With roots going back to the Eastern Turkish troops who left their homeland centuries ago, Turkish cuisine has travelled a long way to where we call Turkey today.
Having useful knowledge of keeping food for long travelling periods, the first Turkish troops had little to dine on. The cultures and civilisations they encountered along the way influenced Turkish cuisine. By the time the Ottoman Empire was established, Turks had assimilated and adapted a wide range of culinary traditions; the empire's subsequent expansion further increased this cross-fertilisation with the cooking schools of other cultures. In the Ottoman capital, Istanbul, these diverse inputs came together to create what we today call "Turkish cuisine", drawing from Greek, Jewish, Armenian, Persian and Arab styles to give rise to "palace cuisine".
A typical Turkish breakfast consists of bread with feta cheese, black olives, jam (or honey) and butter. Occasionally tomatoes, cucumbers or boiled eggs are included. Tea is the traditional drink of Turkish breakfasts.
Today, Turkish cuisine is mainly based on meat and vegetables. While the generous use of spices has declined since Ottoman times, it remains a fragrant and aromatic cuisine, with thyme, mint, allspice, pepper, cumin and cinnamon all featuring prominently.
Soups are a must for winter meals. While many different ingredients can be used, the favourite ones are lentils, tomatoes and rice. One of the traditional soups is tarhana which is composed of many vegetables (onion, pepper, tomatoes etc.), flour, yeast, yogurt etc. Traditionally, it is prepared in bulk and then dehydrated and stored for a year or more. The exact composition of tarhana differs from region to region in Turkey.
Mezze, Mezes, or Mezedes (Appetizers)
Appetizers are not a normal part of Turkish cuisine, but if Turks are drinking rakı, they will eat meze, served in small dishes. These are similar to tapas and can be all kinds of preserved fish, seafood and vegetables. Cold mezes are served at the beginning and followed by the hot ones such as small böreks or fried seafood.
Meat dishes are usually cooked in the pot with different vegetables. Grilling is also a very common way of preparing meat. In the past lamb was the main meat favoured by Turks. Today, with a healthy diet in fashion, veal is more commonly served. Chicken and turkey products are also an important part of the daily diet.
Fish is not as abundant as it used to be, but still its possible to find fresh and delicious fish in major cities and in seaside towns. In Turkish cuisine, fish is usually grilled or fried, and served with lemon juice rather than more elaborate sauces.
During the Ottoman period, egg dishes were so important that one of the basic tests of would-be chefs at the imperial palace was to prepare an onion omelet. Today, Turks still eat numerous egg dishes, menemen being a particular favorite in summer.
Böreks (Savory Pastries)
Börek is a type of filled pastry. These pastries are made with a variation on filo dough known as yufka, which is wrapped around a stuffing of sheep's milk cheese, a sliced vegetable such as parsley or eggplant, and sometimes meat. They may be steamed, baked, or fried.
Rice is usually used to make pilavs which accompanies meat dishes. Sometimes it is enriched with several ingredients and eaten by itself. Rice is also the main ingredient of the famous Turkish dolmas. Pastas are not an important section of this cuisine, but a dish called mantı (which could be described as Turkish ravioli) is a lasting favourite.
Vegetables dishes are typically prepared with meat. They are usually cooked in pots and served as the main dish. eggplant is used in many popular recipes, including karnıyarık and islim kebabı. In the past it is said that eggplant could be cooked in more than a thousand ways; while this is probably an exaggeration, one hint of the centrality of the eggplant in Turkish cuisine is the fact that according to historical records a great many house or neighbourhood fires started with unsuccessful attempts to fry eggplants. While such fires have happily become a thing of the past, fried eggplants remain a summertime favorite for Turks. Vegetables cooked in olive oil are also a very important part of Turkish cuisine, and virtually every vegetable can be prepared with olive oil.
Desserts are very important to Turks, many of whom feel a meal is incomplete without them. While not unique to Turkey, baklava is the country's best known dessert; Gaziantep baklava is particularly prized. Turkish cuisine offers a number of other pastries, most of which feature walnuts or pistachios. Milk desserts are also very famous in Turkish culture, as are fruit-based desserts (quince and fig are common ingredients). Yogurt, bulgur, tarhana (spiced and dried yogurt) and yufka (filo pastry) are very important ingredients of Turkish cuisine.
Alcoholic rakı comes close to being the national drink. Similar to Greek ouzo, it has a less syrupy taste, so it is not only good as an aperitif, but it accompanies the mezes and fish perfectly as well. A good meal is usually sealed with Turkish coffee, often accompanied with Turkish Delight, known to Turks as lokum. Tea is also served after meals.
Hülya Ekşigil (magazine editor and food writer)