As anyone who has been reading my blog for more than 12 minutes has probably noticed, I really love food. To me food and travel are inextricably linked, and I can’t explore a new country without getting lost in the scents and flavors of its national cuisine.
And Istanbul was one destination that didn’t disappoint: I savored everything from the grilled lamb heart to all the dark greens I don’t get enough of in Paris. Turkish food seemed like a mix of Greek and Arabic food, and with the heavy use of olive oil, honey, herbs and garlic, was decidedly Mediterranean.
So here is my guide on the best food in Istanbul, and all of the traditional Turkish dishes I recommend you try . And please, go slow- don’t go gobbling it all down immediately like yours truly.
Red Lentil Soup –Mercimek çorbası
Meals in Turkey often start with light soups- and there was none I found more delicious than red lentil soup with lemon, or Mercimek çorbası.
Turkey is undoubtedly a meat-centric country, so the köfte, which are essentially Turkish meatballs, were very tasty. These minced beef or lamb meat patties are often served plain but these ones came packed with melted cheese.
Turkey in so many ways reminded me of Greece, from the old men playing backgammon to the bright blue evil eyes hanging from shop windows. But in no way did it remind me more of Greece than the döner kebaps– they tasted exactly like gyros! Because who doesn’t love mystery meat on a stick?
Ayran is a watered down yogurt drink that is so popular in Turkey you can buy it at McDonalds and Burger King, but it is usually served cold and to accompany meat dishes. And though the Turks swear by it, it was too salty and watery for me.
Black Tea- Çay
Black tea, or in Turkish, Çay (pronounced exactly like “chai”) is Turkey’s most beloved beverage. It is always served in glass to best show off its beautiful, dark red color. And as my cousin’s Turkish boyfriend instructed me, you may add sugar to black tea but never milk.
Salep is a soul-warming cold-weather milk drink that tastes a lot like rice pudding, but is thickened with orchid root and dusted with cinnamon.
Mezze are Turkish small plates that come before the meal- and while they’re different at every restaurant, you’ll see a lot of the same dishes popping up everywhere: red cabbage, dark greens, Russian salad, grape leaves and pickled everything. (Pickled vegetables are very popular in Turkey- I saw pickled green beans, garlic, cabbage and carrots to name a few.)
Meals in Turkey are long, un-hurried affairs, so try not to eat too much of the mezze- other delicacies await!
In Turkey the meat comes with many choices of spreads- I tried a spicy tomato-based one, an eggplant dip that tasted just like baba ghanoush, and a creamy, garlic-flavored yogurt spread that was just like the Greek tsatsiki.
Being a Mediterranean country, Turkey is overflowing with succulent olives.
Turkey specializes in brunch, a meal that I miss dearly in no-brunches-ever France. At brunch we noshed on lots of deli-cut meats including beef tongue, as well as lots of wonderful cheeses including a particularly tasty white sheep’s cheese that tastes just like feta (Turkish- Beyaz peynir).
The highlight was the homemade butter served in a little dish of honey- an addictive innovation I plan on waking up to wherever I am.
Menemen is a popular brunch offering that is basically scrambled eggs with onions, tomatoes, green pepper and spices. It’s similar to the Arabic egg dish, Shakshouka.
Turkish honey is out of this world. Which makes sense- Turkey is one of the world’s top natural producers of honey. Make sure to taste some when you’re at breakfast or brunch, which is when it is most commonly served.
Simit are almost like sesame bagels, but are much denser in texture. They cost only cost around 50 cents USD, and are often eaten for breakfast or as on-the-go snacks between meals. They quickly became my new favorite carbohydrate.
In Istanbul you will see tons of fruit stands selling oranges and pomegranates on the street, as well as inexpensive and fresher-than-fresh fruit juice.
Nearly every meal in Turkey ended with a small bowl of pomegranate seeds, a sweet yet refreshing way to end the meal.
Another great (but not remotely light) way to end the meal? Baklava. My favorite was pistachio baklava, though I could hardly have more than one piece as it’s so rich and sweet!
Turkish Delight is a gel-based candy that is often served with tea and coffee.
Full disclosure- I didn’t taste this sugary confection, but it’s probably tasty, right?
And of course, thank you to my lovely cousin Suzy and her boyfriend Serkan for introducing me to all of this deliciousness!
For more on what to eat in Turkey check out my recent post about my favorite restaurant in Istanbul.
Other incredible foods I tried that are not pictured: Şalgam (Turnip juice), lots of seafood especially the tiny fried fish from the Bosphorous, pide (almost like pizza on pita bread), Turkish coffee and many, many more!
Have you ever tried Turkish food before? What did you eat in Istanbul?
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