Turkish food can be described as tasty, savory, engaging, and not so spicy. The range of Turkish delicacies are so diverse, you can’t miss them in the global food scene.
From the appetizers, desserts, drinks, to main meals, you will be amazed by how these dishes engage your taste buds, always leaving you craving for more.
The History of Turkish Food – Origins, Influences and Traditions
Turkey has a rich food scene. The country’s cuisine is one of the oldest in the world and it has been around for thousands of years. It’s geographical setting (weather), trade, religion, and external influence have all contributed to the formulation of the most prominent cuisine we have in this country today.
From East to West, the mountainous terrain to the beaches, Turkey is a huge country with a diverse food selection. The Turkish food culture features a blend of local dishes as well as external influences. Seafood is popular in the west and as you move further towards the south and east, you will notice that the food starts to get spicier.
The country’s location close to the Mediterranean Sea and the Far East saw the Turks gain control of the major trade routes. With the presence of the Ottoman Empire that was centered in present-day Turkey, the Muslim Turks controlled the “food and spice” trade in the Middle East. This facilitated the growth and sustenance of the Turkish cuisine.
Besides that, the natives were descendants of the nomadic tribes from Western Asia and Mongolia. They were herdsmen who relied heavily on meat and cheese-stuffed dumplings. It’s worth noting that the Persians and Chinese highly influenced the nomadic tribes and that’s why noodles are still common.
Geographically, this is a vibrant country with different weather patterns. So, you are likely to find a decent supply of almost everything, ranging from fresh vegetables to fruits to herbs. It’s worth noting that Turkey is a country that’s surrounded by water bodies. This includes the Mediterranean, Black Sea, and the Aegean Sea. As a result, seafood is abundant.
Lastly, the influence of religion is quite evident, for a country where over 80% of the population is Muslim. Certain foods are forbidden because they are considered forbidden. There are Turkish food varieties that have religious connotations for instance wheat, olives, dates, and squash. Meanwhile, roast lamb and yufka bread are usually termed as the foods of the prophet.
Note: when we talk about religious influence on Turkish cuisine, we still go back to the Ottoman Empire that had Muslim Turks. Ottoman cuisine was a fusion as well as a refinement of Balkan, Eastern European, Middle Eastern, Central Asian, and Mediterranean cuisines.
Northeastern Turkish Cuisine
The regional cuisine in this area is quite intriguing. What’s funny is that the locals tend to put anchovies (the small fish of hamsi) in almost every type of food. If it’s a dessert, it has some shades of anchovies, even rice comes with these small fish! Well, the northern coastline in hamsi is responsible for this supply. Other types of edibles common here include hazelnuts, cheese, tea, and honey.
Southeastern Turkish Cuisine
This is where you will find food with that Middle-East touch. There is plenty of meze with meat as well as kebabs that play an important role in all cuisines. Besides that, the baklava dish is also common here. If you are a fan of stuffed lamb ribs, the southeast region has Kaburga Dolmasi.
This is an inland region and it features many trading and business hubs. The most common regional dishes found here include pastirma, a type of air-dried, and cured beef. Its manti is popular among locals and tourists thanks to its amazing taste and melting feeling.
Note: Turkey seems to have an endless supply of kebabs and they come in different variations. However, Cappadocia in Central Anatolia has the juiciest kebab in the country and it’s known as the Testi Kebab.
The Aegean and Mediterranean Regions
These places are close to the sea. Besides that, the Aegean and Mediterranean coastal resorts borrow a lot from Greece culture. So, most of the dishes prepared here have some aspects of exoticness. Fish and seafood are the most common and the locals usually make them using traditional recipes.
Besides that, the warm coastal weather provides an ideal climate for growing tropical fruits and vegetables. As a result, the locals feed a lot on Mezes, olives, in addition to herbs.
Regional Influences of Traditional Turkish Cuisine
Turkey has an area of 300,000 square miles sitting at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea, down to the Mediterranean Coast. Most of the population lives in cities, so the country has always been self-sufficient food wise.
