Turkey, a country where Europe becomes Asia and East meets West is simply put – and I can say this having spent three whole weeks there on a honeymoon – a beautiful and captivating country, rich with culture and history… and kebabs, lots of kebabs.
Now people had told us before we left that the food in Turkey would be good. So, my expectations were pretty high. They did not lie. The food was flavorful, fresh and there was a lot of it. Situated along the Mediterranean and Black Sea and straddling the fertile area that has served as a meeting ground for thousands of years of civilization and culture. The food – at least the food that we ate – reflects the Mediterranean environment, leaning heavily towards staples like tomatoes, cucumbers, yogurt, lemon juice, onions, garlic, olives (delicious olives!), olive oil, bread (flat bread and airy loafs), and grilled and roast meat – be it chicken, beef, fish or lamb (in fact, mostly lamb). Over 90 % of Turkey’s population is Muslim, so pork is not something you’ll find on the menu – yes I went three whole weeks without beloved pork. But that’s okay, because I also love lamb and Turkey is a lamb lover’s paradise.
The most common form of lamb takes the form of döner kebab which involves the layering of filets of meat stacked on a vertical spit that’s mounted beside a bank of hot coals, burning wood, or an electric heating element and slowly roasted throughout the course of several hours as the outer, cooked portions are trimmed away and served. Now permit me this brief aside. Al pastor, a Mexican staple, is my favorite style of pork for tacos, burritos and tortas. According to wikipedia, it has it’s roots in the shawarma of the Lebanese immigrants who came to Mexico City. And again, according wikipedia, shawarma – which I also love – has it’s roots in Anatolia, so in a sense, in going to Turkey and eating döner we were going back to the source and experiencing a food and type of cooking – in this case meat roasted on a vertical spit – where it first arose. It’s like if you were a big fan of gyoza, mandu, or momos and have the opportunity to go to China and taste jiaozi (the OG of dumplings) for the first time. Perhaps you’ll be dissappointed. Or perhaps your mind will be blown.
For me and my experience with döner kebab? Well, I guess it was somewhere in between. The döner sandwich (ekmek – literally bread) or wrap (dürüm – flat bread) came with the requisite meat, tomatoes, onions and cucumbers was good and robust. The lamb döner was very lamby, verging on quite gamey. The flavor was perhaps a little too strong for Shef, but I enjoyed that lambiness. All in all it it was tasty and hearty – salty grilled meat combined with juicy tomatoes, crunchy onions and crusty bread – but somehow it didn’t blow my mind with deliciousness. For one thing, unlike shawarma, döner ekmek/ dürüm are NOT served with a tangy tahini or yogurt sauce that serves to tie all the flavors together and lubricates what is otherwise a pretty dry sandwich. And for me, this was somewhat typical of Turkish food, at least as I experienced it: the use certain basic ingredients with strong primary flavors, prepared simply (most likely grilled or baked) with basic spices and herbs (salt, pepper, parsley, garlic) resulting in solid, somewhat rustic and tasty fare that nevertheless lacks that extra ummph (sauce or extra spice element) that takes it over the edge into the sublime. It hits the right notes, but sometimes I was craving a minor chord progression or a chromatic scale instead of the predictable major chord that I always got. Take breakfast for example which was usually served at the pensions where we stayed and was included with the price of a room. Without fail, it consisted of cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, cheese, a hard boiled egg and bread – a lot of bread – with some butter and jam. All the ingredients were good and fresh, but my God, every day, for over two weeks? One woman at this pension in Cesme talked up her breakfast as being really delicious. I halfway believed her thinking she might cook us something new and inspired. But the next morning she served us the obligatory boiled egg, tomato and cucumber slices, slab of cheese, olives and bread. I’ll give her this. She sure could boil the shit out of an egg.
Ok, here’s another example: testi kebab. It’s a specialty of the central Turkish region of Cappadocia and is basically a stew of chicken or beef cooked for several hours in a clay pot. Clay pot + meat and vegetables + hours of slow cooking = delicious – right? Null set. Not when we ate it. I found it shockingly dull. For some reason all of the bold and elemental flavor that I had come to expect in Turkish food had been leeched out of the dish. Could it be the cooking technique or was it just a shitty restaurant? I’ll never know because I banished testi kebab from my ordering vocabulary.
