Is Turkish food culture one of your top reasons to visit Turkey? If not, it definitely will be when you finish reading this article! Picture creamy soups, savory meat cuts, and decadent pastries. It’s hard to find another cuisine that can make such a spectacular feast for both the stomach and the eyes.
Flanked by both Europe and Asia, Turkey has an incredibly rich history. The surrounding nations have all shaped Turkish culture, including its food culture. The landscape is likewise very diverse. This makes some crops either abundant or impossible to grow in certain regions. Both these factors contribute to the amazing diversity of Turkish food culture today.
In this article we’ll give you a virtual taste of 10 popular Turkish dishes. They’re sure to get your mouth watering and your feet itching to hop onto the next flight to Istanbul!
First on our list of the top dishes in Turkish food culture is Baklava. Dessert is normally saved until after the main meal, but Baklava is so special, we’ll have to make an exception! It is so good, in fact, that many nations, including Greece, call it their own. But the evidence seems to support the Turkish claim to this decadent dessert.
Traditional baklava has the following layers:
- Phyllo pastry
- Semolina cream
- Crushed nuts (filling)
- More phyllo pastry
- Plain butter
- Hot syrup
- Crushed pistachios (decoration)
Over time, baklava spread throughout Turkey and beyond. Dozens of other varieties came into creation. These might have a diamond or round shape. The filling could also be walnuts or peanuts instead of pistachios. The texture, too, could be crispier, stickier, chewier, and so on.
You can enjoy baklava anywhere in Turkey, but if you want the most authentic taste, pick some up in Gaziantep. There are around 100 baklava shops in this southern town. They produce about 90% of the baklava consumed in Turkey. In late 2013, the EU gave Gaziantep baklava “protected geographical indication” status. This recognizes the sumptuous dessert as a local food and protects it from imitators.
What exactly is a Turkish “kebap”?
Turkish food culture has so many varieties of kebabs, you might wonder what the word “kebap” even means. According to the Turkish Language Association, “kebap” is meat cooked on fire or in a pot without water.
This concept does indeed leave a lot of room for creativity in how we can season and serve the meat. It’s no wonder that Wikipedia lists over 30 types of kebabs in Turkish culture alone!
It’s impossible to experience Turkish food culture by trying only one type of kebab. Here are a few different types of Turkish kebabs to try on your next trip to Turkey.
Şiş kebap, often called “shish kebab”, is how foreigners usually picture a kebab. It is the most popular type of Turkish kebap, and also one of the most popular dishes in Turkey. Marinated cubes of meat are stuck onto skewers and grilled over a fire. Traditional şiş kebaps use only meat, usually lamb or beef. Nowadays restaurants may serve skewers with both meat and various vegetables. This increases the visual appeal for customers.
The Döner kebap may bring to mind the Greek gyros or the Arab shawarma. Döner means “rotating”. Cooks stack thin slices of meat on a vertical rotisserie, then shave it off and serve it in a bread wrap. The wrap also has salad, vegetables, and sauce — often tomato, mayonnaise, garlic, or spicy. You can easily grab a döner kebab on a busy day of sightseeing, as it’s one of the most popular types of Turkish street food.
This kind of kebap uses ground meat as well as tail fat. They are kneaded together with garlic, onion, paprika, and hot pepper flakes. These ingredients give the kebap a deep crimson color and a spicy kick. The adana kebap is usually served on a plate of flatbread, pepper, and tomatoes. Alternatively, you may get it in pita bread together with a parsley and red onion salad. It gets its name from the city of Adana.
The iskender kebap is an excellent choice for a calm meal, as it’s always served on a plate. The meat is prepared just like for a döner kebap. Then it is layered with spicy tomato sauce on top of a pita bread and drizzled with melted sheep butter. You’ll often get iskender kebap with a side of roasted tomatoes, peppers, and yogurt. The name comes from the butcher who created it, Iskender Bey, in the city of Bursa. You can taste it there, but also in many other cities including Ankara and Bodrum.
Köfte (Turkish meatballs)
We can’t talk about Turkish food culture without mentioning köfte — Turkish meatballs. Made with ground beef or lamb, köfte meatballs are incredibly versatile. You can serve them as finger food at cocktail parties, at home as an easy meal, or as street food.
Want to know a secret? Swedish meatballs “are actually based on a recipe King Charles XII brought home from Turkey in the early 18th century”. Or at least that’s what Sweden’s official Twitter account posted in 2018!
If you’re a foodie, this national delight is an excellent way to explore food culture all around Turkey. No city makes köfte the same way! In Akçaabat they’re made from the veal of local calves. In Izmir, you’ll get meatballs with peppers and potatoes in a simple tomato sauce. Other varieties include egg-coated and fried Kadınbudu köfte, the soup-like sulu köfte, and the skewered şiş köfte. Ask for the local variety of köfte in each Turkish city and let the cooks surprise you!
Dolma and Sarma
Dolma and sarma are both very important dishes in Turkish food culture. But the difference between them isn’t always clear to foreigners. Let’s have a look at what these dishes are.
What is Turkish dolma?
The word “dolma” means something that is filled or stuffed. It is made with any kind of vegetable that can be hollowed out by removing its insides. Popular choices are tomatoes, peppers, zucchinis, eggplant, or artichokes. The stuffing is typically rice, minced meat, and sometimes vegetables such as tomatoes.
