I am irrevocably in love with Turkey’s food! When I first visited a couple years ago, I dove into the cuisine and tried everything I could get my hands on in the few days I was there. I’d never really had Turkish food before (except some just-okay baklava), but it’s now one of my favorite cuisines.
It’s also incredibly varied—many people think of kebabs and baklava, but there are so many different types of dishes and desserts, and from different regions. So I won’t pretend that this list is comprehensive. These 20 foods are probably just the tip of the iceberg, but they’re a great place to start.
Turkish food you have to try
I’m starting with a few super simple basics before getting to my faves…while the first few are not the parts I love most, they are an absolute must-have in exploring and understanding Turkish cuisine.
#1 – Simit
Definitely not one of my favorite foods in Turkey, but a complete staple of life there—especially for people on a budget (they usually cost about a lira, or about $0.33 USD). It’s kind of like a slightly harder sesame seed bagel? Gets the job done in a pinch. You’ll see carts full of them, as well as intrepid vendors carrying a board stacked high with them on their heads. I enjoyed this kind of ode to simit’s history, if you want to dig in a little more…
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#2 – Turkish black tea
This is omnipresent in Turkey, you’ll be offered it in people’s homes, you’ll see people drinking it on the ferry, and you’ll keep being offered it til you turn it down. I usually take mine with a bit of sugar, which is honestly kind of weird for me and tea (which I typically take black), but it’s just so comforting that way regardless of whether the weather’s hot, cold, rainy, whatever…rather like the hot sweet tea in Jordan.
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#3 – Pide
Pide is kind of like a handheld pizza boat thing. It’s the thing on the right below (the dude chopped it up for me for some unknown reason…I don’t have someone cut my food often). I had it and those other pastries as my warm-up act before our several-hour walking food tour (which I totally recommend!).
#4 – Menemen
A.k.a. super fancy scrambled eggs. It includes just-barely-set eggs, tomatoes, peppers, spices, and sometimes meat and/or onions. It’s meant to be quite runny, like the Turkish version of shaksouka, and you eat it for breakfast with bread to sop up the delicious liquid.
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#5 – Burek or Börek
There are a lot of varieties of this, it seems to encompass a lot of different kinds of cheese-stuffed pastries. Funny enough, it was also our tour guide’s name from the first night’s food tour 🙂 I thought burek was supposed to be flaky (like the one of the left below) but I also had it where it had been kind of soft and soggy, so not sure if that was on purpose or not. The one on the left is delish and if you see it you need to grab it.
#6 – Turkish coffee
Apparently Turkish coffee brewing is the oldest method of preparation, and having it done in front of you is like a cultural show all in itself (and there’s a lot of complicated regional cultural background as well, as this NPR article delves into).
It’s made using coffee beans ground into a fine powder, then boiled in a little brass pot that the Turks call a cezve. The coffee is ready when it rises, bubbles and nearly overflows. Sugar, if desired, is included in the preparation vs. being added afterward, so make sure to ask for it up front (they’ll often ask if you want it). It’s so strong you could stand on it, and toward the bottom it’ll get grainy so stop drinking!
#7 – Turkish delight
Not my favorite, personally, but something you definitely have to try. Invented in the late 1700s and now synonymous with Turkey, this chewy sweet comes in loads of flavors—rose, lemon, mint, and mastic are the most traditional—and is everywhere you turn in the markets (and a piece usually even comes with your Turkish coffee). I’m not a fan of chewy things but even I tried a few pieces.
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#8 – Candied fruits & veggies
On one of our food tours, we went into a store that was full of candied fruits and vegetables, and we got to try a few things. This was eggplant and olives. Yes, you read that right. But since it was candied, it was sweet…and the flavors of the original vegetable didn’t really come through (which I was happy about since I’m not a huge fan of olives). The texture is really interesting, and a little goes a long way with this. The Turks do seem to love their sweets.
#9 – Balik Ekmek
A century or more ago, the fishermen at the mouth of the Golden Horn decided to start frying up their fresh fish and selling it in sandwiches right off the boats. Balık ekmek! Balık ekmek!, they shouted (“Fish in bread! Fish in bread!”), and today you can still share in that ritual in Eminönoü, on the Sultanahmet side of Galata Bridge. It’s simple bread with unseasoned fish and usually some lettuce and raw onion. From a taste standpoint I’m not a fan, but from an experience standpoint it’s awesome.
