A guide to the best of Turkish cuisine.
Turkish cuisine is a cornucopia of flavors, with influences from the Balkans, the Middle East, the Caucasus, Iran, and more. From the wide breakfast spreads that start the day to the even larger meze spreads that end it, Turkish cuisine is all about communal enjoyment. With a rich street food culture on top of that, there’s a wealth of delicious options to taste.
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Sometimes in Turkey, it’s the simple food that packs the bigger punch. Lahmacun is deceptively simple, with spicy minced lamb spread over a crispy thin dough. But roll it up with some parsley, a squeeze of lemon, and a dusting of sumac, and you have a perfect low-key Turkish meal.
Hailing from Turkey’s coastal regions and usually eaten before fish, meze are small dishes that emphasize fresh vegetables, usually in oil. Sample patlıcan salatası, a smoky eggplant puree; girit ezmesi, a mix of crumbly cheese, pistachios, and herbs; or atom, thick yogurt laced with blazing hot, dried red peppers. Restaurants will rotate their meze offerings depending on the season, and it’s not unusual to order a table full of meze plates.
Sold on every Istanbul street corner, simit is the ideal snack on the go. This street food consists of a bready circle encrusted with sesame seeds. Crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside, it’s delivered fresh to vendors throughout the day. For a real treat, track down a simit bakery and get a hot simit straight out of the oven.
The fatty hunks of lamb meat called cağ kebab hail from the eastern mountainous region of Erzurum, and have become more popular throughout the country. Cooked on a slowly-rotating horizontal spit and served on skewers with fresh lavash bread and raw onions, this is kebab meat at its most indulgent: fire-broiled, slow-cooked, and oozing with flavorful fat.
There’s breakfast, and then there’s Turkish breakfast. Known as kahvaltı, a Turkish breakfast spread splays out across the table. It often includes oily olives, cucumber and tomatoes, thick white cheese, homemade jams, sizzling sunny-side-up eggs, tahin pekmez (a sweet mix of tahini and grape molasses), and crunchy bread, all served with endless cups of tea.
The streets of Istanbul are alive all day and night with vendors hawking delicious snacks. One of the most satisfying is midye dolma, rice-stuffed mussels served with a spritz of lemon juice. Once you eat one, it’s hard to stop; the vendor will count up the leftover shells to determine how much you owe. There are also restaurants that specialize in midye dolma, but there’s something about eating them streetside that adds to the experience.
Every culture has its take on dumplings, and the Turkish version is particularly satisfying. Small pockets of minced meat are doused in garlicky yogurt and topped with melted butter or oil and a dusting of mint and red pepper flakes. Various regions offer different versions of mantı; most famous are the tiny mantı from the city of Kayseri and the larger delicate mantı from the Black Sea city of Sinop.
Pass by a gözleme restaurant, and the first thing you might notice are the older women, who delicately roll out thin layers of dough in the traditional preparation of the dish. Gözleme are basically Turkish crêpes, stuffed with cheese, spinach, potatoes, or a variety of other fillings, and cooked on a convex grill.
Translating literally to “the imam fainted,” this Ottoman-era dish consists of a full roasted eggplant stuffed with tomatoes, garlic, and onion, and cooked in oil. Perfect for vegetarians or as a side dish for something meaty, imam bayıldı showcases some of the building blocks of Turkish cuisine in one delicious package.
Follow the fragrant smoke wafting on the air near the Karaköy pier and you’ll find men with makeshift stoves, grilling fish for balık ekmek. This simple fish sandwich, served in crunchy white bread with onions and other accoutrements, is meant to be eaten while sitting by the water, soaking in views of Istanbul’s Golden Horn.
This dessert is named for the Muslim holiday of aşure and traditionally served at that time of year (the first month of the Islamic calendar), but it’s available to be enjoyed all year-round. A porridge with a base of grains and nuts, aşure can contain many ingredients, including dried fruits, pomegranate seeds, chickpeas, beans, and rose water.
Black tea is the fuel on which Turkey runs. Grown in its lush northeastern corner and consumed in tiny tulip-shaped tea cups, Turkish çay is omnipresent, often offered upon entering a shop, boarding a ferry, or visiting someone’s house. While Turkish coffee is popular after meals, and third-wave coffee shops pop up faster and faster, they can’t replace the nationwide love for a hot cup of çay.
Only available during the colder winter months, sahlep is a sweet creamy drink made from the root of an orchid. Topped with cinnamon, it’s an excellent non-caffeinated beverag to warm your hands and soul during the grayer months. While much of the available sahlep comes from pre-made mixes, keep an eye out for hakiki sahlep, which is the real deal.
The best way to quench your thirst on a hot day in Turkey is with ayran. Basically watered-down salty yogurt, the drink is substantial and refreshing, and best consumed with spicy meat. Some places with offer açık ayran, a version that is continuously mixed and comes out light and topped with foam.
Turkey’s national drink isn’t just a beverage—it’s an experience. A clear anise liquor that turns milky white with water and ice (sometimes referred to as “lion’s milk”), rakı is meant to be sipped slowly over a large feast of meze and fish. The rakı table is where people come together, tell stories, and break bread.