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Kebaps, meze and kahve: a guide to the best Turkish food and drink | Insight Guides Blog

Kebaps, meze and kahve: a guide to the best Turkish food and drink

Kebabs on sale in Istanbul, (photo by Frank Noon)
Kebabs on sale in Istanbul


Turks will proudly tell you that their cuisine is one of the best three in the world (together with French and Chinese). To be more accurate, it is Ottoman cuisine that made such a lasting legacy, drawing influences from all corners of the Empire during its rule for almost five centuries, from the Balkans to southern Russia and North Africa, plus the Persians’ huge influence. No wonder Ottoman cuisine was considered a hybrid of the very best in the surrounding region.


Baklava


From their opulent headquarters in Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace, and as instigated by Mehmet the Conqueror, hundreds of great chefs in huge kitchens created the most sumptuous dishes in the land, using the best ingredients like fresh pomegranates, dried fruits, plump grapes and nuts. 


Ingredients had, and still do have, a huge part to play: the Spice Route ran through the Empire, in full control of the Sultans, where only the finest ingredients were permitted to pass. Today, Turkey remains a massive land with abundant climates and so cultivates a huge amount and variety of fresh fruit, vegetables, fish and fowl. 


Modern-day Turkey might not have the luxury of culinary grandeur of dishes like cabbage stuffed with chestnuts or casserole of lamb with dried apricots, honey and almonds, but today’s Turks (and probably you) adore the ripeness of fruit and flavour of vegetables, relying on the taste of the ingredients alone, use of subtle spices and herbs, and the finest olive oil. 


While home cooking is still king, it’s inevitable that fast-food culture is making inroads into the cities. But the good news is that chains like Simit Sarayi and Simit Dunyasi (using the good old Turkishsimit as its base) are more widespread than a certain ‘Golden Arches’. 


Meze


Regional specialities


With such a vast nation, from coastline to harsh plains, mountains and lush forests, it’s not surprising that each region of Turkey has its own specialist dishes and flavours.


Surrounded by four seas, Turkey is a piscatorial paradise. Along the Aegean, octopus and calamari make popular meze, and Istanbul winters see oily fish like mackerel and bluefish, best sampled simply grilled. The Black Sea region makes good use of its anchovies with the hearty rice dish hamsi pilavi,mihlama corn bread and custard-filled pastry laz boregi. Olive trees grow in abundance in Western Turkey, so dishes like zeytinyagli (vegetables cooked and served cold in olive oil) grace most tables. Travelling further southeast towards the Syria and Iraq borders, things hot up and visitors to Sanliurfa and Adana will have their fill of spicy Adana kebaps, and the adventurous can try çig köfte, raw minced meat with bulgar. Down in Antakya, try the ferik pilav with a distinctive burnt flavour, followed by the ubiquitous local speciality kadayif, a sweet pastry with fine strands of crunchy wheat, whereas Gaziantep’s plethora of pistachio trees results in their nut-filled baklava.


You’ll be spoilt for choice with seasonal fresh fruit. Countrywide and year-round, you can sample oranges in Antalya (December), delicious apricots from Malatya (June), and huge watermelons from Diyarbakir (September).


Meze


Myriad meze


A traditional Turkish dinner typically kicks off with a vast array of hot and cold meze, or appetisers, comprising dips, salads and marinated vegetables. Whether dining in a large group or for two, the waiter will come to your table carrying a huge tray laden with small dishes for you to choose from, where diners should try and select a variety for everyone to share. 


Try hot sigara börek (deep-fried long pastries stuffed with cheese) and marinated hamsi (anchovies);patlican salatasi (smoked aubergine purée) and ezme (spicy dip with tomato and chilli) are best when scooped up with crusty bread. Zeytinyagli (vegetables in olive oil) are popular dishes to grace any meze table, like enginar (artichoke) or fasulye (green beans), and a creamy garlicky yoghurty dip likehaydari rounds things off nicely. 


Vegetarians can easily make an entire meal of meze alone – although carnivores should ensure they save room for their meaty mains.


Meze are made to eat with the hands, but as with all Muslim nations, only the right hand should be used to touch food directly, as the left hand is considered unclean.


Meze 


Kebaps


Forget your experiences back home of the greasy döner kebap after a night out – the good news is that, while they do exist throughout Turkey, there are far better examples of this staple, with many regional specialities. 


Sis kebap is the basic, where small chunks of meat (usually chicken or lamb) spiked on a short skewer are grilled over hot coals. In Konya, whole lamb is baked in a brick kiln to produce the succulent tandir kebap. Balls of spicy minced lamb, wrapped around the broad skewer, make the popular Adana kebap, and a less spicy version of that is sis köfte. Iskender or Bursa kebap see thinly sliced grilled lamb basted with tomato sauce, served over pide bread and drenched in yoghurt, similar to the Beyti variety. Over in Gaziantep, try the Alinazik kebap with sautéed lamb on a bed of aubergine puree. For those with a fondness for offal, try ciger (skewered liver), böbrek (lamb liver) or even koç (lamb’s testicle) kebaps.


