Sandwiched between the East and the West, Turkey literally stands at the crossroads and was an easy target for invading civilisations, whose footprints are still visible in its cuisine.
Like Indian or French cuisine, the strong regional gastronomic ethos is evident in the dishes, varying from Eastern Anatolia, Southeastern Anatolia, the Black Sea, Marmara, Aegean, and the Mediterranean.
In spite of this heterogeneity, the accent is on green vegetables and herbs, lamb, beef, olive oil and fresh seafood.
The Turks take their eating and drinking seriously, which is evident from a large number of restaurants and street food eateries across the country, especially in Istanbul.
The star of street food is gozleme, made by rolling a ball of dough into a thin sheet—a sort of Turkish paratha—and stuffed with a variety of edibles, the favourites being local yellow cheese, spinach and minced meat.
Lunch and dinner are elaborate affairs. Meals inevitably start with a mezze platter. A bowl of mixed salad with fresh lettuce and thick chunks of hydroponically grown tomatoes drizzled with olive oil is almost always a staple accompanied by bazlama, chunky unleavened bread or pita bread with dips such as haydari (thick yogurt with garlic and herbs), hummus and ezme (a tangy salsa-like dip made of mashed tomato with peppers and herbs). Pickled vegetables, borek (pastries stuffed with cheese, meat or vegetables), fried potatoes, eggplant salad and dolma are must-haves.
As in all imperial societies, Ottoman food was divided into palace cuisine and public kitchens. The Seljuks brought the dominance of meat into Turkish food.
Sultan Memhet’s cooks made it richer. Bread is the staple of Turkish kitchens.
The main course is usually chicken, lamb or beef, with kebabs at the top. This are either minced, come in chunks or slabs and are steamed, roasted or barbecued. It can either be dry or in broth form.
At Istanbul’s iconic restaurant Lale, which is commonly known as The Pudding Shop, getting a table during mealtime is a production in itself.
The kebabs of minced lamb and lentils served in a spicy broth, meatballs and stuffed eggplant with layers of cheese, potatoes and meat patties are menu stoppers.
In the heart of Istanbul, overlooking the imposing Galata Tower is the Galata Bridge, over the Golden Horn. Underneath the bridge is a broad passageway lined with restaurants, mostly serving seafood.
At Dersaadet Cafe, the views of the estuary and the boats moving by is the setting for a gourmet’s dream; sea bass grilled and garnished with olive oil and lemon, cooked to soft perfection not to mention chunky chicken kebabs served with herb-tossed rice.
Turkish desserts are known to be cloyingly sweet though the varieties are aplenty. There’s no escaping baklava, a filo-layered sweet stuffed with pistachios and cashew nuts and drizzled with sugar syrup.
Turkish delight or lokum, a sweet, soft candy in a variety of flavours and textures based on the nuts infused in it is part of legend. Rice pudding, halva and marzipan show the influence of the maritime glory of the Turkish empires.
Turkey’s fledgling wine industry produces some light white wines and intense reds, especially such varietals as Okuzgozu, Bogazkere and Emir, though a good Sauvignon Blanc is always a sommelier’s favourite. For those seeking something stronger, there’s the potent raki, a local alcoholic beverage with a strong aniseed flavour.
The coffee houses of Turkey are legendary meeting places of people of all classes. There’s no escaping the heady aromas of Turkish coffee or kahve wherever you go. Made with finely ground coffee beans and brewed to a thick consistency, it is intensely flavourful, especially if had without sugar.
Turkish black tea is a study in contrast—delicate and smooth. Turkish cuisine hasn’t escaped the new internationalist seeking original flavours. As the world gets smaller, choice expands.
The same can be said of Turkish tables as well.