Popular types of Turkish dolma
The options for dolma end only with your creativity. There are dozens of types, depending on the combination of vegetable and filling used. Here are a few popular options:
- Biber dolmasi: peppers are stuffed with ground beef or lamb, rice, and onions.
- Patlican dolmasi: dried eggplants are stuffed with ground beef or lamb, mint, pomegranate molasses, onions, rice or bulgur, currants, and pine nuts.
- Kabak dolmasi: zucchinis are stuffed with ground beef or lamb, rice, onions, and tomatoes. Kabak dolmasi is served with plain or garlic yogurt.
What is Turkish sarma?
Then there is sarma, meaning something that is rolled or wrapped. The “wrappers” are any kind of leaves. Grape leaves are used often, but other leaves such as cabbage, wine, or spinach are also possible. The stuffing is once again usually rice with minced meat. Because the leaves are “stuffed” with a filling, you can also call sarma “dolma”. But you can never call dolma “sarma”, as there is nothing rolled or wrapped.
Popular types of Turkish sarma
A popular sarma dish is Zeytinyağlı sarma. The filling consists of rice, onions, parsley, and spices. This is wrapped tightly in boiled leaves of your choice. These rolls are then cooked in a pot and served with a topping of garlic yogurt. The meat version of this is called Etli Yaprak Sarma, adding minced beef to the filling.
Turkish food culture amazes travelers with not only taste, but also appearance. Manti is no exception. These Turkish dumplings can get so tiny, you could fit even dozens of them on a single spoon. Even so, they are stuffed with spiced beef or lamb and bursting with flavor. A garlic and yogurt or tomato sauce is poured on top, completing the spectacle.
A popular version of manti is Kayseri mantisi, originally from the city of Kayseri. These manti are served with yogurt, melted butter, and dry mint and aleppo pepper flakes.
Lahmacun can be likened to a Turkish pizza, and it is a very popular street food. Traditional toppings are meat, tomatoes, onions, parsley, black pepper, red chili pepper, and lemon. As with most Turkish foods, you can find dozens of varieties across the country.
Şanlıurfa on the southeast of Turkey is considered one of the points of origin for lahmacun. The original lahmacun uses a special local pepper powder called “isot”. It’s got quite a kick, so don’t order this if you can’t handle flames!
Don’t like onions in your lahmacun? No problem — try lahmacun in Gaziantep. But be ready with a breath mint, as the Gaziantep lahmacun includes cloves of garlic instead! This variety also has lots of vegetables and an ellipse shape.
This delicious Turkish meal comes in a variety of sizes, but it’s always eaten with your hands. You may need to roll it into a wrap if it’s too large. You can eat smaller varieties like a slice of pizza.
Turkish food culture has many meat dishes, but there are lots of great vegetarian options too. Kuru fasulye is a great example. In this stew dish, onions and tomato paste are sauteed in sunflower oil. Then dried navy beans are added and the whole mixture is boiled together. For meat-lovers, various types of meat can be added as well. It is often served with a side of rice and pickles.
Although kumpir originally comes from Croatia, Turks have adopted it as their own. Today, kumpir is a staple in Turkish street food culture. To make the base, you slice a baked potato in half. Then you mash the insides with butter, cheese, salt, and pepper until they’re fluffy. Finally, you add the toppings of your choice on top. The options are endless — sausages, pickles, corn, cabbage, olives… anything! In recent times, healthier ingredients are more popular, including roasted eggplant and tuna.
You can find kumpir in many cities across Turkey, but the Ortaköy district in Istanbul is particularly famous for its kumpirs. You’ll be spoiled for choice, with dozens of street vendors inviting you to try this simple yet tasty Turkish dish.
Soup holds an incredibly important place in Turkish food culture. There are in fact dozens upon dozens of delicious soups — but alas, we can’t list them all here. A great dish to start discovering Turkish soups is the Taharna Çorbasi. It’s prepared with a dried and crushed mixture of vegetables, herbs, spices, and yogurt. This can be stored for years, until it is boiled in water.
Although it’s not made from fresh ingredients, it is still very nutritious. Turkish people often serve it to babies starting a whole food diet, or prepare it in the summer to cook in the winter.
What is the most popular food in Turkey?
Turkey boasts an immense list of delicious popular food. Kebaps and köfte are extremely popular everywhere in Turkey. Manti, dolma, and sarma are other popular choices. It’s also common to drink black tea at breakfast and eat soup as a dinner starter.
What is a typical breakfast in Turkey?
A typical breakfast in Turkey consists of small dishes. These include fresh bread and butter, jams, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, and let’s not forget cheese. On weekdays, breakfast is light and quick, but on weekends, it can become an elaborate ceremony. Family members take their time to chat as they savor the food on the table. Black tea is a must for an authentic Turkish breakfast.
How important is food in Turkish culture?
Food is absolutely essential to Turkish culture. It’s at the center of practically every ceremony, custom, and social gathering. Holidays tend to look like feasts. Some dishes even take hours to prepare! Turkish food culture is extremely social. Family members and friends take their time to talk and savor the food on their plates.
Food is so important in Turkey, in fact, that in 2010 the Turkish government announced a Turkish Cuisine Campaign. Its aim was to improve the quality standards of Turkish cuisine and attract more tourists to Turkey. Clearly, the government recognizes food as one of the most appealing parts of Turkish culture to foreigners.
What food is Turkey famous for?
Turkey is especially famous for its kebabs and köfte (Turkish meatballs). In fact, these dishes are so famous and widespread that many different cultures believe these dishes are theirs!