A Guide to Authentic Turkish Food

I swear I am drooling while writing this post. As a non-vegetarian, I had a feast in Turkey. The juicy lamb and chicken make me go back to eat more of it. Sounds like most middle eastern countries right? What is unique about Turkey’s food is a vegetarian could also have a feast. If you are a hedonist and a seeker of the region’s authentic food, Turkey is Gastronomy Paradise – Both for vegetarians & non-vegetarians.

Here is your guide to Authentic Turkish food – what you need to know about Turkey’s food, personal favourites & dislikes

Facts about Turkish food

Strawberry tart glazed with strawberry sauce in Istanbul
  • Sidewalk cafe culture in Turkey is great.
  • Like any Islamic country, pork is banned in Turkey too.
  • If you are an Indian who doesn’t eat beef, check with your waiter and confirm it. Because beef is common in many dishes.
  • You get a vegetarian version of many non-veg dishes like Veg Kebabs in Turkey.
  • Gourmet to street food, Turkey caters to every budget.
  • Hookah bars don’t provide a variety of food options – It is usually coffee/tea with some basic snacks.
  • Unlike in Greece, the Turkish food portion was not huge. A meal for one was perfect for one most times.

What foods are common in Turkey?

Morning Turkish food with bread, cheese and tea
  • Typical Turkish breakfast we observed was – Bread, Cheese, fresh vegetables and lots of tea in their slim waist teacups.
  • Because of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, Turkey’s seafood is famous. In Istanbul, oysters seem to be a very popular street food among locals. But, I liked meat over seafood in Turkey.
  • Like its neighbouring countries, Iran, Turkey’s food isn’t cheap generally. The countryside and smaller cities like Pamukkale have a lesser prices, but Istanbul food is as expensive as Greece’s.
  • Turkish desserts are something you should dream of – Baklawa to pudding, be ready for Sugary delicacies.
  • Don’t stick to continental dishes. The pull cart dishes are mostly hygienic. Most of them were run by old local Turks in white aprons. Not only it is great to taste local dishes, but also it is a small thing we can do for local Turks who work hard like this.
Traditional Turkish food Baklava in making at Isyanbul

Turkey Dining Etiquette

Sidewalk cafes with furnitures upholestered with goregeous bright red Turkish rugs in ISTANBUL
  • Usually, at restaurants, there is no hurry to finish your meal quickly and go. At Cappadocia, we saw locals going out for a smoke in the middle of meals multiple times.
  • Turks use spoons & forks to eat most things except things like wrapped bread. So eating with your hands may put you in an awkward situation.
  • You find a few similarities between Greek and Turkish cuisines. There is a lot of influence of Ottomans, Greeks and Islamic Asian countries on Turkish food. Spicy Asian to bland Greek – Turkish food is a blend of multiple styles.
  • Fresh pressed orange juice stalls are available throughout and they are the cheap+best energisers.
Turkish man with mud pot and fire cooking veg kabab

Veg Kabab in making

List of Best Authentic Turkish food

Simit ($)

Cheap, best, tasty, time-saving and authentic Vegetarian dish – for breakfast and evening snacks is Simit.

Circular sesame based bread called simit

Simit is a Turkish circular bread made of Maida (All-purpose flour ) with Sesame crust traditionally. It is a bit sweet and a great way to save money on breakfast. With time, Turks came up with up-gradation to match the modern-day flavours of Nutella, Cheese, Cinnamon flavour Simits. You find carts selling these in abundance in Istanbul. Especially near Sultan Ahmet square and other famous tourist places.

Each piece of this cheapest and most delicious Turkish food costs 1.25TL to 3 TL or( 20INR to 60 INR).

Indian woman traveller holding traditional Turkish food simit in hands in front of the blue mosque at Istanbul

After wasting 10 Lira (150INR) for a basic breakfast, we decided to have Simit for breakfast the next day onwards. It kept us filled and stronger while we walked in and around Topkapi palace and spent hours together at Hagia Sophia. In the evening, we grabbed a Simit and bought a cup of tea from a street vendor to sit at Sultan Ahmet square listening to the prayers. So Simit suits every occasion and is your pocket’s best friend.

Cheapest Turkish snacks-Roasted Chestnuts

Pile of chestnuts

Turkey is one of the top 3 Chesnut producers in the world. The Black Sea and Aegean regions are very famous for their Chestnut quality. When you walk in the alleys of Istanbul, especially in the old city, you find older men in white aprons selling one of the tastiest and cheap snacks in Turkey – Roasted Chestnuts. Whenever we felt a Simit was not filling enough, we complemented it with a bunch of roasted Hazelnuts. Like Simit carts, you will find Hazelnuts carts too. The 10 to 2 roasted nuts are given in a paper cone for 2 to 3 TL – 40 TO 60INR.

Turkishman in apron roasting chestnut in a cart

The best Turkish food for lunch -Kumpir ($$- V & NV)

Sahana’s most loved Turkish snack (which can be a meal) is this- A gigantic baked Sweet Potato (almost 6”, like a subway bread), with a generous amount of cheese, butter, pickled vegetables, sauce and at times sausages for non-vegetarians. Turks consider it a snack, but it is so filling that we had it for lunch along with some desserts. It was spicy, sour and sweet – As a bonanza of flavours exploded in the mouth, It Cost around 12 -15 TL or (180INR to 250INR.) in 2018.

