A Guide To Turkish Food – Eat This, Drink That

“Dear Diary,

I am so fat. At least I’ve still got a great personality, though…? Oh, there’s the pastry cart! BRB.”

…is what I my diary entries would have looked like in Istanbul if I were to keep diaries. I constantly tell people that I still feel like I ate the whole entire Istanbul. I picked up so much happy-kg’s, but if I had to do it again, I would eat every single piece of Turkish Delight, every spoon of rice pudding, every bite of juicy döner that I had before. No, wait. I would eat many bites more.

The thing is:

Lamb, eggplants, onions, garlic, peppers, paprika, oregano, thyme, mint, olives, saffron, pistachios, hazelnuts, cinnamon, pomegranate, yogurt, olive oil – should I keep going? These are all the things heaven are made of. Coincidentally, they are also the ingredients of Turkish food.

If you go to Turkey for a couple of months or even weeks, you’ll definitely get the best bit of everything. But if you have just a couple of days – here is my definitive guide to all the best bites – morning, noon and night. And of course, DESSERTS.

BREAKFAST

Menemen – a delicious, cheesy, scrambley egg breakfast. For some inconceivable reason, Joel and I only tried it about two months into living in Istanbul when we went to Heybeliada. This is what I mean when I say I would eat more if I had to do it all over again. More Menemen. Much, much more. I say it’s cheesy because, after this miraculous Menemen discovery, I would always get it with beyaz peynir (white cheese), which is how you should get it too.

Traditional Turkish breakfast, or Kahvaltı – the reason to get out of bed in the mornings. I don’t even know what else to say about it. Turkish breakfasts are supposed to happen late mornings and carry on long with good company and many, many cups of strong, black tea. It’s basically like breakfast tapas – cheeses, olives, jams, bread, honey, cream, fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, chocolate and nut-butter spreads, etc. etc. etc.

So WHERE would you eat the most important meal of the day? Well, if you want to go ALL out – there is this place called Café Privato in Galata, where they bring you the plates in waves because they won’t all fit on the table (pictured below). It is also a pricy option, and very touristy. If you want to go more local, there’s this place called Van Kahvaltı Evi (Van Breakfast House) in Cihangir. It’s really popular and there’s usually a line (of locals) out the door on weekend morning. But then there’s also this place called Cuma at the top of Çukurcuma street. It’s not as excessive, just small portions – but it’s like they bring you the best of all the things you would normally get.   

The dream of the breakfast-and-brunch-lover is alive in Turkey.
The dream of the breakfast-and-brunch-lover is alive in Turkey.

LUNCH

Dürüm Döner – juicy fresh meat wrapped up in a soft chewy bread. It’s basically like a tasty mediterranean meat wrap. Döner is the glossy, juicy meat you would see all stacked up on a massive skewer slowly cooking away. During lunch time I would usually run out to the guys on the corner where they cook chicken döner and order a half sandwich for a mere 3.5 Lira! What?? That is so cheap! Or if I want to splurge I would walk the extra 5 minutes to the next corner and get the tastiest, most succulent lamb dürüm döner (dürüm is the wrap) for 9 Lira and just devour it while thinking how clever I was for having it for lunch. I would go for the döner (the meat) in the wrap, just because sometimes the sandwhich is too much bread. But get döner anything, really. It’s all good. Scrape that tasty döner right into my mouth, I don’t even care.

DINNER

All meals anywhere – I’m telling you, you can’t go wrong with Turkish food. What usually happens is little restaurants (the non-touristy variety) have certain meals or casseroles pre-made, and you pick things by the look of it. It’s fun. But here is what I would choose if I were you:

