A nation’s climate, agriculture and culture influence its cuisine. Thus Turkish food is influenced by Turkey’s climate, what foods are grown in the country and the culture, history and religion of the Turkish people. Turkey is a land bathed in sunshine with black, loamy soil. So many different fruits and vegetables grow here that Turkey exports a considerable amount of its fruit to other countries. While I always was able to buy Turkish dried figs and dried apricots in New York City, they are more expensive here because they manage to export so much. There are so many other fruits to make up for it, however. Fresh figs abound, growing on trees in parks throughout Istanbul. Turkish pears are also available from street vendors that sell produce from little wooden carts. Much like elsewhere in Europe, “portukal suyu” or fresh-squeezed orange juice can be had for a lira per glass. When walking through the warren of shops and stalls in and around the Grand Baazar, a great refreshment is a container of watermelon slices, which can likewise be had for a lira. Turkish cherries are of the sour variety and are so astonishingly flavorful and sweet that you will not believe the two lira per kilo (2.2 lbs!) price charged by the vendors at the bazaars and fresh food markets.
For starches Turks really have only two sources-bread and rice pilaf. In Istanbul bread, or “ekmek” is subsidized by the government and thus can be had everywhere for incredibly cheap prices. In a local “lokantasi” or stew and soup shop, bread is available at every table in great heaping piles of fresh slices. I like to sop up juices, broths and soups with good bread and Turkish bread is fluffy, fresh and flavorful. Turkish bread is most similar to Portuguese and Spanish bread and is eaten when fresh rather than crusty like French bread. Pilaf, on the other hand, is also a staple at the with a few dishes of lamb or chicken lokanta. The only other starch to be had in Istanbul is a plate of French fries or the few cuts of french-fried potatoes that are stuffed on your standard “pide” sandwich.
This brings me to the other standard food group in Turkey-MEAT. Turks are historically a nomadic people and thus a pastoral people. The wandering and marauding tribes of Seljuk and Ottoman Turks lived off of their livestock, bread and fruit from forage. Thus the center-piece of Turkish cuisine is roasted meat. Turks typically eat four different meats: beef, lamb, chicken and fish. There is no pork or ham to be found in Istanbul owing to the Islamic prohibition on eating swine. I don’t miss pig products, however, because the Turks have a thousand and one ways to prepare the other four meats.
Beef and lamb are cooked interchangeably in Istanbul. A pide, or pita, sandwich is typically prepared by shaving slices of lamb or beef off a spit and then loading the bready pocket with lettuce, tomato, peppers, pickles and French fries. “Tosted,” or toasted bread sandwiches, are made with either chunks of roast meat or cured beef strips that taste like hot dogs. A “tosted sandvich” will be filled with meat, cheese, fries, salad and sometimes even potato salad and then toasted using a waffle iron.
An “Iskender” platter is a signature dish in Turkish cuisine. Iskender is a platter with strips of char-broiled beef served over soggy pita bread and topped by tomato sauce, tomato slices and roasted pepper along with a healthy dollop of yogurt sauce. Iskender is not to be confused with “Iskember,” which is entirely different. Iskember meat is basically beef intestines roasted on a spit that are then shaved off, minced and served on a roll with onions and lettuce. It’s actually not a bad sandwich, but the smell of cooking Iskember is very acrid and repulsive, like pork-roll.
Most dishes that can be served with beef or lamb can also be served with chicken, with exception of Iskender. Chicken is especially tasty in a Durum sandwich, however. At a local Durum restaurant the serve a “tavuk” or chicken durum sandwich for two lira fifty. A durum sandwich is a bit like a soft taco in that the char-broiled chicken is served with tomato and lettuce and rolled up in a thin pastry. The chicken is so well marinated and broiled, however, that no sauce is necessary. On the side the restaurant serves a plate of complimentary “cig kofte,” which are raw meatballs served with spices that are so hot that they cook the meat. If you can get over your fear of raw cow, its actually not bad.
