What to Eat in Turkey: Delicious Food and Drink You Should Try on Holiday
Turkey is rightly loved by visitors for its beaches, ancient sites, stunning scenery, and friendly people. But no trip to the country would really be complete without sampling some of the delicious food on offer.
Considered by many gastronomes to be one of the three great cuisines of the world, along with Chinese and French, Turkish food combines fresh, seasonal ingredients, a bewilderingly large range of recipes, and beautiful flavours and colours. Turkey's important geographical location means many civilisations and trading relationships have influenced the country's cuisine, and regional cultural variations have led to a rich array of dishes.
Add to that a passion for food, and a reputation for hospitality among Turkish people, and whether you are eating in a restaurant or a family home, the atmosphere always makes the food taste even better.
Opting for cereals and toast every morning while you are visiting Turkey is a wasted opportunity. Traditionally the most important meal of the day, breakfast in Turkey is a veritable feast; tables are filled with plates and trays. The staples of a Turkish breakfast are bread and pastries, including delicious, freshly baked pide (a flatbread with a crispy crust), pogaca (a type of soft roll), and gözleme and börek: pastries stuffed with ingredients such as meat, cheese, and vegetables. Eggs are another important component, and can be served in many ways, including menemen: scrambled eggs mixed with peppers, onions, and tomatoes. Meats served at breakfast can include sucuk, a spicy beef sausage. Local cheeses, such as kaşar (made from sheep's milk), spreads including jams and honey, as well as olives, tomatoes, and cucumbers are among the other items you will usually also find on the table, while fresh tea and coffee round off breakfast nicely.
Small appetisers that can be served hot or cold, meze are a perfect way to start off a meal, and ideal for sharing with fellow diners. A restaurant will usually serve a selection of up to 20 dishes, with items such as salads, vegetables, dips, breads, and pastries. Dishes to look out for include paçanga böregi, a savoury pastry including beef and melted cheese, and çerkez tavuk, a hearty chicken dish including fresh herbs and walnuts. Sarma — vine leaves stuffed with ingredients such as rice, pine leaves, mince, onion, and mint — is another classic meze. Vegetable dishes include şakşuka, which consists of sauteed vegetables such as aubergine, tomatoes, and potatoes. You might also be served mashed fava beans and a spicy tomato salad called ezme, which includes peppers, onions, and garlic, while bread and hummous are common meze components.
Turkey is famous for its soups, and whatever the time of day or year, there is a Turkish soup to satisfy you. As a starter, a lunch, a snack, or even a main course with the addition of bread, there are soups that can be served both hot and cold. Hearty soups that are ideal in winter include green lentil soup, creamy tomato soup, and spicy red lentil soup. Another popular dish, tripe soup, is said to be a hangover remedy — however the idea of eating cow's stomach the morning after a big night is not for everyone.
Turkish street food
If you want to grab some food on the go, Turkey has many delicious options, some of which are famous well beyond the country's borders, such as the doner kebab, while others are not found anywhere else. Simit, a bagel with sesame seeds on top, is one of the most ubiquitous street foods in Turkey. These are served plain or with cheese. Tavuklu pilav, a simple plate of chicken and white rice, is a great option if you need something filling, as is a baked potato (kumpir), to which you can add a vast array of fillings such as salad, yoghurt, sausage, pickled cabbage, and corn. One street food found in many big cities such as Istanbul and coastal towns on the Turkish Riviera is midye, mussels stuffed with simple ingredients including rice and herbs. Seafood lovers can also try balik ekmek, a sandwich filled with freshly grilled fish, herbs, and onions. In Turkey, as much of the animal is used as possible, so many popular Turkish street foods feature offal, including arnavut ciger, a dish of liver and onions, and kokoreç, grilled sheep's intestines served with tomatoes and peppers in a sandwich.
Turkish meat dishes
You can't think about Turkish meat dishes without kebabs springing to mind. Every region of the country has its own form of this dish of grilled, skewered meat, so it is worth sampling the local variety while you are in Turkey. Some of the best-known kebabs include beyti kebab, which originated in a restaurant in Istanbul, and is often sold as a ground-meat version — however, the original recipe consists of lamb fillets that are covered in strips of fat and grilled. Adana kebab, which originated in the southern city of Adana, features minced lamb and tail fat. Cag kebab, which comes from the Erzurum region in the east, features stacked strips of marinated lamb and fat that are cooked horizontally on a spit over a fire. Other meaty dishes include köfte, meatballs made with beef, lamb, or chicken, grilled and served with accompaniments such as grilled peppers and tomatoes, plus bread, rice, or bulgur wheat. As with kebabs, there are variants of köfte that can be found all over Turkey.
Turkish desserts and sweets
Turkish cuisine includes some delicious sweet treats that are sure to give you that much needed energy boost if you are having a busy day's sightseeing, and provide a lovely way to finish a memorable meal. The most famous dessert has to be baklava, which is made with layers of filo pastry that are filled with chopped nuts, and given its divine sweetness by syrup or honey. Other sticky-sweet desserts include lokma, fried dough pieces that are dipped in syrup, revani (semolina cake), and şekerpare, in which an almond-based dough is soaked with sugar syrup. Turkey also has some great sweets, including lokum. More widely known as Turkish delight, this gel-based candy with can be flavoured with rose, almond, mint, cinnamon, pistachio, chocolate, and many other ingredients. It is usually served in small cubes at the end of a meal with tea or coffee, but it's also a popular gift to take home at the end of your holiday. You can also satisfy your sweet tooth by sampling some candied chestnuts — Turkey is one of the world’s largest producers of sweet chestnuts, and this way of eating them has been popular in the country since the 1300s.
Tea is a cornerstone of Turkish culture, and serving it to guests is a demonstration of hospitality. It is usually served in glasses, and while it is never drunk with milk, it usually comes with sugar cubes if you are not used to straight black tea. Traditionally served in a small cup, Turkish coffee is a great accompaniment to a dessert or Turkish delight. Uniquely, the coffee grounds that settle at the bottom of the cup can be used to tell your fortune. Ayran, made from yoghurt, water, and salt, is a popular accompaniment to meals, and is a refreshing summer drink, too. Other soft drinks that are ideal for hot days include sherbet, a cordial-based drink often made with fruit juices such as pomegranate or tamarind.
A uniquely Turkish drink to sample is şalgam, which is made from turnip and purple carrot, and has a distinctive dark red colour. Its fiery, salty flavour means it is not suitable for gulping down to cure a raging thirst, but it is an ideal drink to sip in winter. The most famous Turkish alcoholic drink is also its national drink. Raki is an anise-flavoured spirit that people usually dilute with water — which turns it cloudy. It is often drunk as an accompaniment to meze, as part of special occasions, or just when sat round with friends or family. If you are feeling less adventurous but still want a taste of Turkey, the country also produces many excellent wines and beers.
Before travelling, be sure to check out our travel guide to Turkey.
Or explore Cappadocia
Plan your trip around the best festivals in Turkey
And gear up for outdoor adventures in Turkey
Study up on customs and safety in Turkey
Feeling inspired? Check out Travelzoo's latest deals on holidays to Turkey.
Nick Elvin contributed to this post.