PS – Know hot eat Kumpir before beginning to eat to avoid awkward consequences

Left out Kumpir

You are supposed to eat the potato along with veggies, not scrape like this

After seeing the ad board, we bought Kumpir thinking it was similar to a subway sandwich. Honestly, we had mistaken the baked potato for hard bread! So instead of biting this as a whole, we scraped it with a spoon and left the potato back, wondering why bread is so hard! Other Turk customers and the cafe owner saw us doing this stupid stuff; the owner came to us laughingly and showed us how to eat it! By then, all the toppings/fillings were over, leaving only the potato behind. Without the sauce and toppings, it wasn’t pleasant to eat. The owner was generous enough to give us some extra topping and sauces to eat the potato.

Partially aerial View of Blue mosque from the terrace of a neaby cafe

Where to eat Kumpir in Istanbul– GRANDE CAFE NEAR BASILICA CISTERN. You get Kumpir in many places, but I recommend this particular place (or any other place in a 500m radius of Hagia Sophia) for the view from Terrace. 

Donner Kebab & Veg Kebap at LE SAFRAN, Istanbul

Heads up: In India, we call it Kabab; in Turkey, it is Kebap.

Turkey’s most famous Kebap is Donner Kebap. Doner Kebab is similar to Gyro in Santorini and Shawarma rolls in Bangalore. I think the main difference among all these is the bread. Doner Kebab is essentially draped in Pita bread with tomato, onions and meat. Traditional donner kababs are with lamb meat, but you get chicken and beef. Usually, at cafes and restaurants, it is served with Fries and yoghurt as a dip.

But have you heard of Veg Kebabs? I Know all non-vegetarians are laughing like I did when Sahana ordered it in Istanbul. Moong dal cooked with spices and herbs, vegetables soaked in herbal soups in earth pot served with mashed potato. Sahana loved it. What I liked about Veg kebab was the way it was served. The waiter came with a mud pot of herb soup and fire. He beat the neck of the bot, removed the bread which had covered the pot’s mouth and poured the soup with veggies onto the plate along with the bread.

Plate of Veg kabab withboiled greengram and fresh veggies including broccoli and lettuce

FIRE AND MUD POT FILLED WITH SOUP AND VEGGIES

Second best Turkish food for meals is Baked Mushroom with Kayseri Cheese

The best place to have Baked mushroom with cheese in Turkey is – the Kayseri region

Fortunately, we both aren’t lactose intolerant. And we crave good cheese. The pure fresh countryside cheese of Cappadocia is a delight to cherish. You will find this throughout Turkey, but the Turks say the best cheese comes from Cappadocia. I think it is true. We had it in Istanbul and Pamukkale too, but none were closer to the heavenly taste of Cappadocia. While on the bike driving through the rocky formations and fields of Cappadocia, we missed the route to the fairy chimneys and ended up in Avanos. When we asked the security guard for his favourite food joint in the parking area, he suggested Kappadokya Lezzet Sofrasi. The menu was not English. So we did rely on the waiter to suggest his best signature veg dish. He brought us the tastiest cheese baked with Mushrooms in an earthen bowl.

Kusu Fasulye- Rice and white beans stew

Indian woman traveller sitting at a restaurant in Cappadocia after finishing meals

When the weather was cold, and our rice loving body met a rice centred dish with tasty white beans stew with the paste of Onions and tomato, our soul attended Nirvana for a while. You can make out by Sahana’s face here and the empty bowls where we have scraped every last bit of it.

Clay pot of beans curry , plate of rice and baked chese with mushroom in Cappadocia

Not spicy, not bland – Perfectly balanced thick curry is an ideal meal for noon or night after you have walked enough through the magical Cappadocia’s fairy Chimneys. For us, the ratio of stew and rice didn’t work well. The hot stew in the earthen pot is a lot compared to rice. So make sure to order an extra bowl of rice.

Where to eat Kusu Fasulye Cappadocia – Kebapzade Restaurant

Kuzu Pirzola – Lamb chops

Kuzu Pirzola – Their traditional lamb chops are spicy and juicy. The hot chops were heavenly on a cold night at the Cappadocia with Pita bread and yoghurt dip.

Firin Sultac($$ with Egg) aka RICE PUDDING

Traditional Turkish dessert made of milk, rice and egg with a hint of Vanilla served cold is refreshing, especially on a sunny day. Usually, this is served in combo meals. After a spicy Donner Kebab or some rolls, this eases down the spice in your throat. One bowl of Rice pudding costs 15TL to 18TL 250INR to 300 INR. This is like Turkey’s National desert. We could find it n all the three towns we went to.

Homemade Walnut and Hazlenut cake

Homemade Walnut plus Hazalenut cake and a cup of turkish tea

This is like a welcome dish at traditional Turkish houses, along with tea. Neither too sweet nor bitter. A bit crispy from the outside and soft inside cake is very healthy and goes perfectly with tea. Thanks to Ali and his wife for offering this at their BnB.

