Turkey has a rich history and strong cultural traditions surrounding the preparation and eating of food. A family-oriented culture, food is an important part of any self-respecting Turks life. A typical meal consists of delicious bread, honey, cheese, olives, vegetables, nuts, fruit or fruit juice and usually some sort of meat, such as lamb or fish. There are regional specialties, and country-specific foods, but overall the food is common enough to a Western palette to be not only edible but delicious in the process.
Although there are many similarities to the foods in the Middle East and Mediterranean, there are subtle regional variations. Turkish food is closer to Greek food than Middle Eastern food overall; this could explain the absence of some typical Middle Eastern foods that we are used to in the West, such as hummus and falafel, which are all but unavailable. Kebaps are common, with many different varieties and styles to choose from. I found it all delicious, healthy and very fresh: a real treat to eat.
Mezes are small portions of tasty goodness, such as grilled eggplant, cucumber-mint yogurt, fried bread with cheese or meat inside. Mezes are essentially appetizers, often served before a meal of lamb, kebaps or with strong drink such as Raki.
This is style common to all of Turkey, and absolutely delicious. Thin strips of lamb are cooked over a spit vertically, and sliced off to make a tasty treat. This is similar to a gyro in Greece, a vertically roasted, self-basting pole of meat that is delicious. there are of course about a million ways to prepare this dish, but it seems that the sliced-off-a-spit style is the most commmon. The picture here is of another variety, seved to us in a fabulous little restaurant called “Saglam”, recently written up in Conde Nast traveler magazine.
The best of the döners is Iskender Kebap (“Alexander’s Roast Lamb”), named for a chef in the city of Bursa, and Alexander the Great. This special dish is made from lamb raised on the thyme-covered slopes of Mount Uludag and is roasted vertically like a gyro, spread atop diced flat pide bread (which is also delicious alone), then topped with a savory tomato sauce and browned butter. Best served with a dollop of fresh strained Turkish yogurt on the side.
A delicious gelatin-like treat covered in powdered sugar, Turkish Delight comes in all sorts of flavors ands shapes.
Walnut sausage, a “tube” of gelatin made from boiled-down grape juice stuffed with walnuts. it is delicious and easy to carry, so buy some and snack away! Junk food is of course very common; there are all sorts of chocolates, candy bars and other treats, but I liked the Doritos a la Turka the best: lighter in coating than ours, and with poppy seeds and tomatoes, Delish!
Fruits, Nuts and Flakes
No flakes really, but a lot of grains. The rich soils and diverse landscape (ranging from sea-level to 7,000 feet) allows Turkey to grow just about anything. Pistachios are particularly delicious there, as are the apricots, dried or ripe. All manner of citrus fruit is available courtesy of the hot, sunny Mediterranean regions.
The most famous region is Capadoccia, known for the volcanic soil and appropriate grape-growing conditions. During the Ottomans rule, wine was avoided by most of the Muslim population, but the Christians and Jews certainly loved their drink. high import and sales taxes make wine a lesser commodity, but the industry is trying hard to produce some great stuff. Fairly expensive, a dinner can often be much less than the wine you consume.
Raki is known as Lion’s Milk in Turkey, named so because it pours clear, but turns a milky white when water is added (which is essential, considering raki is 80 proof). it is the drink of choice for discerning Turks, and although the burgeoning wine industry is making some headway, the macho men of Turkey still prefer their Lions Milk. The flavor is strong licorice, similar to Uozo in Greece, and definitely an acquired taste. Created like a brandy with grapes and raisins, it is flavored with anise, giving its distinctive, pungent flavor. Watch out though: it can (and will!) sneak up on you… drink carefully, and always with food.
Efes Pilsen is the largest national brand, and there are others coming fast. Tuborg is another common brew made right there in Turkey, and normally other imports are available.
World-famous Turkish coffee is made by grinding freshly-roasted beans in a mortar and pestle or grinding them espresso-style in a cylindrical brass coffee mill.
The coffee powder (about one teaspoon per tiny espresso-sized cup) into a special pot with a wide bottom, narrow neck, a spout, and a long handle, called a cezve in Turkish. Add sugar and a bit of cold water for each cup of coffee you’re making, then heat the brew to a frothy boil three times.
After the third frothing, a bit of the froth is poured into each cup. Bring the liquid still in the cezve to the froth-point once again, then pour it immediately, muddy grounds and all, into the Turkish coffee cups, which are essentially small espresso cups.
The mixture is steeped for a minute as the grounds settle. The flavor is rich, thick and tasty, but stop sipping when you taste the grounds coming up—these you leave at the bottom of the cup. It is said that fortune tellers (or any available Turk) can flip the grounds over in your cup and read your fortune… oh, and it will put some hari on your chest: is strong.
Chai, or Turkish Tea
Knows as tea to us, Turkish tea is generally served in delicate little tulip-shaped glasses, with a lump of sugar and tiny spoon. It is cheap and a part of every Turks daily social and culinary routine.
There is excellent seafood available in all coastal towns, often you can have something fresh-caught grilled for you on-the-spot in a fish market. While shellfish is occasionally eaten, it is another food on the strictly-forbidden list for Muslims, therefore not as common.
Pork and Muslim-hood
Muslims generally don’t eat pork. In Turkey, pork is eaten in some Western or European places, but not very commonly. Conservative or Fundamentalists Muslims will shun pork, but there those that partake, as well as plenty of places to get it if you must have some chops.
Do they have Turkey in Turkey?
What’s in a name? Well, history for one. Turkeys are available in Turkey, as the name would have you believe, but the bird is not necessarily common as food. It is rarely served in restaurants, and although you see them running around, they are not part of the typical diet. There are some wives’ tales about the proliferation of Wild Turkey in America: there are some that think that ancient travelers and nomads brought the famous bird to the Americas from Asia; who knows? It is a great story.
I’m still trying to figure out which came first: the turkey or the name?