So we thought we’d leave all the food for one post. Brace yourselves.
Our first impressions of Turkish cuisine were good. But after several days in country, we felt like we were waiting for something to happen. Waiting to find the perfect dish or the right type of restaurant, or maybe just trying to identify some flavor profiles that made Turkish food Turkish. Maybe we were expecting the food to be spicy or saucy or… something.
Turns out Turkish food is really simple. Meat. Fresh vegetables. Maybe an egg. Done to perfection and, with a few exceptions, without a lot of sauces or fuss. The meat is always grilled to perfection and if you don’t like eggplant, you probably haven’t had patlıcan that came out of a Turkish kitchen. It’s a fertile country that doesn’t import much food, so eating fresh, seasonal, and local is the default.
Let’s start with breakfast. The standard Turkish breakfast includes bread, hard-cooked eggs, fruit, cheese, olives, garlicky sliced sausage, tomato and cucumber. If you’re lucky, there will also be plain yogurt, honey, nuts, dried fruit, and various sweet and savory pastries. It took a while to get used to vegetables for breakfast, but it definitely helps keep your daily consumption at a healthy level.
Gözleme – a flaky pastry that’s stuffed with savory things like cheese and spinach, or sweet things like honey and banana or Nutella. Somewhere between a flour tortilla and an egg-heavy French crepe.
Menemen varies from place to place. It’s basically scrambled eggs with onion, peppers and tomatoes, but soupy because the tomatoes usually make up at least half of the contents. It’s served in the little pan it’s cooked in and is filling and delicious.
Ok, breakfast is over. How about a mid-morning snack of the most delicious peaches, oranges, lemons, berries, melons you’ve ever had? Practically a religious experience. A glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice costs less than a can of cola. Treat yo’ self.
If you are hiking in Cappadocia, you might come around a bend and find people selling every kind of dried fruit imaginable.
And now for lunch. Actually, you probably started breakfast late and are still so stuffed that you skip lunch and hold out for dinner. So let’s ease in with some starters.
Lavaş. Comes fresh from the oven all puffed up like a balloon. Crispy on bottom, chewy on top, best with liberal amounts of butter.
Lentil soup. Consistently simple and delicious from coast to coast.
Lahmacun, a crispy flatbread baked with minced meat. Köfte güveç, meatballs baked in a clay dish.
Dolma refers to any sort of food-stuffed-in-food. In this case, the dolmas are grape leaves stuffed with ground lamb, rice and tomato sauce.
The inescapable döner kebap. Our favorite places incorporated bell peppers and carrots into the stack.
As the man expertly slices off the perfectly roasted bits from the rotating meat log, you try to not remember what the raw drippy mess looked like at 8 o’clock in the morning.
Pide. It’s translated as “Turkish pizza” on most menus, which is a fair enough comparison, although tomato sauce rarely enters into the equation and cheese is only present half the time. This one has eggs and veggies.
Balık ekmek – freshly caught fish, grilled and served with a bit of salad on a baguette.
Pilav and grilled köfte… usually called “Turkish meatballs” on the menu, but they’re a lot closer to mini burger patties.
Testi kebap – stew baked in a clay pot.
What’s available to add some kick to all those dishes? A few options.
First, açili esme. I think it’s fair to call this a sort of pureed salsa, because it’s full of roasted red peppers, tomatoes, onion and herbs. It ranges from totally mild to genuinely hot.
Sumac is always on the table alongside the salt and pepper. It’s the dried fruit of the sumac plant ground into a tangy, salty, slightly bitter spice.
What are you washing all this down with?
How about slightly fermented watery yogurt drink? Our introduction to Ayran came from our friend Brooks who needed his fix just before we hiked around the deserted cave city of Zelve. Tony’s first reaction was “I could think of nothing better on a hot Turkish afternoon than this sweaty cup of cottage cheese juice.” But soon enough, addiction set in and we shared one with almost every meal. Because most Turkish food tends to lack sauces, Ayran is a perfect pairing. Most bufes will bring you a a single-serving container with a straw to jam through the foil top. Some classier places have a fountain that constantly keeps it frothy.
Şalgam – You might have seen this on the menu and tried it out of curiosity. You wouldn’t really like it, but you’d continue to sip away, trying to identify all the strange flavors. Then you’d go to Wikipedia later that day and learn that, “although the Turkish word şalgam literally means “turnip”, şalgam is actually made with the juice of red carrot pickles, salted, spiced, and flavoured with aromatic turnip (çelem) fermented in barrels with the addition of ground bulgur.” You might even buy it again, but would learn your lesson the second time.
Made it through all that? Now on to dessert. The options are many.
We’ve already gone into extensive detail about dondurma ice cream.
Antep fıstıklı– pistachios everywhere. Back home, these are expensive. Here, they go in almost every dessert.
Locum, Turkish Delight. Like our friend Kelley, our knowledge of the stuff began and ended with a certain C. S. Lewis tale. It’s soft and gummy, sometimes a plain sugary gel and other times stuffed with chopped nuts or flavored with rosewater. A dusting of powdered sugar or coconut flakes keep them from sticking together.
Not done yet. You’ll need a caffeine infusion to stay awake while you digest.
Turkish coffee. Sweet, sludgy, delicious Turkish coffee.
And, of course, çay. Strong black tea.
With as much sugar as you care to add.
For the the perfect late night snack head for the ıslak vendors at Taksim Square. “Wet burgers” are small and slathered in tomato sauce that soaks both the burger and the white bun. It hangs out in a steamy little sauna box until you order it. They are wonderful, delicious little inventions that are not filling enough to make you regret eating a drippy burger, and cheap enough that you’ll probably grab a second one a couple vendors over once the first one is gone. But judge not, for they’re Anthony Bourdain approved.