The food in Turkey is one of my favourite things about the country. And if you want to try some traditional Turkish food during your stay, then one of the best things you can do is a food tour.
I did a full-day two continents tour (my first time in Asia even if was just for half a day). But you can absolutely introduce yourself to delicious Turkish foods if you don’t have time for that.
I’ve made a list of the most famous Turkish food, or at least some of the most popular Turkish foods to look out for when you go. So let’s start with my favourite Turkish meal of the day…
Turkish breakfast is my favourite Turkish food. Of course, it’s not just one type of food, but that’s what I love so much about it. Usually, you’re given a whole spread of some of the most delicious Turkish foods and some of them are pretty healthy.
You’ll get a variety of crudites like cucumber and tomatoes with various things to dip them in and nuts and dried fruit on little plates. There’s always a variety of cold meats and cheeses with Turkish bread or simit (see the street food section) and sometimes little biscuits too.
I’ve also been served chips/french fries at breakfast as well as some other fried breaded items. Eggs are more common and you often get asked how you’d like them cooked or if you want an omelette.
You’ll probably get offered menemen which is a popular breakfast dish made from scrambled eggs, tomatoes, green peppers, black pepper and chillies. Sometimes it has onion in it but usually that’s if you have it as a main dish later in the day.
I’ve also been given Borek for breakfast. It’s filo pastry with various fillings like minced meat, potatoes, Feta cheese or spinach. It’s similar to pies like spanakopita which are favourite foods in Greece. Turkish people eat Borek at any time of day and it fits just as easily into the street food section here too.
Oh and I forgot to say, expect to share your meals. These two kept me company at breakfast in Fethiye.
Main Dishes and Mezze
This dish is made from rice-stuffed dried aubergine/eggplant. If you’ve spent any time in or around the Spice Market in Istanbul you’ll have seen dried aubergine hanging from stalls. Turkey is blessed with an abundance of vegetables and they can’t all be used when they’re harvested.
It’s common for certain vegetables like aubergine and peppers to be strung up on pieces of string after the flesh has been scooped out. The remaining skins or “shells” are slid onto pieces of string and sundried. The process creates a rich and intense flavour and of course, means the vegetables can last for a long time.
The aubergine skins get rehydrated to make the patlican dolmasi dish. As well as rice (or bulgar) the filling usually has ground beef, red pepper paste and mint but you’ll find vegetarian versions without the meat too.
Kuzu tandir is roast lamb where the lamb shank has been cooked very slowly over a long period of time to tenderise it. Traditionally kuzu tandir was made in an underground oven (tandoor) but these days a conventional one is usually used to make the well-cooked lamb.
I’ve seen this served with onions and tomato wedges and either bulgar, rice or Turkish flatbread.
Icli kofte are Turkish meatballs. The ground meat’s usually combined with walnuts, onions and herbs and then it coated with bulgar.
This is stuffed vine leaves or you might see it as grape leaves. Dolma actually just means stuffed so it can be lots of things like I’ve already told you about above.
But here I’m talking about wrapped vine leaves. In Turkey, they’re filled with rice or bulgar with herbs and nuts. Sometimes, meat too but I generally have the vegetarian version. I’ve noticed that in Turkey these dolma tend to be longer and thinner than the dolmades we have in Greece.
Pide is sometimes called Turkish pizza and is one of the most popular dishes and comes with a variety of toppings. Whenever I’m in Turkey I see it being advertised all over the place. I do sometimes get it confused with lahmacun (see below).
With pride, the flatbread is oval-shaped and it’s served in slices. The most common topping seems to be ground or chopped lamb or beef. But you can really have any combination of those, cheese, pastirma (like pastrami), spinach or sujuk, which is a spicy, cured sausage.
You can keep it vegetarian and I’ve even heard one or two people rave about pide topped with an egg!
Lahmacun is another popular food that could be in the fast or street food category too. It’s made with round flatbread which makes me think more of pizza. But in contrast to Pide’s crust which is a bit like deep pan pizza, lahmacun’s is thin and crispy. And its toppings are limited to ground meat.
Once your Lahmacun arrives you do eat it a bit differently to Pide and pizza too. I was taught to roll it up around a sprig of parsley and a drizzle of lemon juice. Mmm, chef’s kiss!
This is another stuffed aubergine/eggplant dish, this time made with whole, fresh aubergines and no meat. The stuffing is usually full of onions, garlic, and tomatoes with olive oil.