The diversity of the cuisine is huge, but some broad influences are as follows:
- The Istanbul region is well known for a variety of fresh fish from the Marmara and Black Sea, local vineyards and a plethora of fresh produce including more esoteric vegetables, herbs, olives, fruits and figs.
- The Black Sea region boasts mountains with pine, fruit and nut trees, along with a bounteous harvest of seafood such as lobster, caviar and anchovies. It is famous for its pasta and seafood preparations.
- Eastern Turkey, abutting Georgia, Syria, Iraq and Iran, has mountains as well – along with a reputation for hot and spicy dishes. Its tasty locally grown pistachios come in handy to make the famous baklava from the region.
- The Southern region has a large, winding coastline with abundant seafood and a variety of fruits, nuts, olives and vines.
- Even the central valley around Ankara is rich with fresh fish, vegetables and fruits.
The Turkish tradition is to cook fresh food daily after trips to the lavish bazaars (supermarkets).
19 Traditional Turkish Cuisines (and the Spices They Use!)
Climbing the ranks of the most popular cuisines in the World, Turkish food features delightful dishes that will gloriously leave you craving for more. They are healthy, tasty, and fresh dishes that reflect the country’s sweet culture. For a complete list of Turkish spices check out our ultimate guide.
The dishes chosen below can usually be found in Turkish restaurants and home kitchens. The preparations are not elaborately described – the main focus is on the specific spices used.
The most popular Turkish dishes include:
1. Muhammara (Walnut and Red Pepper Dip)
This hearty, smoky and spicy dip is popular all over the Mediterranean. It originated in the city of Aleppo, so the Turkish version must include Aleppo Red Pepper. The other ingredients include roasted red pepper, walnuts, bread crumbs, garlic, sumac, tomato paste and cayenne pepper. Extra virgin olive oil forms the base. Here’s a simple recipe.
2. Pastirma (Pastourma, Spicy Dried Beef)
This spicy, dried beef dish is popular all over Turkey. The thick, spicy coating has a mix of herbs, including fenugreek, garlic, black pepper, paprika and chili. You can eat it thin sliced, or fry in butter and serve with eggs.
3. Ezogelin corbasi (Red Lentil Soup)
This zesty soup made of red lentils, domato salca (tomato paste), grated fresh tomatoes, onions and a touch of garlic, served with mint and pul biber sprinkled on top.
4. Saksuka (Eggplant cooked with Olive Oil)
Saksuka is one of the tastiest among the Zeytinyagli yemegi dishes, this version cooked with eggplant, zucchini, garlic and chili. Green beans are sometimes mixed in.
5. Mercimek Kofte (Vegetarian kebab)
This dish, also known as belluh in Diyarbakir, is a vegetarian meat-ball kebab made from red lentils, fine bulgur, salt, finely chopped onion, scallions, tomato and aci ber salca (hot red pepper paste) and crushed cilantro. Lemon juice is sprinkled on top when serving.
6. Yaprak Dolma (Grape Leaves Stuffed with Rice and Vegetables)
Dolmas are made in a wide variety of ways. In the version made in Isparta, the rice stuffing is cooked with tomatoes, parsley, onion, garlic, tomato paste, olive oil and black pepper. This Turkish Aegean dish is also made with a pinch of cinnamon at times.
7. Iskender Kebab (Doner Meat Kebab)
From the Bursa region of northwest Turkey, the thin slices of doner meat are marinated and grilled over an open fire and laid over a pide bread and smothered in tomato sauce. The meat is served with a portion of tangy yogurt, grilled tomato and green peppers – often with a dash of sizzling butter.
Doner kebab’s popularity is far beyond the Turkish borders. It’s a tasty delicacy from the Ottoman Empire that has a world reputation. It’s normally made using pieces of grilled meat that are then carefully shredded from the vertical skewer.
To enhance its test, the shredded meat pieces are usually seasoned with spices and fresh herbs. Even though previously this type of kebab used to be prepared with only lamb meat, there are numerous variations today, some people use beef or a combination of beef and lamb.