Don’t get me wrong. I found the food entirely comforting and for the most part quite satisfying. In fact, I think it’s a food that grows on you. For example, the ubiquitous iskender kebab – grilled lamb sliced and served over pieces of cut up flat bread and then covered in tomato sauce and yogurt – which I ordered my first night in Istanbul was good. The tanginess of the yogurt combined with the acid of the tomato sauce was a nice counterbalance to the lamby lamb. It was a nice comforting meal that I had maybe once or twice more but stopped ordering later on because it lacks the more complex layering of flavors and spices to which I normally gravitate. However towards the end of the trip when I saw people eating it, I kind of started craving it. Even now back here in NYC, it’s a dish that I would totally eat and indeed relish for its bold and intense flavors.
Another thing I have to mention in glowing terms is the culture of food in Turkey. As evidenced by the use of the freshest ingredients and the general availability of good, inexpensive food in restaurants and on the street, people take food seriously in this country. The fruit (nectarines, figs, melon, etc.) were some of the best I’ve ever tasted, The ubiquitous bread items (simits, pide, etc) were really good, crusty and expertly baked. How could I not love a place where you can smell grilling meat on every corner and where there are wood burning ovens in bus stations? For someone obsessed with food, Turkey is a place where one could spend a good long time making new culinary discoveries.
As usual, what I intended to be a short, to the point intro to some memorable meals in Turkey has inevitably turned into a rambling mess of a treatise on the fundamental aspects of a nation’s cuisine which I presumptuously think I can sum up after having spent 20 whole days there. Oh well, I gotta be me. So that all being said, here are some photos along with some commentary of some of the best and I guess, not best, but interesting stuff we ate in Turkey. (click here for more – a shit ton more – non-food photos of our trip to Turkey)
We sampled a variety of Turkish delight which is basically a combination of nuts, honey and fruit. We tried a sesame and a pomegranate. It was indeed delightful if a bit pricey. I think we paid about 8 TL (over $5) for about a quarter kilo.
After wandering through the Grand Bazaar looking for a certain restaurant which ended up being closed, we found this little büfet (snack bar) that served up a tasty and cheap tavük (chicken) döner sandwhich. It cost 1.5 TL (about $1) and even better, they had chilis on the table that we could add to the sandwich to give it some much needed bite. My mouth is watering just writing about it.
After a long day of sight seeing in Istanbul we happened upon this little place in the old city that had tables set up across the street. We ate the what they had to serve, köst or adana kebab, a delicious kebab made of ground spicy lamb meat. This was our first really good meal in Turkey.
The most touristy thing we did in Göreme was join a tour with a bunch of other foreigners that visited the most well known sites in Cappadocia. Save for the obligatory and awkward tour of the onyx factory at the end, it was a really good tour. And, it included a really good lunch by the river.
Later that night we ended up smoking a nargile (water pipe) at a cafe and playing backgammon with the owner, a man named Osman. The next night, as we passed by his backyard, he invited us to eat with him and his brother and friend who were visiting from the Netherlands. It was a nice meal of grilled fish, chicken and çacik (a really nice sauce/ salad made with yogurt, cucumber, onion and garlic). Oh yeah and raki, the national drink of Turkey.
From Göreme in the central interior of Turkey we took an eight hour bus ride south and west to Antalya on the Mediterranean Coast. On the way, the bus stopped in Konya in the Central Anatolia region of Turkey. Konya is known as the birthplace of the Whirling Dervishes because the the order was first founded there by the Sufi mystic Rumi back in the 13th century. It’s also known for a something that’s probably less spiritually enlightening but more culinarily satisfying: etli ekmek – flat bread topped with minced lamb meat, onions, and garlic. We had half an hour – not enough time to see any whirling dervishes, but enough time to chow down the city’s specialty. Fortunately the bus station restaurant had a wood burning oven where they were baking pizza’s, pides (Turkish pizza’s) and etli ekmek. This is why I love Turkey. Can you imagine finding a wood burning oven in Greyhound station in the states? The etli ekmek? It was delicious. The crust was thin and perfectly baked, the lamb meat deliciously lamby without being too strong and served with fresh tomato slices, parsley grilled peppers and lemon it left us completely satisfied without being too fulll.