#10 – Turkish cheeses and kofte (both on this delish plate)
There is so much goodness on this plate! On our walking food tour through the Asian side markets, one of our stops was at a little restaurant where we got to sample all kinds of Turkish cheeses, the sarma (grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice), and kofte (or at least that’s what they said it was; spiced lamb meatballs wrapped in maybe potatoes?). There was a red pepper paste with it and overall a super tasty experience.
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#11 – Turkish yogurt with honey
Nommmmmm. This is sheer heaven. Both yogurt and honey were commonly found on both the European and Asian side separately on menus, but I only saw the yogurt and honey served together in Asia, and it was one of my favorite things the entire trip. We had it on our food tour, but went back on our last day by ourselves to have it again (and I bought some amazing stuff to bring home). One thing that was super interesting to me was that you’d probably recognize it as Greek yogurt, but the Turks will be the first to tell you that the origin is Turkish, not Greek (and history seems to maybe be on their side…).
#12 – Kunefe
Double nommmmm. This dish is a sweet cheese pastry wrapped in shredded phyllo dough, baked, and soaked with a delicious syrup. Different varieties are common throughout the Middle East, but I’m partial to the Turkish kind, which retains its crispiness (vs. what we had in Jerusalem, which was super soggy).
#13 – Chicken breast pudding
Yep, that’s a thing. Called tavuk göğüsü (tah-VOOK’ go-OOZ-oo’), it’s made from fine shreds of chicken breast, but doesn’t have a chicken flavor at all—it’s a pretty solid, subtly sweet milky taste with a hint of cinnamon. As soon as I heard about it, I knew I had to try it. It’s a cool experience and one I’d recommend (it’s the dish at the very back/top of this pic).
#14 – Turkish ice cream or dondurma
This thicker, stretchier version of ice cream typically includes mastic and salep (a flour made from orchids), and is super interesting. It is more resistant to melting than regular ice cream, and you will usually get a bit of a show from the vendor as well.
#15 – Corba and pilav
On our first night in Istanbul we took a food tour that allowed us to have dinner with a local Kurdish family in their home. The mom cooked us a very traditional meal of corba (a spiced red lentil soup), pilav (rice cooked in butter with nuts or chickpeas), and then some savory chicken and potato stew. I fell in love with the comforting, hearty soup and it’s become a staple of my home cooking since then (easy recipe if you’re looking for one!).
#16 – Lavash with marinated feta
Lavas or lavash is a soft, thin flatbread that is sometimes puffed up on the stove and we had it with a yummy marinated feta as an appetizer at Ciya (a restaurant on the Asian side at Kadaköy, recently featured on Netflix’s Chef’s Table).
#17 – Lahmacun
A Turkish (and Armenian) take on pizza, a thin round of dough is topped with (also very thin) minced meat, spices, and vegetables. A lot of people put fresh parsley and squeeze fresh lemon juice on it before rolling up the slices and eating it.
#18 – Traditional kebab plate, and/or doner kebab
This is a pretty broad category, because they come in lots of different styles. You’ve got the vertical rotisserie-style meat that’s shaved off in slices, sausage-like combinations of minced beef or lamb, spices, sometimes ground pistachios, or other things. It’s all great, but the sausage style is probably my favorite—it melts in your mouth and has the most tender and amazing flavor! Here are a few examples of what a kebab plate might look like. All the yums.
#19 – Baklava of all kinds
One of my favorite foods, and it comes in all shapes, sizes, and consistencies. I made it my mission to try as many as possible (including the unfortunate-looking one in the second pic below, which we dubbed the “penis pastry”). I lurve it.
Pretend #20 – Pickled fruits & veggies (if you hate yourself)
Super gross. But a cultural experience there and I tried a bit just to be polite. There are literally stores of pickled stuff and older dudes go in and gossip and eat pickled things and drink the juice. Yes, I just threw up in my mouth a little.
Real #20 – Salep
So this is actually somewhat of a question mark. It’s a lovely and odd hot beverage that’s kind of like vanilla cocoa? It’s made with that same orchid flour as the ice cream mentioned above, but the reason it’s a question mark is that the overconsumption of salep (the flour) is leading to local extinction of the orchid so there’s talk of trying to phase it out of the cultural diet.
So there are 20 totally delish (and one totally gross) foods to get your started in your Turkish cuisine exploration. Like I said at the outset, I’m positive I missed some amazing ones so please drop me a note in the comments and let me know what I need to catch next time I head to Turkey!
Other foodie adventures you might like:
- Feeling Hip(ster) in Portland’s Food & Beer Scene
- Exploring the Wines (& Food) of Mendoza
- Diving Into Jerusalem’s Amazing Mahane Yehuda Market
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