“Royal” by birth, Turkish cuisine has matured in the hands of the people that make up this mountainous country.
Turkey has one of the more richly varied cuisines in the world. Because of the influence of the royal court during the 600-year reign of the Ottoman Empire, Turkish cuisine is considered, by some, to be one of the world’s three “imperial” cuisines—French and Chinese being the other two.
Tours of Topkapi Palace, home to sultans during the Empire, include several large kitchens where in the 17th century, it is reported, 1,300 people were employed and as many as 10,000 people were fed every day.
But if the sultans influenced Turkish cuisine, the locals have enhanced it and kept it vibrant. Turkish foods reflect the melding of Central Asia, the Middle East and the Balkans, combined with local specialties that have been woven in by chefs in the four major regions of this mountainous country.
Like most Mediterranean cuisines, Turkish meals rely heavily on vegetables and grains, with dairy and meat playing supporting roles. Most Turkish dishes are fairly simple and focus on bringing out the flavor of the major ingredient, rather than masking it with a sauce or dressing.
If you want to bring Turkish cuisine alive in your operations, either as a themed meal or an addition to your Mediterranean menus, here are some of the key ingredients and foods to be aware of.
Produce: Eggplant, potatoes, green peppers, cucumbers, onions, garlic, lentils and other beans and tomatoes are the most common vegetables. Of these, eggplant is the most ubiquitous. It can be found in side dishes and as a main course; puréed and blended with cheese and served with lamb stew; split lengthwise, baked and filled with a meat concoction; grilled as kebabs, or even made into a jam.
Often, particularly in the summer, Turks will make a meal of vegetables, either fried and served with yogurt or a tomato-based sauce, grilled as kebabs or mixed together as in a stew and simmered slowly in butter, and served with pitas or other types of Turkish breads.
Plums, apricots, grapes, figs, apples, currants and raisins are most often seen in Turkish cuisine, fresh or dried for desserts or combined with items such as pilafs, as currants and raisins often are.
Turks love their dolmas, which are stuffed vegetables. Dolma is the Turkish word for “stuffed,” coming from the verb doldurmak, to fill. Vegetables can be stuffed with a variety of items, meat being a common filling, and served with a yogurt sauce. Zucchini, tomatoes, green peppers and eggplant are prime candidates for dolmas, as are cabbage leaves and grape leaves. Depending on how (pardon the pun) filling they are, dolmas can be either a main dish or a meze, or appetizer similar to Spanish tapas.
Grains: Rice, wheat, barley and couscous are prominent in Turkish cooking, used in a variety of ways. Wheat is used primarily to make the different breads that form the foundation of Turkish meals. They include ekmek, basic white bread; pide, or pita; simit, rings of bread made with sesame seeds, and manti, or dumplings.
Pilafs are also a staple of the cuisine. They are made with either cracked wheat or rice. A cracked wheat pilaf, cooked in beef stock and mixed with tomatoes, onions and peppers, can be a meal by itself. Rice pilafs can be made with any variety of items, each dish having its own name. For example, etli pilav is rice with meat pieces, nohutlu pilav is made with chickpeas, and acem pilav is made with lamb, pistachios and cinnamon and cooked in a meat broth.
Manti are dumplings made of folded dough filled with a meat mix and served with yogurt, eaten often as a main course.
Meat and fish: Meat isn’t a major component of Turkish cuisine but it is enjoyed. It most often comes in the form of kebabs, chunks of meat skewered and grilled, or doner style, in which slabs of meat are skewered lengthwise and slowly roasted. Doner style meat is shaved off the skewer as it is cooked. Chicken and lamb are the preferred meats.
Meat may also come diced or minced and served in such dishes as coban kavurma, diced lamb often cooked with tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, peppers and herbs; mahmudiye, chicken mixed with honey, apricots, almonds, currants and black pepper; and moussaka, minced meat mixed with sautéed and fried eggplant, green peppers, tomatoes and onions and served with pilaf.
Turkey’s proximity to four bodies of water—the Mediterranean, Black, Aegean and Marmara seas—means that fish is also plentiful. Fortuitiously, fish is most plentiful in the winter, when fresh produce is at its ebb. Anchovies, sardines, bonito, sea bass, whiting, blue fish and turbot are among the most common fishes. In Turkish cuisine fish may be grilled, fried or steamed with lemon and parsley in a method called bugulama.
Dairy: Yogurt, made by fermenting milk with bacterial cultures, is a major part of Turkish cuisine. Not only does it accompany most menu items, it is also used to make soups, cakes and pastries. Ayran, a salty yogurt drink, is one of Turkey’s most popular beverages.
In addition, each region of the country is known for its own unique cheeses, most made with sheep’s milk. There are a number of white cheeses, such as beyaz peynir, a salty cheese similar to feta; kasar, a fatty cheese similar to the Greek kasseri; and lor, made from the whey left over from making kasar. Other types of cheese include gravyer, similar to gruyere; cerkez peyniri, comparable to cheddar, and otlu peynir and herbed cheese.
Desserts: Anyone who has read The Chronicles of Narnia has heard of Turkish Delight, the treat that the White Witch used to seduce young Edmund into betraying his siblings. The basic Turkish Delight, known in Turkey as lokum, is a simple jellied confection using sugar, cream of tartar, cornstarch and a flavoring such as rose, mint or lemon. It can also have nuts, coconut or fruit flavors added.
Baklava is also a popular Turkish dessert, made with phyllo dough, honey and walnuts or pistachios.
There are also a variety of milk desserts, such as rice pudding, known as muhallebi; and helva, made by sautéing flour or semolina and pine nuts in butter, adding sugar, milk or water, and then cooking until the liquid is absorbed into the flour mixture.
But, as is often the case in many cultures, when it comes to Turkish desserts, simple is best: fresh seasonal fruit, enjoyed in the company of friends or family.