Some people distinguish between Turkish food — the original nomadic food base from central Asia — and Ottoman Cuisine, the cuisine that absorbed the riches of Byzantine culture, plus all the other countries that were conquered and absorbed into the Ottoman Empire. In the latter viewpoint, Istanbul (the capital of Turkey) palace cooking is regarded as the height of Turkish cooking.
The best working definition, however, seems to also be the simplest: what people in the Republic of Turkey eat today.
Turks like to say that theirs is one of the world’s three great cuisines: Chinese, French and Turkish. The Italians, the Egyptians and the Japanese might dispute that.
In Turkish cooking, it is easy to recognize what you are eating; ingredients are never disguised.
Turkey is surrounded by four seas — the Black Sea, the Marmara Sea, the Aegean Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea — so fish and seafood are important food staples, at least in coastal areas.
Ground uncooked nuts (almonds or pine nuts) are used to thicken sauces. Beans are largely seen as a food for poorer people.
There are three classes of public restaurants, rated from I. Sinaf (the highest) to III. Sinaf (the lowest.) North American fast-food chains such as Baskin-Robbins, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut are now present as of 2006. You can buy wine in 7-Eleven stores (something you can’t even do in most of North America.)
Engin Akin, a woman, is one of the main celebrities of food today in Turkey. She writes cookbooks and hosts radio talkshows.
Refrigerators are not in every home yet (as of 2008.)
Despite Turkish coffee being so famous, Turks actually drink more tea, especially black tea, which is served in clear glasses, as the Russians do.
Coffee is not drunk with meals, and is almost never given to children.
Some advise travellers from other countries not to drink the tap water. The advice is to drink only bottled water, and to eat only unpeeled fruit.
In summer, breakfast can include bread, butter, eggs, tomatoes, feta cheese, olives, honey and jam. In winter, it’s likely to be a lentil, meat or tripe soup.
Mezes are small simple starter dishes, usually vegetable-based that are placed all at once on a table called a “raki” table.
Turkish desserts are generally either pastry-based, milk-based, or made with fruits and vegetables. The most common dessert is just plain, simple, fresh fruit.
Baklava and Turkish delight are not eaten as desserts after meals, but rather as treats during the day. There are two kinds of halvah: one made from semolina, another made from sesame seed.
The most famous candy shop in Istanbul is Haci Bekir.
The default meat in Turkish cooking was lamb. It’s falling in popularity, though, as it becomes more expensive. Lamb is made into “sis kebab” (aka “shish kebab” in English), and “Doner Kebab.”
Most meats are grilled. Some say that grilled and roasted meat is a hallmark of Turkish cooking, but it’s hard to think of another cuisine that *doesn’t* grill and roast meat, so it doesn’t seem particularly distinctive — for instance, people also say it’s a distinguishing feature of cooking in northern Mexico.
No pork is used, but you can buy pork in the markets.
Flaky pastry pies called “borek” may be filled with meat or cheese.
Istanbul / Constantinople has always been one of the great sea-food cities of the world, though the Turkish seafood culture is, understandably, on the coast, not inland.
The prime season for fish in Turkey is winter, as fish migrate from the Black Sea, past Turkey, to the warmer Mediterranean.
Turkish cuisine is an incredibly varied one; there is no one great reliance on any one great particular food.
- The north coast along the Black Sea is temperate. One of the most popular fish amongst Turks living there is anchovy;
- The Black Sea area might use hazelnuts, while south-eastern Turkey might prefer pistachios;
- Some Turks argue that the best food is around Urfa in the south, while the best chefs in the country come are reputed to be from Bolu;
- The eastern part of Turkey has long, cold winters and consequently there butter tends to take the place of olive oil, while olive oil dominates in the west on the Aegean coast. Olive oil is going down in popularity (as of 2006), however, owing to the rising cost, and as it is, its use is being replaced by vegetable oil;
- The southern part of Turkey is hot, semi-desert; spicier foods, particularly in the south-east, tend to be popular.
The main spices are pepper, allspice, cinnamon and paprika. The main herbs used are parsley, dill, mint and bay leaves.
The spice market, Misir Çarsisi, in Istanbul, was constructed in 1660. It is also known as the “Egyptian Bazaar.”
A great deal of wheat is consumed in the form of bread and dumplings. Bread bakeries are spread throughout the cities; many people buy bread from them daily. Many Turkish breads, in fact, are meant to be eaten the same day as they are made.
Pide (aka “pita”) flat bread is most popular during Ramadan.
Rice pilafs are popular. Cheaper restaurants will serve rice as the starch, with some bread. Better restaurants will serve a rice pilaf.
Most cooked vegetables dishes are designed to be served room temperature.
Vegetables such as eggplant have remained popular over the centuries. New world vegetables, however, such as peppers to make paprika from, and tomatoes, are now considered fundamental as well, and cobs of corn are sold boiled or roasted by street-vendors.
Travellers are sometimes advised to be wary of fresh loose-leaf salads as the tap water quality is unreliable.
