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Before I even start with this, let me admit that my own culinary skills do not go much beyond the proverbial boiled egg - and even that I can never seem to get quite right! So, much as I would like to, I am in no position to share personal recipes with you. But - I may not be able to cook, however I certainly know how to demolish the output of others! And I think I have a very good nose for what's in the stuff, the ingredients. So, the fact that I cannot put them together to save my life should hopefully be of not too much concern amongst you... :-D

Eggplant is called patlıcan and a Turkish cook worth his or her salt will know how to cook more eggplant dishes than you can count on the fingers of both your hands (and you may even need all of your toes ;-). Top left is Hünkar Beğendi, an old Ottoman dish, in which char roasted eggplants are folded into a bechamel sauce and then served with a beef ragout. Top middle is İslim kebabı, a meatball wrapped with fried eggplant slices. And to the right is a very simple everyday dish, yoğurtlu patlıcan kızartması, fried eggplants and green peppers with a light garlic yoghurt sauce (vegetarian). Bottom row left is patlıcan kebabı; a beef stew with fried eggplant cubes. Center is Fırında patlıcan köftesi a meatball topped with fried eggplant slices, topped with melted fresh kaseri cheese. And bottom right is soslu patlıcan kızartması fried eggplant cubes in a tomato and green pepper olive oil sauce with garlic (vegetarian).

A popular misconception is that Turkish cuisine contains a lot of herbs and spices! Right? Wrong! Yes true, south-eastern Anatolian food is somewhat spicy, since it is under the influence of the neighboring Arabic cuisine, which is of course wonderful and a good thing it is that we can enjoy it here as well. When it comes to western Anatolian cuisine however, there are very few spices, except in very specific dishes and then only in very small quantities. 

The "spice" most commonly used is sugar (especially in olive oil dishes), maybe a small amount of black pepper and then of course salt. And as for herbs - outside of dill and parsley - they do not really exist, except for a very small amount of oregano sprinkled over barbecued lamb ribs. Oh and also sometimes mint - but to be honest, mostly as an ingredient for lemonade...

3 everyday olive oil dishes: patlıcan salatası on the left is also served as a very popular tapa. This is made only out of char roasted eggplants, lemon juice and olive oil, nothing else goes in this as far as I know - the red pepper bits and the parsley are only there for decorative purposes; in the middle zeytinyağlı taze bakla, which are fresh broad beans cooked with olive oil (beans, oil, onions, sugar, dill after cooking and eaten with yoghurt); and on the far right zeytinyağlı fasulye, french beans cooked in olive oil (beans, tomatoes, onions, sugar, salt, olive oil).

Not to put too fine a point on it, a hardcore Istanbul cook like my grandmother shudders at the very idea of folk sprinkling all sorts of things on top of or inside their food. And yet the food you will eat here will be very tasty indeed. The reason is that things have to be cooked exactly right, and the quality of the ingredients has to be very good. And then - onions! Not so much garlic - that only goes into special dishes like Mantı. But onions - that is the name of the game when it comes to Turkish cuisine!

While almost everyone who is originally from Istanbul cooks Istanbul food at home, restaurants serving Istanbul cuisine are unfortunately no longer very common. The best known of them is Hacı Abdullah (post here>>>) just off of Istiklal Caddesi between Taksim and Galatasaray. Konyalı (site here>>>) is also very well known, as is Pandeli in Eminönü (site here>>>), and another good one is Kanaat Lokantası in Üsküdar (translated post here>>> - google translate insists upon translating this as "opinion bar" (kanaat is opinion in Turkish), which is misleading since this is a place that serves no alcohol - and neither do most of the others above).

Olive oil dishes: From left to right, zeytinyağlı biber dolması, stuffed green peppers; "İmam Bayıldı" in the middle, which are deep fried eggplants with a tomato, onion and garlic filling; and on the right are zeytinyağlı  enginar which are artichoke bottoms with a broad bean filling.

Vegetarians: You can eat anything provided it is cooked with olive oil. Meat and olive oil, as far as Turkish cuisine goes, will never ever mix. Notable exception being seafood dishes or meze (tapas) which are prepared as cold salads - those will have olive oil in them and also fish protein. Other than that - any vegetable dish that is eaten at room temperature will be %100 percent safe for you to consume.

Salads: Çoban salatası is made out of cucumbers, tomatoes, red onions and parsley and is dressed with olive oil and lemon juice or vinegar (left), and a variation of it can also be found which has cubed feta cheese and olives added to it (middle). On the right is Gavurdağ salatası, which is made out of char roasted eggplants, green peppers, tomatoes, onions, walnuts and parsley, with  sweet/sour pomegranate syrup and olive oil dressing.


