Turkish Food – Learn The Tradition and Innovation of Turkey
In ancient times, Turkey (then called Ionia, Anatolia, and Asia Minor) was the confluence of east and west. It was the seat of the Byzantine Empire and Orthodox Catholicism. It also served as the doorway to the Middle East.
This meeting of cultures was expressed in no greater way than in its cuisine. That rich culinary tradition endures today.
Now a majority Sunni Muslim country, Turkey straddles the Mediterranean Sea in the west and borders countries like Ukraine, Syria, Iran, and Iraq in the east.
Turkic, Mongolian, Seljuk, Ottoman, Greek, Balkan, Slavic, Persian, and many Middle Eastern influences are brought to bear in Turkey’s seven major regions, each of which has its own distinct food staples and flavor profiles.
Here you will find a primer on the unique flavors of Turkey including its dietary history, spice mixtures, regional foods, turkish coffee and authentic recipes.
Turkish Food: A Historical Perspective
On May 11, 330 AD, the Roman Empire was split into two halves – the Latin-speaking west with its capital in Rome and the Greek-speaking east with its capital in Byzantium (later called Constantinople and Istanbul).
Both of the sister empires had borders along the Mediterranean sea and therefore had some similar dishes in those ancient times. Foods from the sea included eel, octopus, urchins, shrimp, anchovies, and sea skates.
Other historical protein sources were dormouse, several types of legumes, beef, pork, pheasant, horse, and (perhaps oddly,) ostrich, camel, giraffe, and flamingo tongue. Grains included millet, barley, and oats. They rounded out their diet with several fruits and vegetables, including lettuces, cabbage, turnip, carrots, grapes, pomegranate, and plums. Many of these staples carried over to the Byzantine side, and most have endured to the present.
Turkey’s Regions and Food Accessibility
If Turkey were laid over the United States, it would stretch from east-central Pennsylvania to the western coast of Missouri. From north to south, it is roughly the same length as Indiana. At a little over 300,000 mi² with 5,000 miles of coastline, Turkey is divided into seven distinct regions. From west to east, these are:
- Marmara Region (Marmara Bolgesi) – This northwest region includes Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city with a staggering 15,000,000 residents. Marmara borders Albania and Greece at its northwest corner, the Black (Euxine) Sea to its north and east, and the Aegean and Marmara Seas to its west. Here, fish and olives are the largest part of daily meals.
- Aegean Region (Ege Bolgesi) – This region has the longest coastline in Turkey, so it is also rich in fish. Another producer of olive oil, the Aegean region is also known for its herbs and vegetables. A haven for ex-pats, the cuisine mixes traditional Turkish and Seljuk with the more cosmopolitan fare.
- Mediterranean Region (Akdeniz Bolgesi) – Another foreign hub, this region covers the entire southern coast. The food is in many ways the most diverse and cross-cultural here due to the large tourism industry and resident British population. With coastal cities like Antalya, here you will find the dolmas (stuffed leaves) that are so famous in Greece and the Middle East, many bean dishes, and salads made of the water-loving samphire plant.
- Black Sea Region (Karadeniz Bolgesi) – The region that makes up the north coast of Turkey is constantly growing. Real estate and tourism are on the rise. While the ubiquitous red mullet and sea bass are staples, much as they are in the other coastal regions, the Black Sea anchovy (“hamsi”) and maize are also very common. The cuisine here is influenced mostly by the Slavic and Balkan peoples.
- Central Anatolia (ic Andolu Bolgesi) – This area includes the capital city of Ankara as well as the heavily Greek-influenced Cappadocia region. The combination of the cosmopolitan cities of Kayseri and Konya offers international and traditional cuisine, respectively. The area is also a prolific beef producer.
- Eastern Anatolia (Dogu Andolu Bolgesi) – Despite its population of 6.5 million and the bustling cities of Kars and Ani, this region is largely rural with significant beef and egg production. The area contains Lake Van, Turkey’s largest lake and source of freshwater fish. It also has some of the highest elevations in the country. This region borders Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Iraq. The result is authentic cuisine from the many time periods of Turkish history and the greater region to the east. This area is also famous for its Turkish breakfasts (“kahvalti”).
- Southeastern Anatolia (Guneydogu Andolu Bolgesi) – This region is rich in both cultural and culinary history, bordering Syria, Iraq, and what was once Mesopotamia. With the hottest of summers and the snowiest of winters, this area produces world-famous bread and nuts, including pistachios, hazelnuts, and walnuts. It is most notable for its kebabs and pastry-style desserts. This area also boasts the largest Kurdish population outside of Istanbul.
General Turkish Food Variations
As a majority Muslim nation, much of the cuisine is “halal.” Meaning “lawful,” this word denotes the dietary rules and restrictions for the Islamic world. Turkish halal standards mean that only the most cosmopolitan areas will have the forbidden fare of pork, gelatin-based dishes, and alcohol.
Historically, Turkish food has enjoyed a high standard of excellence. This is due in part to the Ottoman and Seljuk palace kitchens of the past, which were filled with exotic dishes that carry through to today. It can also be contributed to halal standards, which insist on the cleanliness of utensils, preparation, and food source. The vast majority of dishes are soups or thick stews featuring meat (beef, lamb, goat, mutton, fish, or poultry) and one of a variety of legumes.
