Turkish Food Culture: 9 Local Dishes You Must Try in Turkey

Turkish food culture
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Is Turkish food culture one of your top reasons to visit Turkey? If not, it definitely will be once you’ve finished reading this article! Picture creamy soups, savory meat cuts, and decadent pastries, all served up in a whirlwind of spice and sugar syrup. At once exotic and earthy, this cuisine is one of the most adventurous and amazing in all of Europe.

Flanked by two continents, Turkey has an incredibly rich history. Everyone from the Greeks to the Byzantines, the Ottomans to the Chinese traders of the Old Silk Road have helped to shape the cooking scene and culture in these parts. On top of that, there’s an extreme range of climate zones in the nation, from hot Mediterranean plains to icy highland plateaus. It’s great for growing all sorts of veg and ingredients.

In this article we’ll give you a virtual taste of 10 popular dishes from Turkish food culture. They’re sure to get your mouth a-watering just in time for that flight to Istanbul, visit to the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia, or ticket to the sun-kissed sands of Bodrum. Enjoy!

Baklava

Turkish baklava pieces

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First on our list of the top dishes in Turkish food culture is Baklava. Yes, yes, we know that dessert is normally saved until after the main, but Baklava is so darn special an so darn iconic that we simply have to make an exception! It’s so tasty, in fact, that many other nations, including Greece, claim it for their own. But, without stepping on any toes, the evidence does seem to support the Turkish claim to this decadent sweet cake…

Traditional baklava has the following layers:

  • Phyllo pastry
  • Semolina cream
  • Crushed nuts (filling)
  • More phyllo pastry
  • Plain butter
  • Hot syrup
  • Crushed pistachios (decoration)

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 alone. They produce about 90% of the baklava consumed in Turkey. In late 2013, the EU gave Gaziantep baklava a protected geographical indication status, recognizing the dish as a local food and protects it from imitators.

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. There’s nothing for it but to try a new one every day!

Turkish kebabs

Turkish kebab
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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. That’s it. Simple, eh?

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! Basically, it’s impossible to experience Turkish food culture by trying only one type of kebab. Here are a few different versions to get stuck into on the streets of Istanbul or Ankara…

  • Şiş kebap – Şiş kebap, often called “shish kebab”, is how most people outside of Turkey 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.
  • Döner kebap – 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 sauce. 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.
  • Adana kebap – 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.
  • Iskender kebap – The iskender kebap is an excellent choice for a sit-down 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, from the city of Bursa. You can taste it there, but also in many other cities including Ankara and Bodrum.

Köfte (Turkish meatballs)

Kofte
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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”. Not our words. 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. Why not ask for the local variety of köfte in each Turkish city and let the cooks surprise you?

Dolma and Sarma

Dolma
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Dolma and sarma are both very important dishes in Turkish food culture. But the difference between them isn’t always clear to those who aren’t in the know. So, let’s take a closer look…

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 dolma include:

  • 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.

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. Confused? You’re not the only one.

Popular types of Turkish sarma include:

  • Zeytinyağlı sarma – Here, 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.
  • Etli Yaprak Sarma – The same as the above only you add minced beef to the filling.

Manti

Manti
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Turkish food culture amazes travelers with not only taste, but also appearance. Cue manti. These Turkish dumplings can get so tiny, you could fit even dozens of them on a single spoon. Even so, chefs still manage to stuff them with spiced beef or lamb so that they come bursting with a rich umami flavor. A garlic and yogurt or tomato sauce is usually 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, dry mint, and the zing of some aleppo pepper flakes.

No one can really decide where the manti dumplings come from. Some think they are the Turkish iteration of the Slavic pierogi dumpling form the north and west. Others think that they resemble ancient Chinese jiaozi or Korean dumplings thanks to the addition of spices and capsicum sauces. Whatever the origin, there’s no doubt they are darn tasty!

Lahmacun

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Lahmacun can be likened to a Turkish pizza, and it is a very popular street food across the country. 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 going from east to west.

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 don’t like the spicy side of things.

Don’t like onions on your lahmacun? No problem — try lahmacun in Gaziantep. But be ready with a breath mint, though, as the Gaziantep lahmacun includes whole cloves of garlic instead! This variety also has lots of vegetables and is typically made in an ellipse shape.

This delicious Turkish meal comes in a variety of sizes, but it’s always eaten with your hands and usually on the go. You may need to roll it into a wrap if it’s too large. You can also eat smaller sections like you do with slices of pizza.

Pide

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There’s definitely a hint of the Georgian khachapuri about the Turkish pide. A flat bread that’s rolled out and then in again to form a sort of kite-shaped plate that can be packed with fillings, it certainly looks the piece.

A little like the lahmacun (see above), these crusty and filling pastry dishes can be topped with any manner of ingredients. Some will have a dusting of salty white cheese like feta, others will come with fried eggs and spinach, and the carnivores can get stuck into versions layered with minced meat and spices.

The pide is another proud staple of the after-hours corner hole in the wall. Devour one after hitting the bars of downtown Istanbul or seeing the sights of Ankara – they are available pretty much any hour of the day. One tip: Grab a healthy stack of napkins to go!

Kuru Fasulye

Turkish soup
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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, 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 protein can be added as well. It is often served with a side of rice and pickles, or even bulgur wheat for a healthier touch.

This is a hearty staple that’s most often served during the cold Turkish winter (yep – they do get snow in Turkey!). However, we also think it makes a great addition to a mezze spread, sided with grilled veg and dolma wraps. Some people go as far as to say that kuru fasulye is the national dish of Turkey, as it’s origins are thought to go back many centuries.

Kumpir

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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 there are endless —  sausages, pickles, corn, cabbage, olives…anything you like! 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 hot baked potatoes. You’ll be spoiled for choice there, with dozens of street vendors inviting you to try this simple yet tasty Turkish dish. It’s a cracking addition to a sightseeing tour of the metropolis’s ancient heart.

Taharna Çorbasi

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Soup holds an incredibly important place in Turkish food culture. In fact, there are dozens upon dozens of delicious soups on the menu here. So many, in fact, that there’s no chance we can list them all.

However, one great dish to help you start discovering the world of 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 and brought back to life.

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 months.

Turkish coffee

Turkish coffee
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Calling all caffeine lovers – don’t even think about leaving the country without sampling an authentic Turkish coffee. This is what the locals often start the day with. Just this, and maybe a sweet slice of syrup-doused filo pastry on the side. Ah, what a duo!

It’s not what you get in the Starbucks back at home, we can say that for sure. Nope, Turkish coffee is thick and pungent. It’s made in a small copper pot known as a cezve, which is added directly to the stove top to let the water thicken and the finely ground beans broil around. Some people add sugar, others don’t, but you must ask for added sweetness when you order as it’s part of the brewing process – no afterthought cube additions here, folks!

For us, there’s nothing quite like a Turkish coffee in the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul. Amid a hubbub of wild cafés and stalls that sell copper lights and carpets, it’s sure to be a drink to remember!

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!

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