Tavern food is meze! They will usually be on display in a fridge somewhere in the tavern and you can make your choice from there if you wish. More usually however, they will be brought to your table on a big tray from which you choose what you like. Feta chesse and melon are obligatory, at least for a proper raki meal. (Ask for "beyaz peynir ve kavun" to get them  - they may not be on the meze tray itself, since they are sort of an understood fact of life ;-). Besides those two, you start out with the cold, salad type stuff (also cold seafood thingies), and then proceed to what we call "ara sıcaklar", which can be translated as "the interim warm things". After you are done with those, you will most probably be ready to throw in the towel (I usually am...) - but if you still want more the meal can be continued with a main fish or meat course, and of course dessert and coffee. The way we locals do it is usually with lots of meze, and "ara sıcaklar" and then a shared fish/meat plate, and usually no dessert but coffee or tea.

Cold meze: There is quite a bit more than what I am showing here, any decent tavern will have around twenty of them. Top left is Çerkes tavuğu which is made with chicken, walnuts and garlic; middle top is Fava, which is pureed dried broad beans with olive oil and lemon; top right is haydari which is made out of strained yoghurt, garlic, mint and olive oil. On the bottom row on the left we have havuç tarator which is made out of carrots, walnuts, yoghurt and garlic; in the middle we have an import from south-east Turkey, acılı ezme with tomatoes, green peppers, onions, olive oil, mint, and hot paprika; and on the bottom right köpoğlu salatası (translated: son of a dog salad), which is made out of fried eggplants, tomatoes, yoghurt, and garlic.

"Ara sıcaklar" (hot meze): These are eaten after the cold stuff, before the main course. Left is paçanga böreği, a fried pastry filled with pastırma; middle are kalamar tava, fried calamari with a walnut, bread and garlic dip; and left is arnavut ciğeri (albanian liver) which is fried beef or lamb liver with finely sliced onions and paprika.

And as for the main course in a tavern - well folks, that is usually grilled fish, which looks like - well, grilled fish. So, I do not think I will waste precious space by putting in a picture of it. However, the good ones to ask for are çipura and especially lüfer - if you can get a hold of the latter, that is. This is a native variant of the sea bass which can only be found in the Bosphorus, doesn't even breed any place else as far as I know. Sadly, these days they are hard to come by, since the heavy sea traffic on the Bosphorus has upset their breeding grounds. Another good one is hamsi, a native of the Black Sea. However September, which is when you will be here will probably still be a bit early for hamsi since it is a winter fish.

There are lots of very good rakı taverns in İstanbul, many hundreds of them and maybe even more. A few of the ones that I know of personally are Refik (site here>>>) and Sofyalı (site here>>>) in Asmalımescit, Hacıbaba (site here>>>) very near Taksim on İstiklal, Çınaraltı in Ortaköy (post here>>>), Koço in Moda (post here>>>) and Karaköy Lokantası (post here>>>) in Karaköy.

And now, onto some other good stuff:

Cold cuts are not always eaten raw in Turkey: You may sometimes get raw pastırma (top left) in a tavern, but more often than not it will arrive on the table as paçanga böreği. Pastırma is lamb back cured with a special spice called çemen and you are likely to smell for a day afterwards if you eat it raw - hence the reason for it usually being served cooked (bottom right), although it is actually completely delicious raw. Sucuk (middle) is lamb cured with garlic. You are unlikely to encounter this in it's raw form (again delicious) in a restaurant, however a lot of places, including Saray (post here>>>) make a mean sucuklu yumurta (sucuk with eggs), which is the bottom left image. Finally an odd ball next to sucuk and pastırma is lakerda (top right), which is a salt cured fish that has to be cleaned in a special way and is then pressed under wooden slabs for a few days. And lakerda you will find as a meze in most good taverns.

And what is the most famous Turkish dish? The one that everyone eats? That would have to be kuru fasulye pilav, which is a dried haricot bean casserole served with rice. The casserole can be cooked with no meat, however more commonly you add chuck beef, pastırma or sucuk into it. You can eat a really good kuru fasulye pilav meal at Fasuli (site translated here>>>) or Eminönü Kanaat Lokantası (post here>>>)

Kuru fasulye pilav

Which would bring us to the subject of rice and pastry dishes in general: Istanbul cuisine is known for it's rice dishes and böreks (pastries with a savory filling). While rice was brought into Asia minor by Turks who knew of it from their Chinese neighbors in Central Asia; börek were initially imported from the Balkans, and over the centuries become modified into what they are today.

Pilav: Left is iç pilav, made with chicken liver, pignolia nuts and black currants; middle is patlıcanlı pilav made with fried eggplants, olive oil and dill added after cooking; and right is özbek pilavı made with small pieces of beef and carrots.