Unleavened bread and salads of cucumber and tomatoes serve as either a side dish or main course. Most of these are served with olives and some form of olive oil-based dressing. Among the more exotic components is the vegetable celeriac (“kereviz”), a stronger-flavored variant of celery. Turkey shares many dishes with the rest of the Middle East, including a form of salad called “fatoush” which is rich in cucumber, parsley, and sumac but often has no lettuce.
Other Turkish dishes influenced by the larger world include “shish kebab” (meat on skewers, usually without vegetables), “dolmas” (stuffed grape or cabbage leaves filled with rice, lamb, or both). Many dishes include a form of plain yogurt (“cacik”), feta cheese, olives, and fruits like pomegranate. “Kofte” (derived from the Persian word “kufte”) are meatballs of which there are over 200 varieties across the different regions of Turkey. Over 200 additional dishes feature the scarlet eggplant, one of the staple crops of the country. With many flavor layers, Turkish food is considered quite rich, fragrant, and even pungent, fresh-tasting, and renowned throughout the world for its pasture/farm-to-table quality.
Many of the meat dishes utilize a spice profile inherited from Lebanon, a mixture simply called “seven spice.” This is usually a combination of allspice, cinnamon, cloves, fenugreek, ginger, nutmeg, and pepper. It is used to flavor dishes ranging from shish kebabs to shawarma, a rich beef or chicken dish that purportedly originated in Turkey. In fact, it is believed the Arabic word “shawarma” is derived from the Turkish word “cevirme.” Among the more exotic spices used in Turkey are cress, musk plant, and juniper.
Uniquely Turkish Dishes
Authentic dishes vary by region and depend highly on what is locally available. The base of most dishes is a grain (usually barley, rice, or wheat). Meatless dishes will have legumes or hardy vegetables, while meat dishes will have a small amount of meat in addition to the grains and vegetables. One famously indispensable piece of Turkish cuisine is “pide,” an unleavened bread used to supplement meals throughout the day.
Breakfast (called “kahvalti”) is considered the most important meal. The most elaborate breakfasts happen on Wednesdays and Sundays. It includes feta, a sesame-coated bread called “simit,” shaped much like a bagel. This bread provides the medium for the cheeses and sauces that follow. There are olive-based spreads and olives eaten as a side dish. Sweeter spreads can be made of molasses or hazelnuts.
The typical protein in a Turkish breakfast is “sucuklu yumurta,” usually consisting of two eggs over easy and a spicy dried beef sausage called “sucuk.” In traditional families, coffee is never served at breakfast (it is saved for later in the day). Instead, black tea is the common drink of choice.
What Sets Turkish Food Apart?
The freshness and complexity of ingredients make Turkish food famous the world over.
Hellim cheese, made from sheep, goats, or cows, is a staple in Turkey and Turkish Cyprus. This semi-hard cheese tastes a great deal like mozzarella and is often embedded with cracked black pepper.
“Pastirma,” or salt-cured beef, has existed for centuries in Anatolia. It is made in the autumn when the meat source is most flavorful, then stored for up to a year. Depending on the meat used, it can be a common lunch item or a restaurant delicacy.
“Adana kebab,” named after the southern city of Adana, is a famous variation on traditional shish kebabs. It is one of three kebabs native to Anatolia. Adana kebab is set apart by its spiciness. Other variants are dipped in tomato sauce (“iskender kebab“) or roasted in a pit (“tandir kebab“).
“Karisik izgara” is a mixture of several types of meat, usually chicken, beef, lamb, and sometimes “kofte.” It can be served over rice or with fresh vegetables or pickles. Rounding off the day is a bread called “borek,” which is stuffed with cheese or a meat mixture, providing protein and starch in a single dish.
Many deserts are borrowed from the Greeks, such as baklava stuffed with Turkish pistachios. “Helva” (sometimes “halva”) is a kind of Middle Eastern sesame fudge often mixed with pistachios or cocoa powder. The most famous, authentic Turkish dessert is the well-known Turkish delight. It is composed of a gel made from sugar and starch which is stuffed with things like hazelnuts, pistachios, dates, or walnuts. It is then often coated with a lemon, orange, or rosewater flavor and covered with powdered sugar. In Turkish, the treat is referred to as “lokum.”
No list of Turkish recipes would be complete without mentioning Turkish coffee. Especially strong, with the grounds added directly to the small cup, this midday energy boost is for adults only. It is extremely strong and often spiced with mint or cardamom. There are many cultural traditions surrounding coffee consumption. For example, turning the cup upside-down once you are done to allow the cup to cool is considered the polite thing to do.
The Essence of Turkish Cuisine
In a visit to any part of Turkey, you will find fresh food, heavy spices, and a variety of locally-grown vegetables and proteins. Influences from the Middle East and Greece expanded the herb and spice mixtures, creating multi-layered flavors in each dish. In short, anywhere you travel in Turkey, you will find a flavorful, exciting merger of culinary tradition and innovation.