Turkish delights or Lokuma

Boxes of Turkish delights

Before you think of buying this, you should know one most important thing – YOU CAN’T STOP EATING TURKISH DELIGHTS ONCE YOU START IT! These gelly cubes coated with powdered sugar are so soft and chewy that you keep on eating them. They come in different flavours like strawberry, Pista Raspberry flavour. Usually, they are cubes, but you also find tubes and bars. The best of all these were Real Rose petals and Nuts. Another feel-good factor about these is, that you can store them for more than 15 days without a fridge in an airtight container box.

Tahini Helwa (Halwa)

The Helwa bars made of sesame paste, pasta and sugar are different from Indian Halwa. They don’t last long, more than 2 to 3 days if you are thinking of bringing them home later than that.

Baklawa

Turksih baklava arranged  in a pyramidical form in Istanbul

This Crunchy and Nutty, Ottoman signature sweet, was found all over the streets of Istanbul. If you are a sweet tooth like me, you love these Pistachio based sweets. When I say sweet, it is sweeeeeeet. So for Sahana, whose sugar intake is on the lower end, this was a “Dental Freezing moment” The Nutty, crunchy dessert with lots of Pistachio, a hint of Citrus, buttery dough inside with lots of honey smeared outside is famous among locals and tourists. If you want to take it home, make sure you use it within 5 to 7 days.

Turkish Tea

Transparent slim waist traditional Turkish glass containing refreshing brown colour Turkish tea

Tea is the most essential part of their lives throughout the Middle East. But Turks hold the record for the highest tea consumption in the whole world. So, of course, Turkish black tea is refreshing for all the right reasons. This black tea tastes different from what we had in Iran and Jordan. Egyptian Hibiscus tea tastes very different from this. It happens so that you get offered tea everywhere in Turkey. We were offered tea At shops in Grand Bazaar, Ottoman photobooth, expensive carpet shops, on our way to Hot air ballon at Cappadocia and so on. I feel they drink tea more than they drink water. The tea is good, but curvy slim at waist cups make it even more charming.

Orange Juice

Most Turkish food we tasted got a hint of Citrus in them. The oranges grown in Antalya and Izmir get sold throughout the country. Sweet sour and juicy fruits are a perfect drink to replace water when you need some glucose in your body on a sunny day. Remote places in Cappadocia and Pamukkale also had machine press carts selling orange juice as low as 5 TL(75 INR) for more than 250ML.

The famous Turkish food we didn’t like

Weird looking Turkish food in a jar

All of us have different taste buds, and hence, not all famous dishes become our favourites. Some may be just ok, a few make it to the personal top 10 best dishes, and some go to the things I must not have tried.

A list of famous Turkish food that didn’t meet our expectations is

  • Dolma – Sahana found her vegetarian dish Dolma better in Greece and Egypt than in Turkey.
  • Stuffed muscles – The famous street food whose cart setup resembles our Indian Golgappa stands definitely looked promising. The sourness of orange and meaty mussels wasn’t something I was used to. The texture felt chewy, and I felt as if I ate raw meat. Though I don’t dislike it thoroughly, this wasn’t my favourite.
  • Kokorec- The lamb meat pieces were spicy enough to tickle my tastebuds. Still, the chewy texture of the bread is something that I am not too fond of.

Two Turkish that disappointed us totally are – Turkish coffee & Dondurma

Turkish coffee

Lavender, green and brick coloured flower patterns on Turkish cup and saucer containing Turkish coffee

I am a tea drinker. I had a lovely time sipping tea at every corner of the town. Sahana, “the coffee worshiper”, was excited to try the famous Turkish coffee at Hookah place. She says, ”The major drawback was getting the bitter powder of coffee at the bottom. The liquid was thick and over sugary. It tasted sweet and bitter more than the coffee flavour.” To try our luck thinking the cafe was terrible, we tried in Pamukkale too. But our personal opinion remains the same – Turkish coffee wasn’t our cup of tea.

Dondurma

Along with seeing Hagia Sophia, experiencing Turkish culture on the streets and a hot air balloon ride, trying out the ice cream sold with a trick was also our dream. The trick is fantastic, but the taste is not ice-creamy enough. Along with the regular ice cream ingredients, they add raisins and orchid bulbs to make it malleable. So it felt like we ate a cold rubbery sweet dough than the Icecream. We tried two flavours in Istanbul. Both were bad.

We thought it was the wrong flavour to choose, so we asked the seller to suggest a flavour at Pamukkale. He gave us the most famous one – some nutty flavour. This, too, turned out bad. The texture was not smooth. It was like crystals! The sweetness of sugar overpowered the flavour in all three, and the texture didn’t feel like Ice Cream. But the trick is what mattered to us.

PS: The famous Dondurma guy from Istanbul has shifted to Thailand now!

Of course, there are many sellers in Istanbul now. But it has become so common that this ice cream trick is used at many Indian wedding dinners now!

What are the other Turkish dishes we must have tried? Let us know in the comment section below.

Tahini halwa

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