I had an amazing version of this at the Pumpkin Cafe in Cappadocia. I highly recommend it. Luckily for me, this recipe is one from Ottoman cuisine and can get a tasty version in Greece too.
Other than sauerkraut, I’m not a huge fan of Tursu, which is pickled vegetables. But I was given some Tursu Suyu pickled juice (see the street food section below) to try and was pleasantly surprised.
The shops selling it are dedicated pickled vegetable shops, like a butcher or fishmonger! I saw jars and jars of the stuff, as well as trayfuls on display
Vine leaves and pickled vegetables for sale
It’s common to be served some Tursu pickled salad as a side to a snack in a restaurant. It either comes in a separate dish or there’s just a big jar on the table. Look at the pickles that were on the table with the usual salt, pepper and olive oil.
This was at a place on bar street on the Asian side of Istanbul where we had hang-over curing chicken broth.
Cig kofte in its authentic form is a bit controversial, it’s basically raw meatballs cured with very hot spices. As you can imagine, it’s not mass-produced because of health concerns and only a handful of Turkish restaurants make the original version.
Most places you’ll find make this as vegan bulgar kofte made with tomato paste and lots of spices which I’ve had served in lettuce leaves. Both versions take A LOT of kneading in place of any cooking.
I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about eating these as they were served at room temperature, or even slightly cooler. I could really taste the paste and the spices, but I did quite like them.
I understand that in the region this dish comes from people eat several of these as a main meal. But everywhere else it’s really just served as a side like in the picture.
This Turkish dish is quite like the kofte above. But this one has red lentils as well as the bulgar wheat, fewer spices, and pepper paste as well as tomato. Both can be shaped in different ways but I’ve seen them as a long wavy shape as well as more oval.
As with the kofte, these lentil balls are often served as a side or a snack rather than a main course. They’re a favourite to have in the fridge in Turkish homes between meals and for guests.
Kuru Fasulye is a bean stew, normally white beans, with olive oil, tomato sauce or paste and onions. Sometimes you’ll find it with other vegetables in it and the meat version usually has pastirma added. The beans are often served with bulgar wheat or rice.
Perhaps the most famous food in Turkey is meat kebab or kebap, a middle eastern dish that’s common in a number of countries. There are various versions to look out for, one or two of which you might have already sampled at your local Turkish takeaway!
It’s taken a while but I think I’ve finally managed to get straight in my head which type of kebab is which.
Shish Kebab / Sis Kebabs
Shish kebabs are the ones that come on skewers. Sometimes they’re purely cubes of meat like, beef, lamb, chicken or even fish. But often they include vegetables like peppers, mushrooms, onion and courgette, too.
Doner kebab is the kebab that’s made from meat taken from the vertical rotisserie although you’ll find many a variation of it. If you’ve enjoyed a doner kebab after a night out in the UK you’ll have some idea of this. Although your experience of it in Turkey could be quite different.
In the UK I’m not sure the “meat” isn’t usually some reconstituted gunk. In Turkey, it’s definitely something that’s lovingly prepared and not always served in pita bread.
The meat is often lamb and beef mixed together but sometimes the rotisserie has purely chicken meat or beef. The strips of meat are hand layered with minced meat to create a cone shape. Some regional variations include spices or vegetables packed in or layered with the meat.
This meat is then put on the spit and is turned slowly to cook from the outside. Traditionally the meat was cooked in front of a fire but you won’t see that in many places now. (If you do, it’s a good sign you’ll have an exceptional meal.)
As the meat gets cooked and crispy from the meat juice that’s poured on it, your donerci (doner maker) will slice it with a huge knife that looks like a sword.
We usually think of the Turkish doner kebabs coming in a pitta with salad. But you could just as easily get a plateful of meat to eat in a deconstructed way. (A bit like Greek gyros.)
Iskender Kebab / iskender Kebap
Iskender kebabs are made from the doner meat that we’ve just been talking about. It’s usually served on pieces of pide, the Turkish flatbread, with a butter and hot (as in spicy) tomato-based sauce poured over.
Normally you’ll get yoghurt and grilled vegetables, like peppers and tomatoes, on the side.
Urfa and Adana Kebab
The Urfa kebab and Adana kebab are served on a skewer like the shish kebabs. But this time they’re made with mince meat, either beef or a combination of beef and lamb.
Both types of kebab are generally the same with the meat being kneaded with garlic and onions as well as local herbs.