8. Cag Kebab (Lamb Cag Kebab)
This dish from Erzurum takes half a day to prepare. The principal rub used contains black pepper, onions and salt – chili powder is occasionally added – and left to marinate for about 6 hours. They are then put on long skewers and cooked over a wood fire. The meat can be served individually or wrapped in peda with slices of white onion, tomato and long thin sivri (green pepper).
9. Inegol Kofte (Beef and Lamb Meatballs)
Invented by a Bulgarian immigrant, this style of meatballs is kept deliberately simple, using only ground beef or lamb, mixed with breadcrumbs, baking soda, salt, pepper and grated onions. It is typically served on a peda. The mixture is initially marinated and left for a minimum of 24 hours.
The walnut-sized fried meatballs belong to the meze dish family. They are normally prepared with varying levels of spiciness and come in many forms. For instance, in eastern turkey, it’s called icli kofte, and it’s rich in flavor. If you go to the south-east side of the country, Kofta is now Adana Kofte. The fried meatballs offer an infinite savory experience, and you can always eat grilled, sauce-drenched, stewed, or fried kofta.
10. Hamsili Pilav (Anchovy Rice)
A pilav from the Black Sea region made with hamsi (European anchovy), is produced in Rize. The dish is cooked with stock made from fried onions, butter, peanuts, Turkish Spice Mix and raisins mixed with parsley and dill. The fish is then arranged over the rice and finished off by baking in an oven.
11. Perde Pilav (Curtain Rice)
This pilav from the town of Slirt features prepared rice wrapped in a buttery dough, baked and then served hot. The rice is cooked with chicken, currants, almonds, pine nuts and butter, then seasoned with salt, pepper and oreganos. This is a popular dish at weddings.
12. Gozleme (Flat Pastry with Eye Spots)
This flat pastry is prepared with various stuffings, including salty white cheese, spinach or minced beef. The spices used are typically ground coriander, cumin and smoked paprika, along with fresh mint, parsley and chopped scallions. Salt and Pepper are added to taste. Tomato paste could be added to taste.
13. Simit (Sesame Crusted Bread, also called a Turkish Bagel)
Said to have been invented in the palace kitchens of Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century, this street food is now ubiquitous, and in many senses a true representative of Turkish cuisine. The bread is normally made out of flour, yeast, sugar, water and vegetable oil, but traditionally dipped in molasses and water before being rolled in a bed of sesame seeds.
14. Cig kofte (Raw Ground Beef Kofta Kebab)
From Sanilurfa, this Turkish masterpiece is made by combining raw ground beef with bulgur, tomato paste, garlic, onions, pepper (spicy chili pepper could be used) and Turkish Koftebahari.
15. Turkish Baklava (Sweet Honey Flavored Pastry)
Baklavas were a legacy of Central Asia and spread during the Ottoman empire. The phyllo dough layers are filled with chopped nuts (usually walnuts or pistachios) and sweetened with honey syrup. Hints of cinnamon or clove are mixed in at times. The city of Gaziantep is famous for its baklava. The heavy use of unsalted clarified butter is a feature of this dessert.
16. Lokum (Turkish Delight)
This dessert, dating back centuries, lives up to its name. A simple combination of water, corn starch and sugar is boiled together to produce delicate white cubes which are then glistened pink with rose water, pistachios and other flavors that vary from rendition to rendition.
There are variations of many of the dishes outlined above. But enjoying them in their original forms is something that will allow you to savor the essences of Turkish cuisine.
17. Sarma (Meat Stuffed Cabbage Rolls)
It’s one of the traditional Turkish cuisine staples. Sarma’s roots go to the Ottoman Empire. Its presence is diverse and history indicates that it was consumed in the Balkans as well including countries in the Middle East and Central Europe.
Sarma is a snug filling that’s surrounded by leafy veggies. It’s made using a combination of ingredients such as bulgur/rice, minced meat, tomato sauce, red pepper, seasonings, and herbs. Typically, its wrapper is usually cabbage, sauerkraut, or grape leaves. However, you can still use leaves from Swiss chard or even collard greens.
