You can’t simply create a list of Turkish spices without understanding the incredible history that made this legendary cuisine possible.
Turkey is the crossroads of the world, a country half as large as Mexico, sitting at the confluence of multiple oceans and seas, and straddling Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
The region is also known as Anatolia and its cuisine has evolved with a vibrant trade in spices and a vast array of fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, seafood and meats.
Turkey’s culinary traditions are firmly rooted in fresh food, prepared daily and shared in community style dining.
Turkish Cuisine – Origins, Influences and Traditions
Turkish cuisine, as currently known, has evolved for thousands of years, but the principal developments of modern Turkish cuisine was laid in four stages – the pre-Ottoman period of 6th to 11th century AD (in particular the Seljuk Period beginning in the middle of the 11th century), the Mongol invasions in the 13th century, the Ottoman Empire through the early 20th century and subsequent modernization influences.
Due to a thriving trade in spices with all the major world civilizations, Turkish cuisine continued to evolve over these periods. During the Ottoman period, the Sultan/Pasha practically controlled commerce along the Silk Route, making culinary influences evolve rapidly, picking up and sharing flavors and spices with every major world culture.
The royal palaces were known to hire tens of thousands of procurers, cooks, helpers and servers – whose mission in life was to create culinary masterpieces in huge quantities. Not only were the royal family and guests fed in style, food was sent out to the city dwellers as well.
Turkish Food Styles and the Use of Spices
Turkish cuisine is known for its simplicity and freshness. While many spices are used, either singly or in mixes, the Mediterranean tradition is very much present – spices are rarely overwhelming the main, fresh ingredients of the dish.
The use of olive oil as the main cooking medium also contributes to the overall healthiness of Turkish food. The fresh ingredients are roasted, kneaded, shaped and cooked to perfection in their kitchens.
The main types of cuisine where spices are used abundantly are Mezes (appetizers, dips and salads), Dolmas (grape leaves stuffed with rice and vegetables), grilled dishes (kebabs which came from Persia and kofte (meatballs)), Sebzeli Et Yemekleri (casserole style meat dishes with vegetables), Lentils and
Other Legumes (wide array of lentils, chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans and others), Pilavs (exotic rice dishes), Soups, Zeytinyagli yemegi (vegetables cooked in olive oil) and Borek (pastries). Spices are used in drinks and desserts as garnish.
Spices that Originated in Middle Asia
The Middle Asian region has introduced many prominent spices to the world. Garlic and Rosemary both originated in the region. There are a variety of Turkish spices including Pul Biber, Aleppo Red Pepper Flakes, Paprika, Mahleb, Sumac, Turkish Brown Figs and Wild Mustard. In addition, the Turkish varieties of a number of herbs, such as Curly Parsley, are distinctly different in taste.
List of 33 Turkish Herbs and Spices
Turkish food uses herbs, spices and condiments that have been popularized around the world. We list 33 of the most common Turkish spices below. While this may seem like a lot, the vastness of the country and the variety of cuisines means that there are many times this number of herbs and spices that are used in the country.
Cinnamon powder adds an earthy, sweet flavor. They are used in the rice used for stuffing vegetables, chicken and lamb. It is used as a flavor in Turkish desserts, as well as traditional drinks such as boza and salep.
The small, white pods of this plant from the ginger family are used in appetizer dishes, desserts and hot drinks.
This fragrant, low growing plant came to Anatolia from Egypt. It is used in baking and to make the Turkish liquor raki.
Arugula used in turkey is similar to the common, radish-like form of the herb. Its leaves are used in salads and to garnish dishes, especially fried or boiled fish.
These aromatic flower buds are tiny black sticks with a knob-like head, releasing a lingeringly sweet yet pungent flavor. Cloves are used a bit differently in Turkish cuisine, less in curries (though there are exceptions) and more in compotes, sherbets, cakes, desserts and herbal teas.
Defne Yapragi (Bay Leaves)
The pleasant aroma of dried Laurel Bay Leaves is used for flavoring a variety of meat and fish dishes, including poultry and game animals. They are also used in tomato sauce-based preparations and to produce canned and pickled goods.
White cumin seeds are usually ground into powder before being used in Turkish cuisine. The seeds grow on trees found in a wide range from the Middle East to India – Turkish cumin has an especially strong odor. The strong, earthy and musty flavored cumin is used to suppress the smell of meat when preparing kofte (Turkish meatballs) and sucuk (flavored Turkish Sausages), among other uses.
Whole leaves and shoots of cilantro are frequently chopped up and used as garnish in salads, soups, syrups and liqueurs, as well as some meat dishes. Candied coriander seeds are used in pastries.
Turmeric came from India. Ground yellow turmeric powder is used in a wide variety of egg, meat and fish dishes. The yellow coloring it imparts allows it to be substituted for saffron in many cases.
