7 Must-Try Foods in Turkey
Drawing on influences from the Mediterranean, Balkan, Middle Eastern, and Central Asian regions, Turkey has a cuisine like no other place on Earth. Many of its most famous dishes are the legacy of the Ottoman Empire, who picked up culinary traditions and ingredients as they expanded their realm.
At the meeting point of Europe and Asia, Turkey is a melting pot of cultures and its cuisine noticeably reflects this. Due to its geographical location and its eventful past, it boasts one of the most varied and richly diverse cuisines in the world. While some of the dishes have become household names in the West (such as doner kebab and baklava), others are yet to make a splash on the international stage.
One of the great joys of visiting Turkey is the opportunity to sample some of these specialties, which range from hearty meat dishes to stuffed dumplings and honey-drenched sweets. In this article, we’ll introduce 7 dishes not to miss when visiting the country, with a brief insight into how they came to be.
Translating as "rotating grilled meat”, kepab is one of the most ubiquitous Turkish dishes. It comes in a dizzying array of varieties, with two of the most popular being the shish kebap (skewered meat) and the doner kebap (meat wrapped in bread).
The doner kebap is the most form common in Turkey and can be made with slow-cooked chicken, lamb, or beef that has been seasoned with herbs and spices. The meat is then packed inside pita bread, together with salads, pickled vegetables, and garlic yogurt to create the ultimate meal on the go.
For a sit-down version, look for İskender kebap, which consists of doner meat on a bed of pide bread that is then covered with tomato sauce, yogurt, and melted butter. Shish kebaps usually feature perfectly square cuts of lamb or chicken that are skewered and grilled, although you can also find minced meat kepabs known as adana kepabi.
Medieval recipe books show that stuffed vegetables have been part of Middle Eastern cuisine for centuries and that’s exactly what dolmas are. Translating as “filling”, dolmas can include everything from peppers (biber dolması) to zucchinis (kabak dolması) and cabbage leaves (lahana dolması), as well as what many people associate with dolmas, stuffed vine leaves (yaprak dolması).
Dolmas are often served as an appetizer in Turkey and can be stuffed with onions, tomatoes, rice, pine nuts, and currants for a vegetarian take, or ground beef, rice, and spices for a meaty version. No matter which one you opt for, they are usually served with garlic yogurt or a sauce made from pomegranate syrup and sour cherries for a real flavor kick.
Similar to Chinese jiaozi and Tibetan momo, manti are steamed dumplings that are popular throughout Central Asia and Turkey. The earliest mention of the dish dates back to the Mongol Empire, with similar variations found in records of the Uyghur people of northwest China.
Turkish manti are usually stuffed with a spiced lamb or beef mixture that is wrapped in a thin dough, with the size and shape of the dumplings varying, depending on who is making them. Once cooked, they are covered with chili pepper, melted butter, and a rich yogurt sauce that has been infused with spices, giving it the appearance of Italian ravioli.
Restaurants that serve manti often have women seated in the window making the dumplings, so you can see the skill and expertise that goes into their production.
If you’re a fan of pretzels, then keep an eye out for the Turkish version - simit. This circular bread is a breakfast staple and is usually served alongside steaming Turkish coffee or tea.
Records show that simit has been produced in Istanbul since the 16th century and there are now localized variations around the country. In Izmir, it’s known as gevrek and in Ankara, the simit is smaller and crispier than its Istanbul counterpart. You can find simit encrusted with sesame, poppy, or sunflower seeds at one of the countless specialty bakeries that produce them throughout the country.
Featuring layers of spun pastry (tel kadayıf), cheese, and pistachio nuts (not to mention a good dose of sugary syrup), kunefe is one of the most famous desserts in Turkey. It’s served either hot or cold and can also be found throughout the Middle East, Greece, and the Balkans.
According to legend, the dish was once prescribed by doctors to help satisfy hunger cravings during the holy month of Ramadan, with some saying it originated in Fatimid Egypt and others during the Umayyad Caliphate in Syria. Whatever its origins, kunefe is hard to resist and a must-try for anyone with a sweet tooth.
No list of Turkey’s top dishes would be complete without baklava, which consists of layers of crispy, flaky filo pastry that’s stuffed with nuts (often pistachios, walnuts, and almonds), then dipped in honey. While it’s not exclusive to Turkey (you can find it throughout the Levant and the Maghreb regions), it is believed to have been created in the imperial kitchens of the Topkapı Palace (located in modern-day Istanbul).
Records show that on the 15th of the month of Ramadan, the Sultan would present trays of baklava to his soldiers in a procession known as the Baklava Alayı. Today, baklava can be found in bakeries and supermarkets throughout Turkey but is always at its tastiest when fresh out of the oven.
Kumpir is the Turkish version of jacket potato and is a popular street food throughout the country. After the potatoes are baked in the oven, they are cut open and the soft flesh is mixed with butter and cheese before being topped with your choice of ingredients. Cheese, pickles, and avocado are common toppings, together with sour cream and shallots.
Whether you opt for a vegetarian take or a meaty version with sausage, the combination of the crispy outer skin and the soft insides is delectable. To find kumpir, head to the bustling Ortaköy district of Istanbul, which is renowned for its jacket potato stalls.