The main thing that sets these two apart and why you’ll see them listed as two separate items are the spices. The version from Urfa is milder with herbs and spices like paprika, cumin and oregano.
The Adana version has much hotter spices like red pepper flakes.
If you visit Cappadocia you’ll undoubtedly see this type of kebab made in a clay pot. Probably you’ll visit Avanos and see the long history of pottery making in the area.
Anyway, some restaurants make quite a show of the testi kebab, delivering the dish to your table in flames! Once the fire’s safely been put out, your server taps the pot’s long neck with a hammer and removes the lid to reveal the contents.
These pottery kebabs are basically slow-cooked stew. The meat is put into the clay jug along with various vegetables like pepper, tomato, onion and aubergine (eggplant). The top is sealed with dough and it’s put into an underground tandoor oven, like the Kuzu Tandir, and left for hours.
It meat comes to your table piping hot so make sure you’re not in a rush when you order this one.
You’ll see street vendors on street corners all over Istanbul and other towns and cities throughout the country. Here are some of the most popular street food options that are sold throughout the year.
Simit is a type of bread that’s made with molasses and sesame seeds and looks like a thin bagel. It’s an extremely popular street food and you’ll see street vendors with little carts all over the place.
Although you can find it at any time of day, lots of busy Turkish people grab simit as breakfast on the run.
I quite like eating the bread plain but there’s usually a variety of spreads you can choose from. You could try findik ezmesi which is a hazelnut spread a bit like Nutella.
Despite what it sounds like, this isn’t another type of meat kebab. Kebab/kebap actually means the way in which something’s cooked, so grilled/chargrilled.
It’s still a bit confusing because kestane kebap is roast chestnuts. So I guess they’re grilled roast chestnuts. Anyway, however they’re cooked, the smell is synonymous with my Christmas in Istanbul.
Like Simit, you’ll see umpteen sellers with their carts. Often chestnuts are sold alongside the corn below.
Misir is corn on the cob which you can get cooked two ways. Köz is roasted and süt is boiled. I’m yet to master the art of eating sweetcorn on the go and not getting most of it stuck in my teeth. But go for it if you fancy it.
Kumpir is probably my favourite street food and it’s basically the biggest baked/jacket potato that you’ve ever seen in your life.
When you order one they scrape all the inside out and fluff it up with a wadge of butter. Once they put it back in you can top the potato with a load of different fillings. You generally pay one price and have as many toppings as you like.
If you’re in Istanbul in the evening go to Ortakoy. There’s a little street market with a whole row of little huts selling kumpir. Grab one and take it to the water where you can see the bridge all lit up.
This one is a fish sandwich. I have to be honest, I haven’t yet tried it myself although I’m not quite sure why not. I saw plenty on offer at the fish restaurants at Eminönü by Galata Bridge. Too much rushing around trying to fit everything else in probably. Next time.
Anyway, it’s usually oily fish like mackerel with things like onion, parsley and your choice of salad served in white bread. It’s not the flatbread that I’ve talked about in some of the dishes above. It’s a big roll or a section of loaf. Cheap and filling by all accounts.
Durum kebabs are really similar to doner kebabs but the bread is different. Rather than being served as an open sandwich like a pita pocket, the doner meat and vegetables are rolled into a wrap.
If you’re vegetarian you can get this with a falafel filling instead of meat.
I had some tursu suyu as part of the food tour I did in Istanbul and it was interesting to me. I didn’t expect to like it at all, and for most of the others on our tour, one quick sip was enough.
But I have to say, I quite liked it. It’s basically pickle juice with a base of either lemon juice or vinegar with little bits of pickle in it.
It’s sold in the pickle shops with all the pickled vegetables. If nothing else, it’s very pretty!
This is Turkish pilaf rice with boiled chicken shredded on top, sometimes with chickpeas too. Another filling fast food you can grab on the street.
Kokorec is the intestines of suckling lamb that are roasted and served on bread. I sat this one out but here’s a photo if you want to try it.
We were served it with the yoghurt drink Ayran which I’ll tell you about in a minute.
I think I said earlier that kumpir potatoes were my favourite Turkish street food. I may have to revise that statement now that I’m on this section. Midye Dolma are mussels stuffed with rice and spices and they are DIVINE.
The place we went to started off as a lone guy selling mussels from a cart. Over the years the business grew into a chain of street food places.
As you can see from the picture, you can have the mussels in a variety of ways. I had the non-spicy version and I could have eaten them all day.