  • Moussaka – Huh? In Turkey? YES. (Because, apparently EVERYTHING that people think is originally Greek is actually Turkish, [and vice versa]). I would get the aubergine moussaka if it’s available – it’s a succulent mixture of roasted tomatoes, peppers, and lots of my favourite vegetable, aubergine, in an aromatic stewy sauce that you can dip your bread in. (VEGETARIANS BEWARE: Sometimes Turkish people would say a dish has ‘no meat’, but it actually has pieces of chicken. Because chicken is obviously a inferior kind of meat – more like not a meat at all – this is not dissimilar to the way that small dogs stack up to regular, normal-sized dogs.)
Or, as Ron Swanson from 'Parks & Rec' eloquently stated: "Any dog under 50 pounds is a cat and cats are pointless."
Or, as Ron Swanson from ‘Parks & Rec’ eloquently stated: “Any dog under 50 pounds is a cat and cats are pointless.”
  • Müçver with yogurt – Vegetable and white cheese fritters, best enjoyed with thick plain yogurt. If the yogurt doesn’t come with the fritter, ASK FOR IT. And chuck some dried red peppers on it while you’re at it (Always out on the tables, together with oregano).
Aubergine moussaka with chicken ('no meat') and müçver with yogurt on the side. With the staple oregano and red peppers on the table. This was the simultaneously terrifying and happy moment when I realised how fat I will become.
Aubergine moussaka with chicken (‘no meat’) and müçver with yogurt on the side. With the staple oregano and red peppers on the table. This was the simultaneously terrifying and happy moment when I realised how fat I will become.
  • Dolma – Uniquely aromatic stuffed vegetables. This can be stuffed grape leaves, stuffed aubergine, stuffed peppers, stuffed tomatoes, stuffed you-name-it. It’s stuffed with rice spiced with Turkish saffron. This is different to the regular saffron (the most expensive spice in the world), i.e. it’s cheaper but it still tastes similar, so it’s actually quite a refreshing taste in a dish since saffron isn’t casually used in many dishes. Delish. We ate plenty to many dolma, which my self-esteem is still paying for.
  • Manti – a sweet and spicy Turkish ravioli. Hard to explain, but needs to be tasted at least once.
Some other person's really good photo of manti, Turkish ravioli
Some other person’s really good photo of manti, Turkish ravioli
  • Güveç – a tender meat stew cooked slowly and served in a clay pot. It’s the ultimate heart-warming winter dish.
Someone else's great photo of the meat stew that is güveç.
Someone else’s super great photo of the meat stew that is güveç.
  • Adana kebab – the best kind of kebab. Hot and spicy.

SWEETS

Turkey is filled with all kinds of diet-crippling desserts. But if you had to choose just four, they should be:

  • Turkish Delight – sweet, chewy, ultra-satisfying delights in pomegranate, chocolate, strawberry, pistachio, marshmallow, etc., etc. These are NOTHING like those sad boxes filled with tiny powdery way-too-rosy-flavoured blocks of excuses for Turkish Delight you find in your own supermarket at home, let alone whatever the pink stuff is inside Cadbury’s ‘Turkish Delight’ chocolate slabs. The real thing is ultimately superior.
A box of Turkish Delights - in the front is pistachio-nutella, in the middle: chocolate-marshmallow, in the back the all time fave: pomegranate.
A box of Turkish Delights – in the front is pistachio-nutella, in the middle: chocolate-marshmallow, in the back the all time fave: pomegranate.
  • Dondurma – ice cream so good I got some while it was snowing. It’s ice cream upgraded with the sahlep, flour made from the roots of the Early Purple Orchid, and mastic, which is like a natural (EDIBLE) resin. It’s sweet, and gooey, and chewy and all that.
Dondurma in Sultanahmet , in front of the Hagia Sophia
Dondurma in Sultanahmet , in front of the Hagia Sophia
  • Sütlaç – heaven in a bowl. (Aka rice pudding) Milk. Cinnamon. Sugar. Any other rice pudding that you had up till now was a farce.
The problem really was that the restaurant owner of our regular place would give us rice pudding for free - and it's just bad manners to not eat free food.
The problem really was that the restaurant owner of our regular place would give us rice pudding for free – and it’s just bad manners to not eat free food.
Now THIS is the way to eat your feelings!! *Thumbs up emoticon*
Now THIS is the way to eat your feelings!! *Thumbs up emoticon*
  • Baklava – which is apparently originally a Turkish idea. Who knows.

DRINK THIS

  • Turkish coffee – your average kind of Middle Eastern coffee variety in a small cup. I mean, you have to try it at least once.
  • Turkish tea (Çay, pronounced ‘Chai’) – strong, kick-me-awake, black tea. This is one of the greatest Turkish traditions, and it’s totally patriarchal. There are tea houses filled with stout, moustached-men, cigarette smoke billowing out of the door. Walk the streets around noon and you will see these men sitting outside in the sun on tiny chairs, with their tiny glass cups of tea.
  • SAHLEP – there’s a sahlep-shaped whole in each of us. Its a rich, thick, milky, cinnamon-y winter drink that holds your hand and never lets go. Usually only available in the winter. If a waiter says they don’t have it, just plead. That’s what I did, and they magically presented a cup of it a couple of minutes later.
Sahlep: a steaming cup full of dreams.
Sahlep: a steaming cup full of dreams.
  • Watermelon in the summertimes, sold sliced by street vendors.

Well that’s the basic breakdown of how to eat your way through Istanbul. Turkish people don’t count calories – they enjoy the home-grown ingredients with each other, usually over a couple glasses of tea, Turkish wine or Rakı (alcohol made from aniseed). So forget your hangups, roll up your sleeves and dig in – it’s the Turkish way!

So yes, I got fat in Turkey. Because Turkish food is real f***ing delicious.

Roasted aubergine with cheese and pasta rice: even the hospital food is amazing!
Roasted aubergine with cheese and pasta rice: even the hospital food is amazing!

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