Sumac (Turkish Spice, similar to Lemon Pepper)
This signature Turkish spice is tart and tangy as a lemon. The leaves from dwarf Sumac plants in Anatolia are dried and ground into a brownish-red powder, which is liberally used in the preparation of a variety of kebabs, onion salad, raw meatballs (akin to steak tartare), Turkish ravioli and fish.
Hardalotu (Wild Mustard)
The Turkish wild mustard is different from some other yellow mustard varieties and grows over most of Anatolia. With its slightly bitter flavor and mustard aroma, it is usually parboiled before being added as a popular flavor enhancer in boiled salads (e.g. Aegean boiled salads with eggs and lime). In Adana, it is used as a stuffing for sac boregi; in Icel, it is cooked with bulgur and in Adana, with boiled meat.
Garlic is used in many meat and fish dishes in Turkey. The herb originated in Central Asia, from where it spread to Mesopotamia, then to China and India along the Silk Route. A special variety of garlic found in Anatolia are the Turkish Red, grown in the mountains close to the Black Sea. These have purplish red skin, an intense, pungent aroma but only medium heat – chopped garlic is a frequent garnish in olive oil and meat dishes. Turkish Garlic Bread is a delight to savor.
Zencefil Tozu (Ginger Powder)
Ginger originated in South Asia but quickly spread throughout Anatolia and the Middle East. Ginger powder is more frequently used than the original root. It is used in meat and fish dishes along with red pepper flakes and Sumac, to add flavor. Ginger is also used for medicinal purposes.
Onions are used extensively in cooking, as well as garnish on the side or on top of dishes in minced form.
This distinctive crimson stigma from the Saffron Crocus flower is highly prized in Turkey, high grade saffron is mainly grown in the high mountains of Anatolia. It is the most expensive spice in the world. It adds a floral flavor and an intense, rich aroma, along with a gorgeous golden color to rice dishes, curries and desserts.
Cemen Otu (Fenugreek Seeds)
Fenugreek is a very common spice used in Turkey. The hard, brownish-yellow seed of the pea-family plant is ground up and used in soups, meat dishes and pickles.
Frenk Feslegeni (Basil Leaves)
Basil leaves, with a distinctive fresh flavor, are from a plant in the mint family. The leaves are used in dishes using eggplant and peppers.
Arapsaci or Rezene (Fennel Seeds)
Fennel plants grow all over Anatolia, especially the northern part of the country. The leaves, buds and shoots of this anise scented herb are used extensively in lamb dishes, but also used with other meats and fish. Other uses are in the dish borek and in mixed green sautes for flavoring.
The Rosemary plant originated in Anatolia. The thin, spiny green leaves of the dwarf rosemary plant are used both raw and dried in Turkish cuisine – mainly to make sauces and as flavoring in meat dishes. Rosemary Tea is also popular.
Thyme is available all over Anatolia, but the preferred varieties of this herb come from the mountains. Dried or crumbled thyme leaves are used in flavoring a number of dishes, especially meat-based ones, and soups. One of the customs among the cattle farmers in Turkey is to feed thyme to their cattle, a practice that produces prime beef. Thyme tea is also popular in Anatolia.
With its intense flavor and fresh taste, mints are used in salads, appetizers, cold juices, yogurt dips and stuffed vegetables (dolme). Mint is also used in lamb dishes.
Guvey Out (Oregano)
Like a wide swathe of the Mediterranean region, Oregano is widely used in Turkish cuisine, for garnish added to soups, legumes and cabbage dishes, or part of the rubs for barbecue steak.
Ficus Carica (Brown Turkish Figs)
Brown Figs from Turkey are distinctly different from Black Mission Figs. They are large, moist and succulent with a maple-brown skin and light amber flesh, tasting of honey, jam and butterscotch with a hint of nuttiness. Figs are eaten whole, dried and powdered, added to a variety of dishes and desserts.
Frenk Maydonozu (Curly Parsley)
This local grown herb has a milder aroma than Italian parsley and is used as garnish for similar dishes to Italian cuisine.
Karabiber (Black Peppercorn)
India introduced the world to Black Peppercorn, berries that grow on climbing vines native to South India. Harvested green, they turn red and then are dried before getting to retail stores. Black Peppercorn adds an intense aroma, heat and flavor to any dish. Ground Black Pepper and peppercorn are both used extensively in Turkish cuisine.
Black, fragrant berries from the evergreen juniper tree is used extensively in poultry dishes and as part of the marinades for meat.
The oil-bearing seeds of the tall plant are grown extensively in Southern Anatolia. The seeds are used in simit and other baked products, and ground sesame is one of the key ingredients of tahini.
Dolmalik Fistik (Pine Nuts)
These small nuts, extracted from the cones of a pine species, are used in doma mix and asure.
Pul Biber (Red Pepper Flakes)
Obtained by grinding hot red pepper, these flakes are used in both oiled and unoiled forms to spice up dishes. The Antep and Marap varieties are the most prized.