Not to be confused with pide sandwiches, plain pide is a cuisine unto itself. Pide stands serve pockets of bread filled with cheese, tomatoes, meat or potatoes and spices. Pide closely resembles pizza and the locals are convinced that the Italians stole pizza from Turkish pide. Lamacun is great quick and cheap snack. Lamacun are flat breads covered with tomato, pepper, salad and meat. You can squeeze some lemon juice on your lamacun and then roll it up for a quick, light snack. Lamacun costs a very reasonable lira per sandwich.
That brings me to fish, or “balik.” Around the many ferry terminals of maritime Istanbul men constantly grill filets of fish. At first I suspected the fish were the sardines that Turkish fishermen are constantly pulling out of the Golden Horn from the bridges but a students informed me that the grilled fish is actually an undisclosed “ocean fish.” Nonetheless, a fish sandwich in Istanbul puts any fried and battered fish back home to shame. Turkish fish sandwiches are a broiled filet with salad, lemon juice and sea salt on a roll. They are heavenly and only cost three lira. Turkish mussels also abound in the city, sold by boys on street corners from trays. Turkish mussels are mussels boiled and minced with rice and seasoning and then put back in the shell. For a lira you can get three or four. They taste best, as does almost everything in Istanbul with a squeeze of lemon.
Turks drink essentially everything that Americans drink. Soda is very popular in Turkey, as is juice. In addition to orange juice, Turks also like cherry juice, which is a strange flavor, and peach juice. Ayran is a big Turkish phenomenon. Whether served fresh or in a plastic container with a foil top, Ayran is something you have to get used to but really grows on you after a while. Ayran is a salty milk and yogurt concoction. Its tastes best with heavy meat dishes. Turks drink tea more than any other beverage, however. Turkish tea, or “cay” (pronounced chai), is a strong black tea served in small, hour-glass shaped glasses. Turks drink their cay with two lumps of sugar and no milk. Less common is extraordinarily sweet apple tea, which tastes something like hot apple cider. Turks drink three kinds of coffee: Turkish coffee, Nescafe and Espresso. All Europeans drink espresso (short coffee) or Nescafe (tall coffee) but Turkish coffee is a rare treat. Turkish coffee is another highlight of Turkish cuisine and a great finisher to any meal along with a piece of gooey Turkish Delight. Turkish coffee is basically a superfine coffee that is mixed with sugar and then boiled in a special copper pot with a long handle until it a frothy, piping hot paste. It is served in a small cup like an espresso cup, sometimes with a glass of ice water and a sugar cookie.
For dessert there are many standard Middle Eastern treats to be had in Turkey like Baklava and other syrupy cakes and sweets covered with pistachio and coconut shavings. Turkish Delight is a decadent treat that is everywhere but seems to be eaten most by tourists. Turkish Delight is heavy and too much like candy to be eaten all that often. “Sutlac” (pronounced suit-latch), on the other hand, or pudding, is cheap and light and very tasty. I prefer rice or chocolate sutlac and sometimes will make a pit stop just for a small bowl of it. Turkish ice-cream is another strange delicacy. Turkish ice-cream is made from sheep-milk and thus has a very different consistency than traditional ice cream though it is no less flavorful. Turkish ice-cream is slightly chewy, like cold bubble gum. As you walk down Istiklal you can hear the sound of Turkish ice cream sellers banging their metal prods against the metal containers in which the ice cream is made and mixed. The ice cream is so chewy that they can lift it out of the container and twirl it about in the air, doing tricks to delight customers and earn another five lira per cone.
Turkey is an ancient a diverse land that is forever swathed in light and redolent with the perfume of the sea. Turkish cuisine is odd and delightful in a way that reflects this unique country. Some food is the peasant fare of Asia and other meals are the decadent delights of Europe. The contrast between these continents and their cuisines is the essence of Turkey itself.