Börek: Su böreği (left) and kol böreği (middle) come with different fillings, ground beef, feta cheese and sometimes also spinach. Both are baked in an oven - unlike sigara böreği (right), also sometimes known as muska böreği, when the dough leaves are shaped into triangular bags rather than cigarettes. These are deep fried and come with a cheese or ground beef filling.

Anatolian carbohydrates ;-): Gözleme on the left is grilled on a special flat pan with the filling already in it. Usually this is cheese or ground beef and also sometimes potato puree. Dürüm (in the middle) is a thin pita into which usually a kebap or slices of grilled sucuk are wrapped, but sometimes you can get cheese dürüm as well. On the right is Mantı, a garlic yoghurt ravioli dish with ground beef and a paprika sauce on top. Dürüm and gözleme are mostly fast food items, but mantı you eat in special mantı restaurants. You can get these all over the city, however one of the best places for all of them is Kadiköy market (post here>>>)

Over the past decades Istanbul has seen a lot of migration from Anatolia, especially from the south-eastern and the central parts of the country. For me this is the best thing that could have happened to a city which was a rather stagnant place as I was growing up (read more here>>>). The new residents brought in their culture, their music, their feasts, which were all quite different from what we Istanbulites were familiar with. They added color and vitality, and immeasurably enriched and did a superb job of blending what they brought with them with what was already here. Not the least of what they brought with them is their food - much spicier, much more hearty and robust. And, needless to say, even oldest school Istanbulites have taken to Lahmacun and Humus and Adana Kebap and Kısır like ducks to water!

From Bursa comes İskender kebap: Since Bursa is in western Anatolia, in fact very close to Istanbul, İskender kebap is not spicy at all. The döner which constitutes the meat part is just plain beef fillets. (Another popular myth about Turkish food is that we eat a lot of lamb. We don't. We eat a lot of beef actually ;-). This meat is served on pita bread and gets a tomato and butter sauce on top, and then also yoghurt on the side.

From south-east Anatolia: Top left is lahmacun, a type of beef pizza, top middle we have içli köfte, a meatball with a bulghur crust, and top right is the bulghur salad Kısır, which is somewhat similar to the Arabic Tabouli. Bottom left is çiğ köfte, the spicy steak tartare for which finely ground raw meat is cured with a spice named isot. And bottom right is Humus, chick peas, tahini, garlic and olive oil. All these, and much more, can be sampled at Çiya (post here>>>).

The king of kebaps according to some is Urfa kebap (left), while others swear by Adana kebap (right). Both of these, as well as Ali Nazik (middle) come from south east Anatolia. Urfa and Adana kebap are actually similar, both involve dürüm, onions and skewered long meatballs. The difference is in the spices: Urfa has more isot, whereas Adana has more cayenne. And yes, both are spicy! Ali Nazik is from Gaziantep and is a very sophisticated local version of Hünkar Beğendi - in this case with ground beef served over an eggplant yoghurt sauce rather than the bechamel sauce in the Istanbul version. (Read the post on good kebap houses here>>>).

And yes! Finally we arrive at dessert! I am not going to put images of things like tiramisu, cheesecake, profiteroles and chocolate eclairs, although these things are as (if not indeed more) popular with Turks than the local stuff. I personally have no preference whatsoever - give me something sweet and I am in heaven anyway! So, leaving mainstream European desserts to one side, the local stuff can be divided into two distinct categories: Milk desserts and pastry desserts. While the milk desserts are delicately flavored, the pastry things are a complete sugar overdose!

Milk desserts: Left is Fırın sütlaç, which is a rice pudding, center is Keşkül, an almond pudding and my personal favorite dessert ever. Left is Kazandibi and this is definitely not a kosher food item since one of the ingredients is very finely shredded chicken breast mixed with milk.

Pastry desserts: Left is Tel kadayıfı, center is Sekerpare and on the right the Istanbul version of Rum Baba, which around here we call Şam Baba. All local desserts (milk and pastry) can be enjoyed at Saray (post here>>>) as well as Sütiş in Taksim (translated post here>>>)

And this brings us to the end of the yum-yum page! Hope you have enjoyed reading about Istanbul's good food as much as I have enjoyed compiling the info!

3 comments:

  1. This is a great blog! Wonderful stuff! Very helpful for my trip to Istanbul! Thank you! I leave today and I am so excited :)

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    Replies
    1. So yummy! This food alone would be a good reason to visit Istanbul!

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  2. Wow! This was such a nice article. I am from Istanbul but have been living abroad for long time. I usually end up cooking Turkish food for my friends and I came across your side whilst trying to compile a representative sample of Turkish food. This was really great, thanks.
    You clearly can't put every dish here but in case you haven't tried them yet, I also recomment you to try the Karadeniz misir ekmegi and mercimek koftesi. Yum-yum :)

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