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Turkish Cuisine

turkish cuisineUsually lumped under the broad heading of Mediterranean or Middle Eastern cuisine, Turkish cookery has a rich background rooted in the history of the region. Beginning as a subsistence diet for nomads who had yet to settle, food originally was reflective of poverty and homelessness: crudely prepared (by comparison to the Europe) dishes with no foundation in established agriculture. But by 1453, the very same people had created a celebrated culinary artistry; the kitchen of the Topkapi Palace is famous for a staff of thousands, overseen by hundreds of master chefs; historians estimate they catered meals for up to 10,000 guests.

Food in Turkey

Though fast food is a growing trend in Turkey and throughout the Middle East, Turkish cuisine still emphasizes fresh ingredients prepared from scratch. Meals time is respected, with families sitting down together to three main meals a day. Afternoon tea is a tradition amongst the women, and many employers provide a large sit-down lunch for their employees.

Main dishes tend to be vegetarian, with flavor bases created by combining garlic, onion, and olive oil. Bread and grains are essentials, and utilized in the wealth of “stuffed” food offerings, or dolma (vegetables or fruits that have been hollowed out and stuffed with a filling of meat or rice). Served warm (meat filled) or cold (vegetarian), dolma are recognized as a world cuisine item (grape leaves filled with rice, for example, are now widely available in American olive and salad bars), and are a foundation item of the Turkish tradition of meze.

Meze, or mezze, is perhaps the most characteristic phenomenon in Turkish/Mediterranean cuisine. A collection of small plate items, served as either appetizers or a collective main course, it is very much akin to tapas cuisine in Spain. Traditionally meant to be enjoyed with the debatable "national" drink, raki (an aperitif flavored with anise, similar to sambuca), meze can be comprised of olives, cheese, salads like tabbouleh, meats, bean dishes like pilaki, and/or breads with spreads like tzatziki (yogurt and cucumber sauce) or hummus (chickpeas blended with tahini, garlic, lemon, and olive oil). Meze is such a feature of Turkish food culture that restaurants called meyhane, similar to tapas bars in Spain or “pubs” in America, exist with the soul purpose of serving alcohol and small plate items to its patrons.


Turkish cuisine is historically vegetarian, though not always for religious reasons. Meat was originally scarce or expensive, and the resulting cuisine focused on fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, olive oil, and grains. Spinach, eggplant, green pepper, onion, artichokes and leeks are used daily, as are apricots, grapes, figs, cherries, dates, and lemons. Figs, sweet fruit used throughout Mediterranean cuisine and best known as the filling for the popular cookies Fig Newtons, enjoy a particularly featured role in Turkish cuisine and industry, as Turkey is the world's largest fig producer.

Turkish cookery, like most vegetarian cuisines, builds itself on starch and grains. The main sources tend to be rice, bulgur (wheat), lentils, oats, barley, and in some areas, maize. These grains are made into mixtures that are accompanied by produce and/or meat (rice pilav, or pilaf, being the most famous), turned into salads like tabbouleh (bulgur, chopped parsley, scallions, and seasonings) or made into breads. Beans and legumes are also starchy staples, particularly the chickpea (garbanzo bean), and made into spreads or added to rice and vegetable dishes.

Flatbreads are the most commonly consumed baked goods in Middle Eastern cuisine, and are more easily prepared than the "artisan" breads associated with European baking, though just as celebrated. Pita and lavash are well known, but staples of the Turkish diet include pide, wheat based pita-like flatbread, and simit, which is topped with sesame seeds and shaped into a ring, like bagels. Phyllo, thin, flaky pastry dough, is the basis for most Turkish pastries, and is also used frequently in everyday cooking to make both sweet and savory pies used as entrees or meze.

Meat and Dairy

Yoghurt, utilized much more in the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean diets than in Western cuisine, is another staple. Thicker in texture and richer in flavor, yoghurt (much like Turkish cheese) is traditionally made with whole sheep or goats milk, though cow and buffalo milk are now available. It is the foundation of many soups, sauces and spreads, and appears in countless recipes. It can also be drizzled with honey, flavored oils or fruit, and eaten as a meal/meze, or mixed with water and consumed as a beverage (Ayran, the most famous Turkish beverage next to coffee, is made this way).

Meat, most often lamb or goat, used to be reserved for special occasions like weddings or holidays. A full variety of meats is now available on a daily basis, but lamb is still preferred. Turkish cuisine uses ground meat frequently, adding it to everyday meals like pilaf or dolma, reserving full cuts of meat for larger meals or celebrations. Shish kebabs, grilled meat on skewer, are also popular preparations, as is pastirma (seasoned and cured meat sliced off a large vertical skewer and used for sandwiches)


Turkish desserts, pastries and confections must also be mentioned. The most well known, bakalava (layered phyllo and walnuts/pistachios, sweetened with honey or pekmez, a fruit syrup) and Turkish Delights (a famous gelatinous confection made from starch and sugar sweetened with fruit or rose water) are usually reserved for special occasions. Fresh fruit, rice puddings, or sweet boreks (phyllo pies) are more practical daily desserts, served with a cup of strong Turkish coffee. Turkish coffee itself is known for being thick and strong, brewed from beans ground to a powder and water that is sweetened before brewing.

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