Turkish Desserts and Sweet Treats
Now for some delicious foods to satisfy your sweet tooth.
I love baklava. Flaky filo layers drenched in honey and sprinkled with pistachios amongst other nuts. That’s all I have to say. If you haven’t tried it then I highly recommend you do so.
Another wonderfully sweet food is kadayif. It’s made from similar ingredients to baklava, honey and nuts, but a shredded dough is used to make it. The result is a crispy pastry that I think looks like a bird’s nest.
Dondurma is Turkish ice cream and an absolute no-brainer for this holiday list. The Turkish version of ice cream is made with goat’s milk and sahlep (made from orchid root). It’s sooo good. In the picture, you can see plain, chocolate – my favourite – and pistachio.
Probably you’ll know what Turkish delight is. Here in Greece, we call these little sugar gels loukoumi and in Turkey, they’re called lokum. These sweet little bites come in different flavours with rose being a popular option.
Have one or two with your Turkish coffee.
Ayran is a yoghurt drink and another taste that surprised me. I don’t really go in for milky drinks but I do like yoghurt so I guess this is different. The saltiness was what surprised me and it made Ayran surprisingly moreish.
The uzum serbeti drink is fermented grape juice. Serbeti means sherbet so, as you can imagine, it’s very sweet. We had it served at a restaurant along with homemade food.
When I went to Istanbul in winter this was something I really wanted to try. To be fair, you can get sahlep in Greece but I’d never had it.
Anyway, like the ice cream above, this drink is made with powder that comes from orchid tubers. As herbs go, it’s supposed to be quite good for you actually.
Again, it’s a milky kind of drink that I don’t normally go for but I enjoyed drinking this. It often comes with cinnamon and ginger and it feels really Christmassy.
Cay is Turkish tea. It’s made in double teapots on electric stoves that seem to be everywhere. When I was in Cappadocia it seemed I was being offered it at every turn. And I was grateful since it was so cold outside.
I remember sitting in a carpet shop with a tiny, delicate cup and saucer of the stuff. I was waiting for the shop next door to resize a ring I bought and I was ushered into the warmth to sit next to the stove.
The father of the lady helping me was trying to convince me to go and live in Turkey. He was reeling off the ridiculously low cost of living for everything I’d need and how I’d be able to live like a queen.
To be honest, I didn’t need much convincing. If I hadn’t been worried about taking my cats to Turkey and affecting future travel with them, I’d have gone over there for the winter. As it was, I stayed in Paros.
Like Greek coffee, Turkish coffee is more about the way in which it’s lovingly and skillfully made than it being a particular flavour. The Turks drink their coffee very strong and very sweet at any time of day.
I don’t drink coffee and I try not to get involved in the process. Over the years I’ve found people can be very particular about it all and get rather affronted if you don’t make their coffee exactly right.
(This is a rubbish picture but I’ve been told this is a really good brand of Turkish coffee you can look for.)
But if you’re a coffee lover and are keen to know more about this you can take a coffee tour in Istanbul. You’ll learn all about its history and how to make the perfect cup yourself.
Enjoy Turkey’s Food Markets
As well as sampling Turkish cuisine in restaurants, cafes and from street vendors, don’t forget about food markets. On the street behind Istanbul’s famous Spice Market, there are stalls laden with fresh vegetables, olives, cheeses, dried herbs and spices and much more.
But if you’re not going to Istanbul on this trip you’ll still find market stalls like these all over Turkey. They’re filled with lots of traditional foods to get your taste buds going.
Check for tours in your area that include a trip to the weekly villagers’ market. They’re like farmers’ markets and chock full of fresh and dried fruit and vegetables, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices and olives.
This picture’s from the Friday market in Fethiye. If you’re heading that way then it’s worth going to the Tuesday market. There’s all this plus market stalls selling everything else known to man (practically).
Your Turkey Trip
If you still need help putting together your trip so you can taste all these delights then have a look at these 7-day Turkey itinerary suggestions.
Don’t write off visiting Istanbul in winter either. It’s a more relaxed time to visit and food tours are available all year round. You can do food tours in Turkey at night too if your days are jam-packed with sightseeing.
Other Food to Explore
If you’ve enjoyed Turkish cuisine and you’re combining your trip with some time next door then come over and check out the best foods in Greece.
A number of these dishes have come out of the Ottoman Empire so I do see similarities between Turkish foods and those that we have here in Greece. The preparation can vary between the countries and it’s fun to explore both the Turkish version and the Greek version of things.
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