Aleppo Red Pepper Flakes (Red Chili Pepper Flakes)
Red Chili Flakes grown in Northern Syria and Turkey have a special flavor, with less spice/heat overtones than Cayenne Pepper flakes but hotter than paprika used in Mediterranean cuisine. They are used as flavoring to provide a spicy touch to Turkish meat and seafood dishes, among others.
Turkish red paprika is famous the world over, used in a variety of Mediterranean cuisines, including Greek. They are made from the dried red fruits of the Capsicum annuum plant, but only sweeter varieties – meaning that the powder has mild chili flavor with a hint of sweetness and lots of flavor.
Kucuk Hindistan Cevizi (Nutmeg)
These are similar to European nutmeg, the inner fruit of the mace plant. Sweet and aromatic, a pinch of nutmeg adds flavor to selected dishes. Their wider use is in a number of Turkish desserts and hot drinks, though a pinch of nutmeg may be added to bread, soups and some sweeter flavored curries.
This is an aromatic spice made from the seeds of the Prunus mahaleb cherry. The stones, which are ground to a dust before use, impart a unique, faintly vanilla-like flavor, a combination of bitter almonds and cherry. Mahlab is used as a flavoring in Turkish desserts, drinks and sherbets, including in sweet buns such as iklice and pogaca, a figgy milk pudding called uyutma and a sweet soup or pudding called bulamac made with molasses, walnuts and sesame seeds.
Most of the spices named above are staple additions to a wide mix of Turkish dishes (see some examples below). They are also used in combination as seasoning blends as outlined next.
List of 9 Turkish Seasoning Blends and Cooking Oils
A number of the herbs and spices mentioned above are used in combinations similar to the spice mixes that are common in Iran, China, India, Lebanon and elsewhere. Turkish cuisine is heavily dependent on olive oil, with minimal spices used as rubs and garnishes, all in an attempt to preserve the freshness of the food.
Kofte Bahari (Meatball Spice)
This mix is the main spice used to flavor and prepare grilled meatballs (kofte kebabs). It is predominantly a mix of five spices, coriander, clove, black peppercorn, bay leaves and wild thyme. Here’s a recipe.
Turkish Spice Mix
This blend contains cumin seeds, black and pink peppercorn, oregano, Turkish bay leaves, chopped and dried cilantro, paprika, sumac, cayenne pepper, sesame seeds and salt. It is used primarily on roasted meats, as a dry rub or as primary seasoning. Here’s a simple recipe.
Curry powder is usually a potent mix of any number of spices. Typical spices used in the original base include Ginger, Garlic, Turmeric and Chili Powder, though other ingredients such as Cumin and Coriander may also be mixed in.
Turkish Baharat Seasoning
The Turkish version of Baharat includes cumin, coriander, cloves, cardamom, black pepper, nutmeg and paprika. It is an all-purpose seasoning, used in lamb, beef and tomato-based dishes, as well as soups and chicken with rice.
Dried Zahter (Spice Mix with Zahter)
Zahter is a very popular spice in Southern Turkey, made from the dry zahter – a herb that looks like a cross of marjoram, oregano and thyme. The Zahter spice mix is made by adding sesame seeds, crushed crooked chickpeas, cumin, seasalt, sumac, nigella seeds and other spices to taste. Zaatar bread is a spicy delicacy available all over the Arab world – it can be spread on the bread or used in a side dip. Various meat and chicken dishes can also be flavored with Zahtar.
Zeytinyagli (Olive Oil)
Olive oil is used as the prime cooking medium in Turkish cuisine. There are a number of occasions when dishes that are made with butter elsewhere are cooked in olive oil in Anatolia, to preserve freshness and make the dish healthier. There are a wide range of vegetable dishes, for example, called Zeytinyagli yemegi (literally, foods cooked in olive oil).
Kuryruk yagi (Tail Fat of Sheep)
This rather rustic and exotic cooking medium is used in the high mountain cuisines of Turkey, mainly for kebabs and meat dishes.
Other Oils Commonly Used
Other oils that are commonly used in Turkish cooking include Canola Oil, Sunflower Oil, Corn Oil, Sesame Oil, Peanut Oil, Walnut Oil and Hazelnut Oil.
Butter, Margarine or Clarified butter or regular butter is used in rice and other dishes for flavor or slathered onto hot bread.
Our Verdict … Turkish Spices are Familiar
While some of the specific Turkish spices described above may be unknown, the broad majority should be familiar to those used to Middle Eastern, Greek and Italian cooking.
A large number of dishes in the Mediterranean region, as well as dips and drizzling sauces, originated in or were popularized from the Persians, on down through Rome and Greece and then reinforced during the Ottoman Era.
One way or the another, we hope you will enjoy recognizing some of the more unusual or lesser known flavors and spices mentioned above.
To learn more about this amazing cuisine check out our 47 Facts About Turkish Food Culture – Ultimate Foodie Guide.