As nomads, the Turks were limited by what the land offered and by what could be prepared over an open fire, so it's not a stretch to understand how kebaps and köfte became the centerpieces of Turkish cooking. Turkish food today concentrates on simple combinations, few ingredients, and fresh produce. Then, with access to vast cupboards stocked with ingredients from the four corners of the empire, the palace chefs developed a more complex Ottoman cuisine. Some Ottoman favorites that have made it to us include hünkar begendi ("the sultan was pleased": cubed beef or lamb on a bed of puréed eggplant or aubergine), imam bayaldi ("the priest fainted": eggplant or aubergine halves filled with a sort of ratatouille that Barbara Cartland might have visually likened to a woman's "flower"), and hanim göbegi ("lady's navel": a syrupy dessert with a thumbprint in the middle). These have become staples in many run-of-the-mill restaurants, while more elaborate Ottoman cuisine is difficult to come by. Happily, several restaurants in Istanbul have researched the palace archives to restore some of those lost delicacies to the modern table, providing a rare opportunity to sample the artistry and intricate combinations of exotic flavors in the world's first fusion food.

A typical Turkish meal begins with a selection of mezes, or appetizers. These often become a meal in themselves, accompanied by an ample serving of raki, that when taken together, form a recipe for friendship, laughter, and song. Mezes often include several types of eggplant, called patlican; ezme, a fiery hot salad of red peppers; sigara böregi, fried cheese "cigars"; and dolmalar, anything from peppers or vine leaves stuffed with rice, pine nuts, cumin, and fresh mint.


The dilemma is whether or not to fill up on these delectables or save room for the kebaps, a national dish whose stature rivals that of pasta in Italy. While izgara means "grilled," the catchall word kebap simply put, means "roasted," and denotes an entire class of meats cooked using various methods. Typical kebaps include lamb sis; spicy Adana kebap, a spicy narrow sausage made of ground lamb; döner kebap, slices of lamb cooked on a vertical revolving spit; patlican kebap, slices of eggplant and lamb grilled on a skewer; and the artery-clogging Iskender kebap, layers of pide bread, tomatoes, yogurt, and thinly sliced lamb drenched in melted butter. Kebaps are generally preceded (or accompanied) by an air-filled, football-shape bread sprinkled with sesame seeds called lavas. Turks are equally nationalistic over their köfte, Turkey's answer to the hamburger: flat or round little meatballs served with slices of tomato and whole green chili peppers.

Though signs for kebap houses may mar the view, Turkish citizens are anything but carnivores, preferring instead to fill up on grains and vegetables. Saç kavurma represents a class of casseroles sautéed or roasted in an earthenware dish that, with the help of an ample amount of velvety Turkish olive oil, brings to life the flavors of ingredients like potatoes, zucchini, tomatoes, eggplant, and beef chunks. No self-respecting gourmand should leave Turkey without having had a plate of manti, a meat-filled ravioli, or kreplach dumpling, adapted to the local palate by adding a garlic-and-yogurt sauce. Pide is yet another interpretation of pizza made up of fluffy oven-baked bread topped with a variety of ingredients and sliced in strips. Lahmacun is another version of the pizza, only this time the bread is as thin as a crepe and lightly covered with chopped onions, lamb, and tomatoes. A typical "street food" is gözleme -- a cheese or potato crepe.

Desserts fall into two categories: baklava and milk-based. Baklava, made of thin layers of pastry dough soaked in syrup, is a sugary sweet bomb best enjoyed around teatime, although several varieties are made so light and fluffy that you'll be tempted to top off dinner with a sampling. The milk-based desserts have no eggs or butter and are a guilt-free pick-me-up in the late afternoon hours, although there's no bad time to treat yourself to some creamy sütlaç (rice pudding). The sprinkling of pistachio bits is a liberal addition to these and many a Turkish dessert. Sweet comfort food includes the irmik helva, a delicious yet simple family tradition of modestly sweet semolina, pine nuts, milk, and butter (okay, I lied about the guilt-free part).


