Turkish cuisine has been renowned for a long time. In 1854 the Earl of Carlisle (George W F Howard) visited Constantinople (Istanbul) and sampled Turkish food in a simple bazaar cookshop. The understated praise in his travelogue Diary in Turkish and Greek Waters (1854) reads, "We...went for our luncheon to a Turkish, not kibaub, but cook-shop, where different ragouts of meat and vegetables are always ready in large pans. I think the nation has a decided turn for cookery."
Meat portions are small compared to those in North America (which are unconscionably huge). Actually,vegetables predominate in most meals, though many vegetable recipes use small amounts of meat as a flavoring. If you're not strictly vegetarian or vegan, yet you prefer to eat more vegetables than meat, you'll do very well in Turkey. Here are tips for vegetarians.
Bread is baked fresh early morning for breakfast and lunch, and late afternoon for dinner, and varies from the common sourdough loaf to rounds of leavened pide(flat bread) to flaps of paper-thin lavaţ (lah-VAHSH, unleavened village bread baked on a griddle).
Among the best and easiest places to sample Turkish cooking is in a hazýr yemek ("ready-food") restaurant.
Snacks, side dishes and street foods include gözleme(fresh-baked flat bread folded over savory ingredients—a sort of Turkish crêpe—and börek, pastry filled with cheese and vegetables or meat. A traditional favorite is the Istanbul fish sandwich.
As for drinks, pure spring water is always available. Drink only bottled water. Some tap water is safe, but it's difficult to be sure.
Turkey is famous for its succulent fruit, and thus for itsfruit juices. There's also ayran (yogurt mixed with spring water—tastes like buttermilk), which goes well with kebap (roast lamb).
Islam forbids drinking alcohol, but many Turks are European in their lifestyle and enjoy alcoholic beverages with meals: beer, wine, and raký (clear grape brandy flavored with anise and diluted with water) are the favorites, although gin, vodka, whiskey andliqueurs are also served.
Turkish tea is the national stimulant, even at breakfast, and famous Turkish coffee only a distant second.
Bread and Börek
The foundation of Turkish food is, if anything, the dough made of wheat flour. Besides "ekmek" - the ordinary white bread, "pide" - flat bread, "simit" - sesame seed rings, "manti" - dumplings, a whole family of food made up thin sheets of pastry called "börek" falls into this category.
Ekmek, pide and simit are meant to be eaten the same day they are baked, and they usually are. The leftover ekmek goes into a variety of dishes, becomes chicken feed, or is mixed with milk for the neighbourhood cats.
Manti, dumplings of dough filled with a special met mix, are eaten with generous servings of garlic yogurt and a dash of melted butter with paprika. This is a meal in itself as a Sunday lunch affair for the whole family, to be followed by an afternoon nap.
Börek is a special-occasion food which requires great skill and patience, unless you have thin sheets of dough already rolled out from your corner grocery store. Anyone who can accomplish this delicate task using the rolling pin , becomes the most sought-out person in their circle of family and friends. The sheets are then layered or folded into various shapes before being filled with cheese or meat mixes and baked or fried. Every household enjoys at least five different varieties of börek as a regular part of its menu.
"Kebap" is another category of food which, like the börek, is typically Turkish dating back to the times when the nomadic Turks learned to grill and roast their meat over their camp fires. Given the numerous types of kebabs, it helps to realize that you categorize them by the way the meat is cooked. The Western World knows the "sis kebab" and the "döner" introduced to them mostly by Greek entrepreneurs, who have a good nose for what will sell! Sis kebab is grilled cubes of skewered meat.Döner kebab is made by stacking alternating layers of ground meat and sliced leg of lamb on a large upright skewer, which i slowly rotated in front of a vertical grills. As the outer layer of the meat is roasted, thin slices are shaved to be served.
There are numerous other grilled kebabs beside those cooked in a clay oven. It should be noted that the unique taste of kebabs are due more to the breeds of sheep and cattle, which are raised in open pastures by loving shepherds, than to special marinades and a way of cooking. Therefore, you should stop at a kebab restaurant in Turkey to taste the authentic item. "Kebabci" is by far the most common and the least expensive type of restaurant, ranging from a hole in the wall to large and lavish establishments. Kebab is the traditional Turkish response to fast food that is at the same time not especially bad for you. A generic kebabci will have "lahmacun" (meat pide) and "Adana" (spicy skewered ground meat, named-after the southern city where the the dish was born), salad greens with red onions and baklava to top it all off. Beyond that the menu will tell you the speciality of the kebabci. The best plan is to seek out the well-known ones and to try the less spicy types if you are not used to kebab. Once you develop a taste for it, you can have inexpensive feasts by going to the neighbourhood kebabci anywhere in Anatolia.
Some restaurants specialize only in grilled meats, in which case they are called meat restaurants. The fare will be a constant stream of grilled meats served hot in portions off the grill, until you tell the waiter that you are full. The best one is Beyti in Florya, Istanbul, and the best way to get there is to take the commuter train from Sirkeci, the main train station on the European side, rather than negotiating the highway traffic. This way you can also see the local folks, especially the kids who seem to use the train to the fullest, carrying out their summer holiday adventures involving fishing and possibly a variety of other mischief.
Along with grains, vegetables are also consumed in large quantities in the Turkish diet. The simplest and most basic type of vegetable dish is prepared by slicing a main vegetable such as zucchini or eggplant, combining it with tomatoes, green peppers and onions, and cooking it slowly in butter and its own juices. Since the vegetables that are cultivated in Turkey are truly delicious, a simple dish like this, eaten with a sizeable chunk of fresh bread, is a satisfying meal for many people.
