A Guide to Traditional Turkish Cuisine

Explore the sights, aromas, tastes and culture that surround Turkey's delicious culinary heritage
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Written by
James Wakelin

Published on: June 13th, 2024

Last modified: July 4th, 2024

Spread across two continents and made up of seven different geographical regions, Turkey is a country of diverse and delicious culinary delights. Influenced by Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Central Asian and Eastern European food and culture, Turkish cuisine is distinctive and utterly delicious.

Traditional Turkish foods are as varied as the country itself. The Mediterranean region features vegetables served with lashings of olive oil and fresh fish is served on the coast in areas such as Bodrum. Istanbul is known for fragrant rice and an array of breads, including simit, a tasty sesame bagel. The east is famous for flaky pastries like baklava, while central Turkey offers hearty stews like keşkek, made with meat, barley and wheat.

Experiencing Turkish food is one of the best ways to immerse yourself in the culture. While travelling here you’ll find a new aroma and tasty snack around every corner, and undoubtedly a friendly offering of sweet tea or a powerful cup of coffee. In our guide to Turkish cuisine, we’ll talk you through the ingredients, dishes, culture and customs that surround food and drink in Turkey.

Inside the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul, Turkey

The staple ingredients of Turkish cooking

The rich flavours that define Turkish cuisine stem from its basic ingredients. Essential staples include olive oil, fresh herbs like mint, dill and parsley, and powerful spices such as sumac, cumin and red pepper flakes.

Turkish cooking often features a variety of meats such as lamb, beef and chicken, typically grilled or stewed. Legumes and grains like lentils, chickpeas and bulgur are used as a base for everyday cooking, despite the global popularity of Turkish meats, in particular the kebab.

Fresh vegetables including aubergine (eggplant), tomatoes and peppers are also commonly used, adding nourishment and colour to dishes. Dairy products, particularly yoghurt and cheese make dishes decadently creamy and add a certain tang to the complex flavours. 

Traditional Turkish Breakfast, Kahvalti

A traditional Turkish breakfast

The Turkish word for breakfast is kahvalti, which translates as ‘before coffee’. For many Turkish people kahvalti is still considered the most important meal of the day and is a substantial feast of different dishes and elements.

A traditional Turkish breakfast includes an assortment of breads such as börek (a delicate pastry or dough stuffed with cheese), or an açma (a slightly sweet brioche-style roll). Olives, tomatoes and cucumbers add freshness and eggs, sometimes poached with yoghurt and called çılbır or cooked with tomato, green peppers and spices and called menemen, are a staple. 

Sucuk, a spicy sausage made from ground beef or lamb, along with various types of cured meats and a cheese such as beyaz penir (a white cheese similar to feta) will also feature. Finally there are gooey mounds of jam, honey, butter, fresh fruits and of course coffee or tea.

Traditional turkish coffee

Turkish tea and coffee culture

Turkish people have been savouring coffee since the 16th century, thanks to the Ottoman Governor of Yemen, Özdemir Paşa, who introduced coffee beans to Turkey in 1517. Today, coffee houses line the streets of major cities, often buzzing with groups of friends, work colleagues and visitors who stop to enjoy coffee along with savoury and sweet snacks. 

Beyond its excellent taste, one of the most intriguing aspects of Turkish coffee is the practice of reading coffee grounds after finishing a cup. Falcı, or fortune tellers, have been carrying out this ritual for centuries and many Turks believe a Falcı can accurately predict the future. 

Turkish tea, or çay, is an integral part of daily life in Turkey. Served in small, tulip-shaped glasses the black tea is typically taken strong, without milk and sweetened with sugar cubes. Turkish tea is prepared using a special double teapot called a çaydanlık and, much the same as other teas around the world, the leaves are brewed in boiling hot water until considered strong enough to drink.

Tea is a symbol of hospitality and will almost always be offered to guests in homes and even in shops, hotels and restaurants. The tradition of drinking tea is influenced by both eastern and western countries and is deeply ingrained in culture and social life.

The 10 must-try traditional Turkish dishes

 

Turkey boasts a rich variety of delicious traditional dishes, and we recommend challenging yourself to try as many as possible during your trip. While it’s hard to pick favourites, we’ve consulted experts to highlight ten dishes that best represent the quintessential flavours of Turkish cuisine.

Mezze

Mezze is more a style of eating than a single dish and is an important part of Turkish food culture as it showcases the diversity and richness of Turkish flavours. It includes an array of savoury appetisers such as hummus, eggplant dishes, calamari, meatballs and feta cheese. You’ll find mezze in local homes, high-end restaurants and everywhere in between. 

Kebabs

Kebabs are perhaps Turkey’s most famous culinary export. There’s the well-known döner and its derivatives shish, iskender, and adana. Most kebabs feature grilled meat served with pita, melted butter, yoghurt, salad and often a spicy tomato and onion relish or sauce. Adana kebabs, named after the city, are spicy and typically served with bulgur and vegetable pilaf.

Manti

Manti, Turkey’s version of ravioli, is served in various styles across the country but always tastes incredible. Typically it consists of dough parcels filled with minced lamb and onions or aubergine (eggplant) for a vegetarian option. Finished with caramelised tomato, brown butter and a strong flavoursome garlic yoghurt sauce.

Baklava

Baklava is a rich, sweet pastry made of layers of flaky filo filled with pistachios bound together with honey syrup. This indulgent treat, believed to have originated in the imperial kitchens of Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace, is a staple of Turkish desserts and a must-try for anyone with a sweet tooth.

Kunefe

Kunefe combines sweet and savoury and is made with kadayif (shredded wheat) which is then stuffed with cheese and baked until the cheese melts. Finished with clarified butter and pistachios this dessert offers a delightful contrast of textures and flavours.

Cappadocia’s Potatoes

Cappadocia is known for its potatoes which are stored in underground caves maintaining a constant 13°C, keeping them fresh for months. Potatoes are versatile and are used in herb-infused dishes and as accompaniments to meats, other vegetables, pulses and bread.

Köfte

Köfte is a typical Turkish meatball dish made from minced lamb, mutton or beef with herbs, usually served with rice or bulgur. There are nearly 300 types of köfte across Turkey ranging from dry versions to those drizzled with tomato sauce.

Ayran

Ayran is a traditional Turkish yoghurt drink made from cultured milk, water and a bit of salt. Known for its refreshing and healing properties and said to aid digestion, it dates back to the nomadic Turks of Central Asia. This dish is commonly enjoyed with grilled or fried meats.

Mercimek Çorbası

Mercimek çorbası, a red lentil soup, is Turkey’s equivalent to dhal. This warming winter delicacy is popular during cold months and Ramadan, when it’s used to break the fast at sunset. Inherited from the Ancient Greeks, this comforting soup has been a staple since 8000 BC, offering a taste of Turkish history.

Lahmacun

Lahmacun is sometimes described as Turkish pizza due to its thin, crispy flatbread base that’s topped with minced meat, onions, tomatoes and spices. Served with fresh parsley and lemon, lahmacun is a popular Turkish street food:a substantial snack with strong flavours.

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