Turkish culture was nomadic prior to 1038.
Ideas about what they ate are largely speculative as there were no written records about food. They probably ate the same as other Central Asian nomadic peoples did, foods such as yoghurt-based drinks and meat from sheep, horses, deer and hares.
In the 800s, the Turkish nomadic tribes converted to Islam.
The Seljuk sultans period last from 1038 to 1299. Important sources of information about food in this period are:
- “Dede Korkut Hikayeleri” (The Tales of Dede Korkut)
- “Divanu Lugat-i Turk” (a dictionary to teach Turkish to Arabs),
- “Kutadgu Bilig” (The Book of Knowledge) by Yusuf Has Hacip
- writings by the philosopher “Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi”
During this period, their foods included flat breads, layered pastries, grape juice boiled down into a syrup, kebabs, wine (sic), ring-shaped buns called “corek”, “helva” made with grape syrup or almonds, and yoghurt, ayran and koumiss from their early days.
The first cook in Turkey to be buried in a mausoleum was Ates Baz-i Veli, who cooked for the philosopher “Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi”. This was evidence that food was coming to be held in high enough regard for a cook to be buried like that. To this day, there’s a superstition that if you bring back to your own kitchen a pinch of salt from his tomb (which is kept there for that purpose), it will bring good luck into your kitchen.
1299 – 1923 was the Ottoman Era, a time of palaces and mansions with great kitchens.
For close to 2,000 years, the area now known as Turkey was Greek. The ruins of ancient Greek cities such as Smryna, Ephesus, Pergamon, Sardis, and other lesser known ones from the Ionian league are throughout Turkey. It also holds places where Aristotle taught, and the temples of Artemis, Zeus, Apollo and Athena were.
The area was first independent Greek city states, then unified under Roman Rule but still maintaining a Greek identity, then it transitioned into the Eastern Roman Empire, then from about the mid 400 ADs on until 1453 it assumed a blended identity as the sole remaining part of the Roman Empire, and in its own right, the Byzantine Empire and the seat of Eastern Christianity.
On Tuesday, 29 May 1453, Sultan Mehmet II conquered and occupied Constantinople, finishing the Turkish conquest of the entire peninsula and renaming the city to Istanbul. At this point, a melding of Ottoman and Byzantine influences in the kitchen began, and with it, the arguments over what food is Turkish, and what is Greek. It’s an argument that won’t be settled in our lifetimes.
Mehmet II had separate kitchens for different groups of people in the palace: 1 for him only, 1 for his mother and his favourite women from his harem, one for the rest of the harem, and another for other members of the palace household.
The centre of Turkish cuisine from 1465 to 1853 was the Topkapı Palace. It is not one grand building, but a collection of smaller ones.
The Sultans who lived there had cooks dedicated to making single items day in and day out such as halvah, pickles and yoghurt. The halvah makers particularly were regarded as fine craftsmen. No details have came down to us of the palace menus, but detailed accounts have survived of the supplies ordered and received.
In the 1600s, there were 1,300 kitchen staff that fed up to 10,000 people a day. There were two meal times at the palace: mid-morning and evening.
The idea of having cooks specializing in making one food item passed from the palace down to the grand houses and from there down to those that could afford it.
Throughout this period, it was considered bad manners to talk too much about food.
The first cookbook in Turkish, Tabh-i Et-ime (“Instruction in Cookery”) was translated from the Arabic cookbook, “Kitabut-Tabih” (The Book of Cookery) in the 1400s. In the 1700s, two important cookbooks were published, “Agidiye Risalesi” (The Manual of Nourishment) by Abdullah Efendi, and “Yemek Risalesi”, by a collection of unknown authors. “Melceu’t Tabbahin” (The Sanctuary of Cooks) by Mehmet Kamil was published in 1844.
Coffee arrived in Istanbul in 1555.
In the 1500s, clarified butter and fat from animal tails were the most popular fats. With time, olive oil came to displace them.
Honey and grape syrup were replaced by sugar.
Ankara replaced Istanbul as the capital in 1923. In 1928, Turkey switched from the Arabic to the Latin alphabet. For a while, this caused old books, including cookbooks, to become inaccessible to new generations.
The Turks made a lot of enemies over the centuries: the Kurds, the Armenians, the Greeks, the Iranians, etc. This is evident even today, when identifying a particular dish at the table as Turkish can provoke such bitter debate that no one gets around to actually eating it.
Some impartial observers say that when there are both Greek and Turkish versions of a dish, the Turkish one tends to be more refined. But it’s doubtful that they say that in a kitchen where sharp implements are available.
Clay, Xanthe. Mezze dishes are the real Turkish delight. London: Daily Telegraph. 8 April 2010.
Kummer, Corby. Turkish Delight: Istanbul Melds Europe and Asia, Past and Present. The Atlantic Monthly. Vol. 275, January 1995.
Tan, Christopher. Delectable Turkish treats. Singapore. The Straits Times. 23 March 2006.
Willoughby, John. Istanbul. New York: Gourmet Magazine. May 2005.