So what's the deal with Turkish delight? Otherwise known as lokum, this sweet candy is made of cornstarch, nuts, syrup, and an endless variety of flavorings to form a squishy tidbit whose appeal seems to be more in the gift giving than on its own merit.

You'll Never Count Sheep Again -- Bus drivers in Turkey abide by an unwritten rule never to eat cacik -- a salad of yogurt, cucumber, and garlic, often served as a soup -- while on duty. The dish is believed to be a surefire, and natural, cure for insomnia.



Rather than the question, "Would you like something to drink?" Turkish hospitality leaps immediately to the "What?" Tea, called çay (chai) in Turkish, is not so much a national drink as it is a ritual. Boil the water incorrectly and you're in for trouble. Let the tea steep without prior rinsing and you've committed an unforgivable transgression. What's amazing is that so many tea drinkers manage to maintain white teeth. Tea is served extremely hot and strong in tiny, tulip-shaped glasses, accompanied by exactly two sugar cubes. The size of the glass ensures that the tea gets consumed while hot, and before you slurp your final sip, a new hot glass will arrive. If you find Turkish tea a bit strong, especially on an empty stomach, request that it be "açik," or "opened," so that the ratio of water to steeped tea is increased. You can also opt for apple tea or one of any number of other types (linden, sage, and such).

The coffee culture (Turkish coffee, not the Starbucks version) is a little less prevalent but no less steeped in tradition. Ottoman clerics believed it to be an intoxicant and consequently had it banned. But the kahvehane (coffeehouse) refused to go away, and now the sharing of a cup of Turkish coffee is an excuse to prolong a discussion, plan, negotiate, or just plain relax. Turkish coffee is ground to a fine dust, boiled directly in the correct quantity of water (and sweetener, if so desired), and served as is. Either wait for the grounds to settle or down the thick sludge in one shot.

There are two national drinks: raki and ayran. Raki is an alcoholic drink distilled from raisins and then redistilled with aniseed. Even when diluted with water, this "lion's milk" still packs a punch, so drink responsibly!


Ayran is a refreshing beverage made by diluting yogurt with water and adding a pinch of salt. Westerners more accustomed to a sweet-tasting yogurt drink may at first be put off by the saltiness of ayran, but when mentally prepared, it's impossible to dismiss the advantages of this concoction, especially after a dehydrating afternoon trudging through shadeless, dusty ruins.

Sahlep is a creamy cold weather drink made of a starchy powder (called sahlep) derived from ground wild orchid tubers and hot milk, and sweetened with sugar and cinnamon. Unfortunately, the drink's popularity and the endangerment of wild orchids are not unrelated; and not surprisingly, the powder doesn't come cheap. So while you can grab a cup off of a street vendor, the drink will most likely have used cornstarch in place of the sahlep powder. Another winter favorite is boza, a thick fermented whip that uses bulgur as its base.

As for alcohol, don't think that because 98% of Turks are Muslim that nobody's drinking wine with dinner. On the contrary, bars outnumber mosques, figuratively speaking. And creative cocktail concoctions are currently in vogue. Still, the government-instituted sky-high taxes on alcohol certainly add to the pain of the hangover. Beer can cost up to 18TL, while I've actually shelled out close to $27 for a Kir Royale. Local drinks like raki or Efes beer can definitely keep the tab down.


Caffeined Out -- As a result of the Ottomans' second unsuccessful siege on Vienna, many of the army supplies were left behind in the retreat, including sacks and sacks of coffee beans. Believing them to be sacks of animal waste, the Viennese began to burn the sacks, until a more worldly citizen, aware of the market value of the bean, got a whiff and promptly saved the lot. He later opened up the first coffeehouse in Vienna.