18. Tursu / Torshi
These are pickled vegetables and they form part of cuisines in the Middle East and Balkan countries. Note that the term Tursu is a Persian derivation Torsh that means something sour. Traditionally, pickling goes back to many centuries ago when fresh vegetables had to be carefully preserved for use in winter.
Tursu includes a combination of beets, grape leaves, garlic, onions, zucchini, eggplant, cucumber, and carrots. The vegetables then get placed in a jar that contains a mixture of brine. This is a colorful combination that consists of vegetables in different sizes, shapes, and colors. Turu is usually stored for a couple of months before it’s used.
19. Adana Kebap
This meat dish’s name was derived from Adana city, one of the most popular kebab cities in Turkey. The skewered dish is spicy, tasty, and savory thanks to the spices and meat ingredients used to make it.
Adana Kebap is normally made with tail fat and ground lamb meat. The combination has to be kneaded together with onion, garlic, hot red pepper flakes, and paprika. As a result, this blend usually has a spicy flavor with a deep red color.
The combination is then placed on flat metallic skewers where the grilling process is conducted. To serve, the kebap is topped with sumac, salt, cumin, and roasted chilies. Traditionally, Adana Kebap is mostly eaten with rice and salad. However, it’s still ideal for consumption with pita bread and salad.
Popular Turkish Ingredients, Condiments and Accompaniments You May Need
There are certain ingredients that have to make an appearance in most popular Turkish foods. They are like the base components of these foods. The most popular Turkish food is likely to have:
- Bulgur: it’s a cereal food derived from cracked-parboiled groats. It normally features different species of wheat but you are most likely to find a Bulgur with durum wheat. Its earthy flavor in addition to high nutritional value has significantly increased its popularity. It’s normally used to make soups, desserts, meat, and vegetable dishes.
- White Flour: it’s used to make savories, desserts, and pasta. Besides that, it’s ideal for making puddings and soups.
- Olive Oil: this oil has been a staple ingredient in most Turkish kitchens and it’s been used for centuries. Whether it’s frying, cooking, or making salads, the cold-pressed oil efficiently caters to all.
- Ground Beef: the creativity of the juiciest Turkish meals revolves around ground beef. They come with different fat content for different types of cooking.
- Rice: In turkey, rice pilaf (Turkish pilav) is the most common type of side dish. It’s normally prepared with the large-grained Baldo rice that’s ideal for slow cooking.
- White Cheese: it’s a standard part of breakfast. Turkish white cheese can be used to make salad toppers, sandwich filling, or be used on its own.
- Red Lentils: it has established itself as a staple food that can be taken at any time of the day. The tasty and creamy red lentil soup is commonly used to break the fast during Ramadan.
- Eggplant: it’s ideal for making both hot and cold dishes that’s why it’s ideal for stuffing, grilling, and general cooking.
- Yellow Onions: these are important additives that flavor the base of most Turkish food varieties.
Spices have been crucial in catapulting Turkish Cuisine’s reputation globally. They are perfect in enhancing the taste of traditional dishes by adding a magical touch of deliciousness. The addition of these condiments isn’t just to improve the aroma but to support general wellness.
- Cumin: it has established itself as the indispensable spice of meaty dishes thanks to its aromatic flavor.
- Clove: its intense taste, as well as the lingering smell, makes it a valuable spice in the crafting of compotes and sherbets.
- Cinnamon: Even though it has its routes to the Ottoman Empire, cinnamon is a valuable aromatic spice that’s used to prepare both vegetables and meats. It has lots of medicinal properties with research studies indicating that it can be used to regulate blood pressure and blood cholesterol.
- Thyme: it commonly grows in Anatolia and it’s highly versatile. Thyme can be used in either crumbled or dried form to make dishes while the fresh extract is great for brewing hot tea.
- Mint: the herb is used to make appetizers, stuffed vegetables, and cold juices. It’s known to enhance food flavors and comes with a strong essence flavor.