A whole class of vegetables is cooked in olive oil. These dishes would be third in a five-course meal, following the soup and a main course such as rice or börek and vegetable'meat, and before dessert and fruit. Practically all vegetables, such as fresh string-beans, artichokes, root celery, eggplants, pinto beans, or zucchini can be cooked in olive oil, and are typically eaten at room-temperature. So they are a staple part of the menu with variations depending on the season. Then there are the fried vegetables, such as eggplant, peppers or zucchinis, that are eaten with a tomato or a yogurt sauce.
"Dolma" is the generic term for stuffed vegetables, being a derivative of the verb "doldurmak" or to fill; it actually means "stuffed" in Turkish. There are two categories of dolmas: those filled with a meat mix or with a rice mix. The latter are cooked in olive oil and eaten at room-temperature. The meat dolma is a main-course dish eaten with a yogurt sauce, and very frequent one in the average household. Any vegetable which can be filled with or wrapped around these mixes can be used in a dolma, including zucchini, eggplants, tomatoes, cabbage, and grapevine leaves. However, the green pepper dolma with the rice stuffing, has to be the queen of all dolmas. A royal feast to the eye and the palate...
To taste these dishes, look for a "Lokanta". Borrowed from the Italian "Locanda", this type of establishment traditional cooking prepared most usually for those who work nearby. The best examples are the Borsa, Hacì Salih, Konyalì in Istanbul and Liman and Ciftlik in Ankara. The tables are covered with white linen, and the menu comprises soups, traditional main dishes and desserts, including fresh fruit. Businessmen and politicians frequent visit these places for lunch.
"Meze" Dishes to Accompany the Spirits
In Turkey, despite the Islamic prohibition against wine and anything alcoholic, there is a rich tradition associated with liquor. Drinking alcoholic beverages in the company of family and friends at home and in taverns, and restaurants, is a part of special occasions. Similar to the Spanish tapas, "meze" is the general category of dishes that are brought in small quantities to start the meal off. These are eaten, along with wine or more likely with "rakì", the anise-flavoured national drink of Turks sometimes referred to as "lion's milk", for a few hours until the main course is served.
The bare minimum meze for raki are slices of honeydew melons and creamy feta cheese with freshly baked bread. Beyond these, a typical meze menu includes dried and marinated mackerel, fresh salad greens in thick yogurt sauce with garlic, plates of cold vegetable dishes cooked or fried in olive oil, fried crispy savoury pastry, deep fried mussels and calamaris served in sauce, tomato and cucumber salad, and fish eggs in saucee. The main course that follows such a meze spread will be fish or grilled meat.
When the main course is kebab, then the meze spread is different. In this case, several plates different types of minced salad green and tomatoes in spicy olive oil, mixed with yogurt or cheese, "humus" chick peas mashed in tahini, bulgur and red lentil balls, "raw köfte", marinated stuffed eggplant, peppers with spices and nuts, and pickles, are likely to be served.
Fish and other Sea-Food
Four seas (the Black Sea, Marmara Sea, the Aegean, and the Mediterranean) surround the Turkish landscape, and residents of the coastal cities are experts in preparing their fish. However, the best of the day's catch is also immediately transported to Ankara, where some of the finest fish restaurants are located. Winter is the premium season for eating fish. That is the time when many species of fish migrate from the Black Sea to the warmer waters and when most fish reach their mature sizes. So, the lack of summer vegetables is compansated by the abundance of fish at this time. Every month has its own preferred fish along, with certain vegetables which complement the taste. For example, the best bonito is eaten with arugula and red onions, blue fish with lettuce, turbot with cos lettuce. Large bonito may be poached with celery root. Mackerel is stuffed with chopped onion before grilling, and summer fish, which are younger and drier, will be poached with tomatoes and green peppers, or fried. Bay leaves always accompony both poached and grilled fish.
Grilling fish over charcoal, where the fish juices hit the embers and envelope the fish with the smoke, is perhaps the most delicious way of eating mature fish, since this method brings out the delicate flavour. This is also why the grilled fish and bread sold by vendors right on their boats are so testy.
The places to taste fish are fish restaurants and taverns. Not all taverns are fish restaurants, but most fish restaurants are taverns and these are usually found on the harbours overlooking the sea. The Bosphorus is famous for its fisherman's taverns, large and small, from Rumeli Kavagi to Kumkapi. The modest ones are small with wooden tables and rickety wooden chairs, nevertheless they offer delicious grilled fish. Then there are elaborate, fashionable ones in Tarabya and Bebek. The fish restaurants have always an open-air section taking up space right by the sea; the waiters run back and forth between the kitchen, perhaps located within the restaurant accross the street, and the tables on the seaside. After being seated, it is customary to visit the kitchen or the display to pick your fish and discussed the way you want it to be prepared. The price of the fish is also disclosed at this time. Then you swing by the meze display and order the ones you want. So the evening begins, sipping raki in between samplings of meze, watching the sunset, and slowly setting the pace for conversation that will continue hours into the night. Drinking is never a huuried, loud, boisterous, or a lonely affair. It is a communal, gently festive and cultured way of entertainment. In these fish restaurants, a couple of families may spend an evening with their children running around the restaurant after they are fed, while the teenagers sit at the table patiently listening to the conversation and occasionally participating, when the topic is soccer or rock music.