Kebab


If there are many kebap venues in town, a good way to choose the best (not necessarily the most expensive) is to see which is crowded with locals. Tourist areas are not always the best for food – head instead to busy shopping areas or dining enclaves like Bursa’s Sakarya Caddesi, and Eski Sebzeciler Içi Sokak precinct in Antalya. Even in small towns, outdoor tables will spring up in the evenings with an outdoor grill – just follow the crowds and the aroma. Look out for the word ‘ocakbasi’(barbecue house), an informal restaurant and usually a good middle ground, with a roaring grill and good selection of kebapler.


Your meaty feast will probably be accompanied with mounds of salad and warm flatbread, and best washed down with ayran (salty yoghurt drink). 


Herbs and spices


Inhale the enticing aroma at any street market from colourful piles of spices. They look gorgeous, are a reminder of your holiday, and make perfect presents (lightweight and travel well). Try to avoid buying ground spices: it is much better to buy the seeds and grind them yourself back home or, while you’re there, you can also buy a mortar and pestle.


Once you use a pack of pul biber, you’ll wonder how you lived without it. These coarse, dried pepper flakes are a fabulous cooking ingredient, or just to sprinkle on white cheese or salads, and come in various degrees, from sweetness to fiery chilli-like heat. Aci biber is similar and sold as a paste, which you can buy in vacuum-packed plastic for practicality, and stir into stews and soups to give them a kick. 


 


Turkish spices


 


The deep purple flakes sumac are made from the berries of a sumac bush, with a slightly sour flavour. They are wonderfully versatile and can be rubbed onto meat or fish before grilling, sprinkled onto rice or over a salad in place of lemon juice. 


Don’t think that peppercorns stop with black pepper: in any spice market you will see mounds of green and red peppercorns, which are much sweeter than their black or white cousins. Dried sage leaves make the deliciously refreshing drink adachai.


Markets are always the best places to buy spices – especially the traditional street markets at Gaziantep and the weekly one at Kas, where you’ll find the best selection.


Turkish cheeses


Centrepiece to a typical Turkish breakfast is usually beyaz peynir, a slightly salty crumbly white cheese. And you might presume that that’s the lot. But throughout the country an astonishing array of around 160 cheeses vary from soft to creamy, tangy to mature yellow. Some are still handmade by nomads during summer when they take their flocks up to the high plateaux (yayla) – keep a lookout at local food markets.


Turkish cheese


Kasar is made from the milk of highland cattle, a hard cheese with a pale yellow colour and a strong flavour – it improves with maturity. Crumbly tulum cheese is more a description of the method of production, salted and packed tightly into goatskin and aged for up to two years, often used as a filling in börek or manti. The rich ewes-milk cheese Nigde, named for its home town south of Cappadocia, can be eaten for up to two years, is used in cooking, and its rare blue-veined variation is smooth and creamy. The creamy Edirne white cheese that originates from the northwestern city improves with age and is favoured to accompany raki. At the opposite end of the country, things heat up southeast in Antakya, with Sürk, a spicy crumbly cheese enhanced with red pepper and herbs, not for the faint-hearted. 


From tourist towns to small villages, most will have a food market, whether it is a weekly street market or a covered bazaar, and it is bound to include a cheese and dairy section. Ask to have a taste; the stallholder will be happy to oblige. 


Meat-free feasts


Although there isn’t a huge range of dishes available for the strict vegetarian in local restaurants, certain staples are widespread and always guaranteed meat-free: mercimek çorbasi (lentil soup) is usually on the menu, and most street snacks like cheese or spinach börek are mouthwatering fillers. If you’re accompanying your carnivorous friends for dinner, the fantastic array of meze is a meal in itself. It’s easy to share the Turk’s affinity for the humble aubergine, with delicious dishes like imam bayildi, stuffed with tomatoes, onions and peppers, and the smoky dip patlican salatasi.


Çay and kahve culture


Cay


You’ll realise quickly from the piercing calls of ‘Çay!’from the lad in the market carrying a tray of steaming glasses that, more than just a beverage, this is the drink that fuels Turkey. Tea bonds business deals, welcomes guests, and keeps the negotiation wheels in motion.


Served black, usually in tiny tulip-shaped glasses, the tea grown in the verdant Black Sea hills is strong and bitter, usually drunk with oodles of sugar (a couple of cubes will be on the saucer). Teabags make the odd appearance in upmarket cafés, although a request for milk is usually greeted with bemusement. If you’re offered tea in a private house, most likely it will be brewed samovar-style, poured from the small pot kept warm atop the hot-water urn.


