by Poorna Rajpal
When we travel we try to bring back a little bit of the places we visit in the form of souvenirs and photographs. Each time we look at them we relive our experiences. I, however, am one of those people who believes that the true experience of any culture lies in the street food and local restaurants of a place, and one should never skip such explorations.
On my recent trip to Turkey, I did just that. Not all of them are about dining in leisure. On the contrary, most of them are meals that you would best enjoy in the local streets of Istanbul, where you can stop for a quick bite or a short meal in between bouts of shopping and exploration.
Here are 10 Turkish eats that you shouldn’t miss. So Afiyet Olsunas the Turks would say, while exhorting you to enjoy your meal!
A standard Turkish breakfast is a spread that has a variety of olives (Zeytin) and cheese Peynir), tomatoes, cucumbers, jam and honey with half boiled eggs or scrambled eggs and Turkish sausages. But for someone like me who loves breakfast this is inadequate. I finally found a satiating brekkie in Menemen, a classic Turkish dish served in single portioned serving pans. These are eggs cooked in tomatoes, onions, peppers, vegetables and prepared in olive oil with cheese and spices.
If there was one thing I couldn’t get enough of in Turkey it was Simit (Turkish bagel). Luckily – or maybe luck had nothing to do with it because it was just so delicious – it can be found everywhere! Coffee shops, street vendors, grocery stores, bakeries – every place stocked it including the popular ‘Simit Sarayi’ chain, which had variations of Simit in sandwiches as well. This sesame seed-covered ring shaped bread could very well be the national bread of Turkey, unless some other bread has already staked a claim!
The most commonly found combination is Simit and cream cheese. Have it with some Turkish coffee or tea, and you really do not need much else.
When you think of Turkish fast food, the first things that cross your mind are Doner and Kumpir. The latter is basically a baked potato which comes heavily loaded with toppings. It might sound like a snack but is in fact quite filling – potatoes that are bigger than one’s hand topped with butter, choice of toppings such as salads, yoghurt, olives, cheese, mayonnaise, mushroom, sausages, corn and variations of the same mixed in mayonnaise, and did I mention butter? Enough butter to make Julia Child think twice.
I know you were waiting for this one. Yes, Doner is Turkey’s most famous culinary export to the world. This one is not for the vegetarians reading this. Doner is made of meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie, which is thinly sliced as it cooks and is rolled in wraps or folded into sandwiches.
In Turkey the meat is mostly lamb or beef and if you ask them which meat they’ll reply “meat!” which doesn’t help you much. Some places also offer chicken. If it doesn’t say ‘Tavuk’, which is chicken, you might just have to identify it yourself (psst…it’s the lighter coloured one).
In a basic Doner, you will find meat shavings, pickle, lettuce, mayonnaise and French fries. This is the best on-the-go meal for when you are short on time and have a lot of sightseeing to do.
5) GOZLEME / SAC BOREGI
Have you noticed that every country has its own version of pancakes? Gozleme or Saç Böre?i is a Turkish pancake, though I found it to be more like a close relative of the Indian parantha. It’s a thinly rolled out flatbread traditionally stuffed with feta and spinach – though there are more options available such as potatoes and meat – then folded over and cooked on a hot plate (tava).
Many Turkish restaurants have windows where one can see women dressed in traditional attire making these pancakes in their conventional way, which looks fascinating and lures you into the restaurant to give it a try. So worth it!
Have you ever seen a person with an ice cream, sad? They might have a sad expression only when they don’t get to eat the ice cream. My point is, ice creams are fun and you can’t really top that. But the Turks can.
Dondurma, which in Turkish literally means freezing, is the Turkish take on ice cream. It has a chewy, marshmallow like texture and is almost resistant to melting. Turkish men in specific costumes tease customers to try these chilled desserts through tricks and theatrics by holding the ice cream upside down over the customer’s head, showing its almost anti-gravity like nature. Ice cream with a topping of entertainment, how can one resist?
If you’re planning a visit to Turkey or the Middle East, I don’t have to tell you this, you’ve probably already put it on your to-eat list. This glistening, intensely sweet pastry is made of layers of filo and chopped nuts drenched in sugar syrup or honey, and is extremely rich no matter how it is prepared.
Baklava has such an extensive variety that deciding on eating just one is not an easy task. You can never be too tired for coffee and Baklava; the beautiful and radiant window displays of this dessert just lure you in and you can tell that bakeries pride themselves on these rich confections. It is the ideal gift to bring back for your loved ones.
Layered filo pastry filled with cheese, spinach and/or chicken and meat mixed in herbs and baked until it is beautifully brown, Borek has many variations. You can find a member of the Borek family in your company any time of the day, either during breakfast, lunch or for a snack. No self-respecting Turkish breakfast buffet would miss the cigar shaped, white cheese and parsley filled and then deep fried Borek roll called Sigara Böregi. Another version would be the Su Boregi were the Borek is steamed in water.
Other than water, Ayran is the most common drink you’ll find in Turkey. Made of yoghurt, salt and water, it is the most refreshing cold beverage to be had on its own and is the perfect accompaniment to every Turkish meal. On a hot day when you are out looking at the ruins of Ephesus, make sure you carry lot of Ayran with you.
10) TURKISH COFFEE & TEA
There are coffee drinkers and there are tea drinkers – I am still unsure which of the two I prefer. But why decide on one when both can be so good?
Turkish coffee is prepared using finely ground coffee, mixed with hot water and sugar in a copper pot with a long handle (cezve), and served with a glass of water to cleanse your palate before you enjoy this flavoursome brew. This coffee is rather strong and feels grainy and dense when you sip it.
Coming from a Punjabi family, where my mother thinks coffee should be 90-100% milk based, because milk is somehow equated with health, black coffee is something that I cannot bring myself to savour. But Turkish coffee, albeit black, just grows on you. It has an intense coffee aroma and packs a punch – it can convert the best of us.
At any time of the day in any city in Turkey you’ll find people sipping on hot amber coloured tea in their iconic tulip shaped glasses. Çay (pronounced just like chai) as they call it, is their favourite pastime. I really loved the apple flavoured version of this tea, though one can find many exotic flavours such as rose, kiwi and mango too.
It’s safe to say you’ll never run out of food options when travelling in Turkey, in fact I believe one trip would not be enough!