After teaching English in Istanbul for six months, I grew to love Turkish cuisine. Although they are sold every 50 meters, there is more to Turkish cuisine than döner kebaps and Turkish hamburgers. Contrary to what most locals may say, Turkey is a great country for vegetarians. In fact, most dishes start with a vegetarian base, and meat is mostly added as an afterthought. Turkish cuisine relies on bold flavors, and utilizes a variety of spices and sauces in every dish; isot (ee-soht), a dried black pepper, is one of the most common. The strong flavors are complemented with both rich and bright notes, typically by topping the dish with yoğurt and/or lemon. With aromatic appetizers and soups to savory main courses, it’s easy to find something authentic (and delicious) in Turkey. For a quick snack on-the-go, try a bag of fresh roasted chestnuts or hazelnuts with golden raisins for 5 lira (USD $2.80). In Istanbul, you can find miniature cafeterias almost everywhere. Here, you can get side dishes of cous cous, lentils, dolma, bread, and rice (among others) for about 2 lira per dish. And don’t forget to take the opportunity to try one of the many tasty Turkish sweets for dessert!
Dishes to try
Traditional Turkish Breakfast Spread: a buffet that is brought to your table. It’s the ultimate meal of hors d’oeuvres, complete with a selection of cheeses, tomatoes, cucumbers, yogurt, olives, and sigara böreği [si-gara boo-reh-ee]-filo pastry sticks filled with a smooth white cheese. Honey, jam, and butter are provided for dippers, and the çay [chai] (Turkish tea) is ever-flowing. I ended mine with a dollop of chocolate-hazelnut spread, then went for a very necessary long walk.
Simit [sih-mit]: ring-shaped bread covered with sesame seeds. Essentially, it is the Turkish version of a bagel, and can be found on every street at pretty much all times of the day/night. For only 1 lira, you can’t go wrong. Delicious as-is or try with jam or spreadable cheese.
Zeytinyagli Dolma: grape leaves stuffed with rice that has been seasoned with olive oil and herbs. Be careful- these frequently contain meat, so make sure to request them without when ordering them. These are very simple to make yourself, and can be served warm or cold.
Çiğ köfte [chee kurff-tay]: Although the literal translation of this dish is “raw meat”, çiğ köfte is typically served as a vegetarian appetizer in restaurants. Order double the amount and it easily becomes an incredibly filling meal for many. This was not just the most delicious meal we ate in Turkey: it’s in the running for one of the most delicious meals we’ve had…ever.
Gözleme [gerz-leh-meh]: the Turkish version of a savory crepe. We recommend spinach, cheese, or (even better) spinach AND cheese. Potato and mushroom are sometimes available, as well.
Menemen: the equivalent of a scrambled egg casserole baked with onion, tomato, and green pepper. Melting cheese on top is always a bonus. Normally eaten for breakfast, we were served this dish at 17:00 (long story).
Freshly Squeezed Pomegranate Juice: what it sounds like. Street vendors press the juice of three full pomegranates into a cup, giving you a tart, yet refreshing, beverage for only 3 lira.
Pickle Juice: extremely acidic liquid used in the pickling of vegetables, NOT to be confused with sweet pickle juice. Don’t let the alluring bright pink appearance fool you: it has a very intense and in-your-face flavor that is definitely an acquired taste. While the locals love it, my traveling friends were not so keen to have more than one sip.
Helva: a dense, super-protein brick made from crushed sesame paste (tahini) or other nut butters. Pistachios, chocolate, and vanilla can all be added for taste. This is something you’ll either love or hate. It’s sweet, but has a very dry and grainy texture. However, it’s very budget-friendly and is great for getting calories in while on the road. There is an alternative flour-based helva that is slightly gelatinous and made with semolina grain, sugar, and butter. However, this variation is not as nutritious as the tahini type.
Kumpir: the ultimate loaded baked potato. You can choose as many toppings as you want from a diverse buffet. These are sold at small sit-in places everywhere.
Turkish Delight (a.k.a. lokum): a firm jelly-like confection flavored with rosewater, lemon, or mastic, then dusted with powdered sugar. This is the pride and joy of Turkish desserts, and shops devoted to it can be found on every street. It can come in small cubes or long rolls, and may contain chopped dates, hazelnuts, pistachios, or walnuts. Because Turkish delight is so tasty, you may find yourself unable to stop popping them into your mouth. Be warned: after the first five, you are likely to feel physically ill for the next several hours.