A traditional çayhane (teahouse) is usually a male-only affair – not to say that women won’t be welcome – and usually smoky. Locals play cards or tavla (backgammon), or watch a football match on TV at weekends.


In summer months you’ll probably prefer a çaybahçe (tea garden), or a venue with outdoor tables. In some cosmopolitan cities, especially Istanbul, smoking fruity tobacco through a nargile (sheesha, or waterpipe) has enjoyed a revival, especially with students. The çaybahçe is also a favourite with families and courting couples.


If coffee is more your brew, sip a strong, sweet Türk kahvesi (Turkish coffee), ideally after a meal. The waiter will usually ask ‘Nasil?’ (‘how?’) referring to how much sugar to prepare it with. Answer‘sade’ (plain/none), ‘as’ (little), ‘orta’ (medium) or ‘çok’ (lots). He may bring the cezve to pour at your table, the special tiny pot with a long handle. Don’t try to drain the cup unless you want a mouthful of coffee grains!


There’s nothing much to distinguish between a good glass of Turkish tea and a bad one, likewise for coffee. But location is everything. Some will relish stumbling across a traditional çayhane in the old market in Sanliurfa, where elderly men play backgammon and sip their beverage slowly. Others will prefer staggering views, like the çaybahçe in Istanbul’s Gülhane Park overlooking the Marmara. 


Raki ritual 


Although Turkey is not renowned for a boozy culture, its favourite liquor raki (pronounced rak-uh) is a clear brandy made from grapes and raisins, flavoured with aniseed and similar to French pastisor Greek ouzo


Usually, a long straight glass is one-third filled, then an equal amount of water and perhaps some ice-cubes is poured on top, or it is served with a separate glass of water. When diluted, the drink becomes milky white, prompting its nickname Lion’s milk (aslan sütü). 


Most locals – mostly men, of course – would agree that raki comes into its own when accompanied by food, especially cold melon and crumbly white cheese, and ideally a raki sofrasi (raki table) is laden with meze. The raki continues slowly through the main course of meat or fish with regular clinking of glasses around the table with a cheerful ‘serefe’ (cheers) or ‘afyet olsen’ (good health). Care should be taken not to prolong the drink too long after dessert – a raki hangover can be intense for the uninitiated.


The best time and place for raki is undoubtedly in a meyhane, with a meal. Although bars of all varieties will sell ‘lion’s milk’, it’s not particularly common to drink it on its own. Not surprisingly, it’s not a drink favoured by local women, although in tourist areas, the locals are quite used to seeing foreign women develop a taste for it.


Unmissable Turkish dishes


Some dishes might be regional specialities, but these are available pretty much everywhere in Turkey:


Imam Bayildi: Literally ‘the Imam fainted’, as might you if it’s a good one. Aubergine is baked whole, stuffed with tomatoes, onion, pepper and garlic.


Pilav: It might only be rice, but Turks make it so well. Often using cracked wheat, cooked with butter, salt and usually chicken stock, accompanying all dishes in a lokanta.


Asure: a traditional pudding, but not as sweet as most. A mix of dried beans, chickpeas, rosewater and dried fruit, sprinkled with pistachios and pomegranate seeds, and served cold.


Mercimek Çorbasi: unmissable because it’s ubiquitous, filling and tasty. Lentil soup makes a great breakfast when at a service station on a long journey, or a filling lunch with hunks of bread.


Lahmacun: large circle of flatbread scattered with ground lamb, usually rolled up and eaten as a snack. 


Top 5 Turkish food to take home


As you will be at risk of incurring the wrath of customs officers on arrival back home, it’s better to avoid any fresh produce (it’s probably illegal to import), and instead stick to dried or preserved food, which is easier to carry and longer-lasting anyway. 

Turkish delight


•Turkish Delight (lokum): Known locally as lokum, there’s a huge variety to these sweet delicacies. Look out for kaymakli lokum from Afyon, made with clotted cream, and cezerye made from carrots, chewy and not as sweet. 


•Pistachios (fistik): Buy them loose from reputable market stalls – follow the locals to find the busiest. You can get them tuzlu (with salt) or tuzsuz (without salt), plump ones from Siirt or small and intensely flavoured from Gaziantep.


•Dried fruits: Organic sun-dried apricots from Malatya are the best – dark orangey-brown, chewy and full of flavour. Figs are plump and sweet.


Pekmez: This molasses-like syrup is made from condensed fruit, mainly grapes. Locals love it stirred into yoghurt or tahini for breakfast, dipped with fresh bread.


•Hibiscus: These deep red, almost black, dried leaves from the hibiscus plant make a warm or cold infusion, known to lower blood pressure, and are often sweetened with sugar.