Our stay in Antalya, a mid-sized city on Turkey’s Turquoise coast (so called because owing to the clarity of the water, the coast does look like turquoise), will remain memorable for a number of reasons. 1). We enjoyed a great day on a touristy boat trip where we got to swim in caves and eat a nice fish lunch. 2.) Shef got an ear infection so we had to pay a visit to a local clinic where the doctor showed me her ear canal. “Big infection!” 3.) We had a really good meal there after succumbing to the persistent entreaties of the proprietor. I had köfte (ground lamb meatballs) grilled on a skewer with eggplant. Shef had grilled chicken wings that were nicely seasoned and spiced. Both were excellent. typifying what is best about Turkish food: good ingredients really well prepared.
Iznik is a small lakeside town with a long history going back over 2000 years. It’s existence spans the Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and modern eras. The remnants of the old wall surrounding the city are still around, but today Iznik is a pretty mellow place known for it’s hand painted ceramics and as a nice chill spot to visit if one is tired of the hustle and bustle of Istanbul. We spent but a short time there since it was a convenient and quaint stopping off point between Cesme on the Aegean Coast and Agva on the Black Sea Coast. We arrived late on a Tuesday night and spent the following morning checking out the old city wall and the remains of the old Roman aqueduct. As we were winding our way back to the center of town we realized it was market day in town so the narrow streets were blocked off to cars and vendors from nearby towns set up their stands sold their wares. There was the usual collection of cheap household goods, clothing and knick knacks. But the best part of the market (really of any market) was the food market with mountains of fresh produce, fruits, nuts and cheeses. It was heaven. The only question was why so much of the amazing vegetables didn’t seem to find their way into the Turkish food we’d been eating up until this point? Anyway, we bought some fruit at the market and later some savory meat and cheese pastries (börek) and had just about the best brunch you can imagine.
Back in Istanbul
After spending a few days in Agva on the Black Sea coast (were by the way, we did experience our best breakfast in Turkey – all of the normal stuff, but with an egg omelette instead of the hard boiled, and french toast!) we headed back to Istanbul for our remaining two days in Turkey. We spent those days walking around different neighborhoods, hitting one more museum, trying to bargain (unsuccessfully) at the spice market and Grand Bazaar and of course eating. We stuffed our faces with balik ekmek or fish sandwiches made with freshly grilled fish and served by numerous vender on the ferry pier at Eminönü. But by far my favorite culinary discovery was the mussels which you could order one by one, the vendor opening and squirting lemon juice onto one mussel after another until you told him to stop. These were delicious cooked mussels stuffed with a tangy and peppery rice that actually had some spice. My only regret about these mussels is I didn’t eat discover them sooner.
Our second time in Istanbul coincided with the second week of Ramadan so along with just eating what we wanted during the day (one of the benefits of being non Muslim – praise be to Allah) we got to experience a little of how Istanbulis break the fast during Iftar, the evening meal where those observing Ramadan can eat and drink for the first time since before sunrise. This time around (as opposed to when we first arrived in Istanbul and found ourselves – it’s a long story – in a strange “boutique hotel” far removed from the main points of interest) we stayed in the Sultanahmet neighborhood in a hotel about a block away from the Hippodrome beside the Blue Mosque. Because of Ramadan and Iftar celebrations, lining both sides of the Hippodrome were food booths and venders preparing for the evening and ready to serve hungry customers breaking their fast. And what is it that these venders were selling? Döner kebab. I guess Turkish folks really love their kebab. For one of our Iftar meals we opted for a köfte or meatball sandwich more out of curiosity than anything else. In fact we weren’t even hungry, having just gorged ourselves on fish sandwiches and mussels, but as the sun was setting, we noticed a long line of people outside the Sultanahment Köfteçesi and figured all these people must know something. It was pretty good. But the nice thing about that meal is we shared it with a nice middle aged Turkish couple who invited us to share their table and eat with them. Though the dinner conversation was somewhat lacking (and totally comical due to our pathetic Turkish language skills and mispronnciation of the words we did know), it was such a nice show of hospitality and warmth. They shared their food (no so good) with us and we shared our meatball sandwich with them.