- Rosemary: it’s one of the most versatile spices that can be used to prepare meals. In addition to that, it’s used a lot to make cosmetic products in addition to herbal medicines.
- Sumac: its lemon taste makes it a suitable companion in the preparation of dishes such as fish, salads, and meatballs.
Turkish Cooking Styles and Techniques
The cooking techniques are almost similar in every region. Fruits and salads are prepared for raw consumption and yogurt dips are very common. With a wealth of fresh and seasonal produce, meat dishes are usually cooked with vegetables. Fried or grilled fillings are also common. Bread, as well as meat, are baked and soups are stewed.
Turkish Mezes are a combinational selection of various small dishes. Meze is normally served as an appetizer in most parts of the Middle East, North Africa, and the Balkans. Meze is a perfect appetizer that makes a great addition to any meal. Even though there are numerous variations of Meze appetizers, the most common and consumer-favorite includes those that are salad, eggplant, and yogurt-based.
25 Quick Facts about Turkish Food Culture
- Turkish cuisine was established in the Nomadic Period.
- The Turkish food culture is largely influenced by Ottoman cuisine. It features a blend of Balkan, Central Asian, Eastern European, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean cuisines.
- Religion, especially Islam (which flourished between the 8th and 12th centuries) had a great impact on how the food was prepared and consumed.
- Arabs, through trade, bought a lot of spices that now form the basis of Turkish food.
- The Mevlevi Order placed strict kitchen rules and table manners in the 1200s and some of the rules are still in use today. According to this order, the kitchen was a sacred hearth.
- Pastoral Turks depended on meat, yogurt, and cheese as staple foods
- Turkish regional food diversity is influenced by external factors, religion, and weather which affects humidity and altitude.
- Turkish cuisine is organized into 7 main categories: vegetables, grains, meats, dessert, meze, beverages, and fish/ seafood.
- Modern Turkish meals feature vegetables, wheat, and rice as the foundation.
- The eggplant is the most used vegetable countywide with zucchini coming in as a second favorite.
- Turks have the highest tea consumption rate in the world.
- The Anatolia region is regarded as the “breadbasket of the world.”
- The Turkish cuisine is described as highly seasonal
- It’s inherently healthy and features lots of meats, vegetables, and fruits.
- Lamb meat is the most common type of meat and it’s normally used to make Kebap, a popular national dish.
- Salep and Boza are the most common winter drinks. They have warming effects and help to nourish the body.
- Sauces and seasonings are used to prepare most meals. However, they are usually light and they light hence they don’t alter the natural taste of most meals.
- The eastern region features highlands and it’s known for livestock farming and the use of herbs in the preparation of most dishes.
- The Marmara Region that has Istanbul as its heartbeat is considered the culinary epicenter of Turkey
- Southeastern turkey is quite hot and has a desert-like landscape. You are most likely to find more spicy foods in addition to pastries and kebabs.
- Those who live in the western region rely a lot on seafood due to the relative closeness of the Aegean. It has fertile valleys as well as well-tended mountain sides that produce lots of fruits and vegetables. This region is also associated with high production of olive oil.
- The country’s heartland has lots of dry steppes in addition to rolling hills. You are likely to find here lots of orchards and wheat fields. The most common dishes associated with this region include helva desserts and vegetable dishes.
- The Black Sea Coast is considered a temperature zone, and it has lots of corn and hazelnuts. Tea and hamsi are also prevalent here.
- The diversity in Turkish cuisine perfectly highlights the variation of the country’s landscape.
- Turks normally have three meals per day: breakfast (Kahvalti), lunch (Oyle yemek), and dinner (Akam yemek).
Turkish cuisine is immensely diverse. Its geographical location has greatly contributed to the growth of its food map, with trade and external influence playing a big role in the sustenance of this cuisine. Besides that, weather and religion are some of the biggest contributors to this cuisine.
Even though there are several cooking styles depending on the locality, one thing remains clear, the food is always fresh, tasty, and less spicy. From the fresh desserts, juicy meats, to the broad range of vegetables, Turkish cuisine is a must-eat.