The Turkish Menu

Alabalik -- Trout

Ananas -- Pineapple

Ançuez -- Anchovy

Balik -- Fish


Barbunya -- Red mullet

Beyin -- Brain

Bezelye -- Peas

Biber -- Pepper (kara biber: black pepper)

Bildircin -- Quail

Bonfile -- Filet of beef

Çam fistigi -- Pine nut

Ciger -- Liver

Çilek -- Strawberry

Çorba -- Soup

Çupra -- Sea bream

Dana -- Veal

Domates -- Tomato

Domuz -- Pork

Dondurma -- Ice cream

Ekmek -- Bread

Elma -- Apple

Enginar -- Artichoke

Erik -- Plum

Et -- Meat

Fasulye -- Bean

Havuç -- Carrot

Hindi -- Turkey

Ispanak -- Spinach

Istravrit -- Mackerel

Jambon -- Ham

Kabak -- Squash (zucchini, pumpkin, and the like)


Kalkan -- Turbot

Karides -- Shrimp

Karnibahar -- Cauliflower

Karpuz -- Watermelon

Kavun -- Melon

Kayisi -- Apricot

Kaz -- Goose

Kefal -- Gray mullet

Kiliç -- Swordfish

Kiraz -- Cherry

Köfte -- Meatball

Kuzu -- Lamb

Lagus -- Grouper

Lavas -- Grilled unleavened bread

Levrek -- Sea bass

Limon -- Lemon

Lüfer -- Bluefish

Mantar -- Mushroom

Marul -- Lettuce

Meyva -- Fruit

Meze -- Appetizer

Mezgit -- Cod

Misir -- Corn

Mürekkep baligi -- Squid

Muz -- Banana

Ördek -- Duck

Palamut -- Bonito

Patates -- Potato

Patlican -- Eggplant/aubergine


Peynir -- Cheese

Pide -- Flatbread

Pilaf (pilâf) -- Rice

Piliç -- Chicken

Portakal -- Orange

Salatalik -- Cucumber

Sardalya -- Sardine

Seftali -- Peach

Seker -- Sugar

Sigir -- Beef

Sogan -- Onion

Som -- Salmon

Sosis -- Sausage

Tarak -- Scallop

Tatlilar -- Sweets

Tavuk -- Hen (for stewing)

Tereyagi -- Butter

Ton -- Tuna

Torik -- Large bonito

Tuz -- Salt

Un -- Flour

Üzüm -- Grapes

Yumurta -- Eggs

Zeytin -- Olive

Zeytinyagi -- Olive oil

How Is It Prepared?

Bugulama -- Steamed

Çevirme -- Meat roasted on a spit

Çig -- Raw

Dogranmis -- Chopped


Dolma -- Stuffed

Ezme -- Paste

Firin -- Roasted or baked; oven

Füme -- Smoked

Guveç -- Earthenware dish; casseroles cooked in this pot

Haslama -- Cooked, boiled

Izgara -- Grilled

Islim -- Braised

Kavurma -- Fried or roasted

Kebap -- Roasted

Pane -- Breaded and fried

Püre -- Purée

Rosto -- Roast meat

Saç -- Iron griddle for cooking over wood fires

Sahanda -- Fried

Sis -- Skewer

Sote -- Sauté

Tandir -- Clay-lined oven

Tasim -- Boiled

Tava -- Fried


Ayran -- Yogurt drink made by the addition of water and salt

Bira -- Beer


Çay -- Tea

Kayisi suyu -- Apricot juice

Kiraz suyu -- Cherry juice

Kola -- Cola

Maden suyu or soda -- Carbonated mineral water

Meyve suyu -- Fruit juice

Portakal suyu -- Orange juice

Raki -- Alcoholic drink made of aniseed and diluted with water

Sarap -- Wine

Sekerli -- With sugar

Sekersiz -- Unsweetened

Sise suyu -- Bottled water

Soguk içecekler -- Beverages

Su -- Water

Süt -- Milk

Suyu -- Juice


Ara sicak -- Hot appetizers (translated literally, "in the middle hot")

Arnavut cigeri -- Spicy fried liver with onions


Beyin haslamasi -- Boiled brain

Beyin kizartmasi -- Fried brain

Börek -- Flaky pastry, either baked or fried

Cacik -- Salad of yogurt, cucumber, and garlic; often served as a soup

Çig köfte -- Spicy raw meatballs

Çoban salatasi -- Salad of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, onions, and mint in olive oil and lemon

