohol, pushing prices (beer aside) up significantly. The bright spot has been the sale and break-up of Tekel (the state alcohol-producing monopoly) and resulting increased competition and quality amongst distilled spirits.
Beer (bira) comes principally in returnable bottles but also in cans (expensive) and on draught (fıcı bira; cheaper). Prices vary widely, from 2TL per bottle in a shop to 6TL in a mid-range bar, with even higher prices prevailing in trendier clubs – 4–5TL is typical at restaurants. The most popular domestic brand is Efes Pilsen (5 percent ABV); it’s normally sold as a half-litre bottle, though also exists as 33cl bottles or cans of “Lite” (low alcohol), “Dark” (6.1 percent), and “Xtra” (7.5 percent). The main international brands are Tuborg and Carlsberg, both brewed locally. Gusta is a dark, locally brewed wheat beer which makes a nice change. Imported bottled beers are also available in the largest cities, at a price. There are very few relatively civilized beer pubs as opposed to the beer hall (birahane), imitation German-style establishments, which often have a distinctly macho atmosphere.
Wine (şarap) comes from vineyards scattered across western Anatolia between Cappadocia, the Euphrates Valley, Thrace and the Aegean. Fine wine now has a local audience, with expensive imported labels available in most upmarket town-centre or hotel restaurants and the bigger supermarkets. Local wines are also now better distributed, resulting in a huge variety in trendy resorts, though quality remains inconsistent. Red wine is kırmızı, white beyaz, rose roze. In shops, count on paying 8–18TL per bottle of basic to mid-range wine, or as much as 25TL for a bottle from some obscure, self-styled boutique winery that may be scarcely better than the major players. In restaurants, it will be double that – if you’re not keen on shelling out for a bottle of an unknown quantity, most places sell a few labels by the glass (kade’le in Turkish) for 6–8TL.
The market is dominated by two large vintners: Doluca (try their Antik premium labels, or Moskado Sek) and Kavaklıdere (whose Çankaya white, Angora red and Lâl rose are commendable). Kavaklıdere also produces a sparkling white, İnci Damalası, the closest thing to local champagne. Other smaller, regional brands to watch for include Turasan, Narbağ, and Peribacası (Cappadocia). Feyzi Kutman red in particular is superb, though rarely found outside the largest centres; another affordable Aegean producer worth sampling is Sevilen, which makes organic reds – Merlot and Cabernet – at premium prices, good whites and a palatable, MOR label, Tellibağ. Similarly confined to their areas of production are Majestik red, available only around İzmir, cheap-and-cheerful wines from Şirince, plus the vintners of Bozcaada, covered in detail.
Rakı and other spirits
The Turkish national aperitif is rakı, not unlike Greek ouzo but stronger (45–48 percent alcohol), usually drunk over ice and topped up with bottled water. The meyhane routine of an evening is for a group to order a big bottle of rakı, a bucket of ice and a few bottles of water, and then slowly drink themselves under the table between bites of seafood meze or nibbles of çerez – the generic term for pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, almonds etc, served on tiny plates. Since the Tekel was broken up, private distilleries of varying quality have proliferated, the best (and priciest) being Efe, particularly its green-label line. However, Burgaz brand is often better value and nearly as good (again in green-label variety). Tekirdağ, especially its “gold series”, is also recommendable. Sadly, most of the time only the ex-Tekel Yeni is available at most establishments, with a double rakı in a meyhane running 6–8TL. Shop carefully for souvenir bottles – prices vary from 27TL for a 70cl bottle of Burgaz in an expensive resort to just 37TL for a full litre of Efe in a megastore.
Stronger spirits – cin (gin), votka (vodka) and kanyak (cognac) – exist as imported labels or cheaper but often nastier yerli (locally produced) variants. Domestically produced, rather cloying liqueurs may be given on the house as a digestif.