Ezme salatasi -- Spicy relish of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, hot green chili peppers, onion, and parsley

Fesuliye piyasi -- White bean with onion salad

Havuç salatasi -- Carrot salad

Hibes -- Spread of chickpeas, red pepper, onion, and yogurt


Humus -- Chickpea purée

Patlican salatasi -- Purée of roasted eggplant (also served warm; also refers to eggplant sautéed with tomatoes and peppers)

Sigara böregi -- Fried phyllo "cigar" pastry filled with cheese

Soguk mezeler -- Cold appetizers

Su böregi -- Baked phyllo filled with meat or cheese

Talas böregi -- Puff pastry filled with meat

Yalanci dolmasi -- Stuffed grape leaves (no meat)

Yaprak dolmasi -- Stuffed grape leaves (sometimes with meat)


Balik çorbasi -- Fish

Domatesli pirinç çorbasi -- Tomato and rice


Et suyu -- Consommé

Ezo gelin çorbasi -- Red lentil with bulgur and mint

Iskembe çorbasi -- Tripe (also kokoreç)

Mantar corbasi -- Mushroom

Mercimek çorbasi -- Lentil

Sebze çorbasi -- Vegetable

Meats & Kebaps

Adana kebabi -- Meatballs of spicy chopped lamb flattened and grilled on a skewer

Böbrek -- Kidney

Çöp kebabi -- Same as çöp sis

Çöp sis -- Small lamb cubes grilled on a skewer; also called çöp kebabi

Döner kebap -- Thin slices of lamb roasted on a vertical revolving spit

Içli köfte -- Corn or bulgur balls stuffed with minced lamb (boiled or fried)


Iskender kebabi -- Sliced döner kebabi served on a layer of pide, tomatoes, and yogurt, and covered with melted butter

Izgara köfte -- Grilled meatballs

Kadin budu köfte -- "Lady's thigh," meatballs of lamb and rice, deep-fried

Karisik izgara -- Mixed grill

Kuzu budu rostosu -- Roasted leg of lamb

Kuzu pirzolasi -- Grilled lamb chops

Sis kebabi -- Marinated lamb cubes grilled on a skewer


Asure -- Thick sweet pudding of whole wheat, mixed fruits, and nuts

Baklava -- Flaky pastries soaked in syrup or honey


Çukulatali pudding -- Chocolate pudding

Firin sütlaç -- Baked rice pudding

Hanim göbegi -- Honey-soaked flour pastry

Helva -- National favorite of semolina, sesame paste, or flour, sugar, and nuts

Kaymakli kayisi tatlisi -- Poached apricots stuffed with cream

Krem karamel -- Crème caramel

Künefe -- Butter-soaked pastry filled with melted cheese, soaked in syrup, and served hot

Muhallebi -- Milk pudding

Revani -- Honey-soaked semolina

Sütlaç -- Rice pudding

Tatlilar -- Sweets or desserts

Tavukgögsü -- Sweet chicken pudding


Other Favorite Dishes

Damat dolmasi -- Squash stuffed with ground lamb and nuts

Domates domasi -- Stuffed tomatoes

Etli biber dolmasi -- Stuffed green peppers

Gözleme -- Folded savory pancake filled with potato, cheese, or meat

Hunkar begendi -- Eggplant purée topped with lamb cubes (literally, "the sultan was pleased")

Imam bayildi -- Stuffed eggplant (literally, "the imam fainted")

Lahmacun -- Fast food of thin crust dough topped with minced lamb, tomato, and onion

Manti -- Meat dumplings topped with warm sauce of yogurt, garlic, and chili oil


Menemen -- Wet omelet of beaten eggs, tomato, and green peppers

Musakka -- Casserole of eggplant, vegetables, and ground lamb

Peynirli tost -- Grilled cheese sandwich (also called tost)

Simit -- Sesame seed-coated soft pretzel

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.