“The Imam fainted.”
When you hear those words, a whole range of stories pops into your creative mind. Who was the Imam? And why did he faint? Would you have guessed that this is the literal meaning of a Turkish dish? Specifically, it’s the hilarious namesake bestowed upon Imam Bayildi, and it’s just one of the Turkish foods that can set your taste blazes alight!
Traditional Turkish Food
We have visited Turkey many times and have always loved the food. You can feel the vibe of this city that straddles both Europe and Asia and that is definitely reflected in its cuisine. The blending of different cultures has made Turkish food some of the most delicious in the world. So, if this is your first foray into Traditional Turkish dishes then get ready for a food experience you won’t forget. Let’s dive into the rich tapestry of food that laces the beautiful history and culture of Turkish food so that you can discover your ideal dish.
1. Pide – “Bread”
We start with food that would have any American’s mouth salivating like a waterfall. This is due to its resemblance to pizza.
Why is this? Because Pide is an oval-shaped, open-faced flatbread, that can come slammed with a vast array of toppings that smack you over the head with its smell.
Many different types of toppings can cover a Pide, but most commonly they are graced by the bold flavor of spiced mincemeat, or cumali. No matter the toppings, the moment these beauties pop out of the oven, you will be washed over by a wave of flavors sitting on crispy, textured bread. This classic recipe will have your mouth watering instantly.
2. Manti – “Steamed Bun”
Natives or savants of China will be very familiar with this dish, at first glance. That’s because Manti is essentially Turkish dumplings. Only this time, they come stuffed with Turkey’s secret weapon: lamb.
If the rich flavor of minced lamb wasn’t enough to draw you in, then perhaps the three different succulent sauces will. This grants these dumplings a traditional Turkish spin, in the form of brown butter sauce, caramelized tomato sauce, or garlicky yogurt.
One bite and you will sense the sweet, punchy flavor that makes this dish a perfect, bite-sized treat before your main meal in a seaside Izmir cafe. If you would rather make this at home, this recipe is simple to follow.
3. Baklava – “To Wrap Up or Pile Up”
But then, maybe you boast a sweet tooth that just won’t quit. If that’s the case, then welcome to this decadent, honey-glazed dish that makes your sweet tooth burst out into glorious song. And its ancient roots are just as heralded as its flavor.
Word has it that its past reaches as far back into the monumental trappings of Ancient Assyrian cities in 8 BC. Another accepted origin story is that its roots were laid during the Ottoman Empire.
Whatever the case, its rich history is more than enough to match its rich flavor, which is packed into its flaky, honey-drizzled crust, graced by just a hint of sugar and spices. Its appearance of baked sheets of crust would make any bread addict swoon if the flavoring didn’t do it already.
4. Köfte – “Meatball”
Right, so your planned trip into Istanbul has been pure baklava. But now you want to see how Turkey’s meat dishes stack up. Well, Kofte stands ready to welcome you.
If you’re from any Western country, then you’re well familiar with what a meatball is. How does it stack up – or roll up?
One slice into the meat will release an aroma of spices that complement the sumac, onions, and Turkish cold cucumber that typically accompanies this dish, making it a perfect way to satiate your lunch or dinner urges. Bon appetit!
5. Meze – “A Snack”
Are you on a business trip to Ankara, and want to dazzle your boss? Order out a Meze!
What exactly is it? It’s the key to Turkish dining tradition, and it’s perfect for a group of people looking to socialize.
Meze is essentially a plate of appetizers – and Turks have nailed it down to a fine art! Usually, the appetizers are some twist on seafood dishes and are served with a smooth glass of “raki,” a traditional Turkish liquor similar to ouzo and arak.
It’s not uncommon for people in Turkey to skip the main meal altogether, thanks to Meze magic.
6. Kebap – “Grilled”
The origin story of this Turkish dish, so the story goes, was born on the swords of medieval soldiers. While the word means “fried meat,” it took on a whole new meaning when Turkish soldiers began skewing meat onto their swords, to cook over makeshift fires while out on campaign.
So launched the history of one of the most famous dishes in Turkey, which center around two different types: oven-cooked or grilled. Each one dishes out its unique texture and flavor, making this the perfect succulent option for meat lovers.
7. Hamsi – “Anchovy”
Long ago, Black Sea bards would venture up and down the jet-blue waters of the coast, singing elegant and flowery poems about far-away tales and adventures. They also sang a different tune – about a fish! As it would turn out, this fish would become a mainstay of Turkish cuisine.
These Black Sea anchovies would gain the title of Turkey’s national fish and would have an entire dish centered around it. There are a host of colorful ways to serve these anchovies, with rice, or even pickled! So if you venture out into the beautiful seaside cafes in Trebizond, be sure to dine on this fabled dish!
8. Menemen – “Eggs”
Venture far from Trebizond, across the rolling mountains and crystal blue Anatolian lakes, and you’ll see a small port city located among the grand trappings of Izmir. It’s from this city that Menemen was born. Any American who is an IHOP fanatic will be right at home with this dish!
As Menemen is a form of a Turkish omelet! As such, it’s a popular staple of breakfasts in all Turkish households, even making appearances in lunch and dinner. The true beauty of the dish is in its simplicity, making it a breeze to concoct.
The essence of Menemen is simply scrambled eggs with tomatoes, but this can be tweaked with herbs and spices. Some of the forms that might come across your salivating lips could be:
If bread is more your cup of tea, then step into this next glorious, crispy dish.
9. Gözleme – “To Grill or Cook on Embers”
Your eyes will be set alight when they land on this golden, Turkish flatbread, named for the small, brown spots that resembled eyes – “goz” in Turkish. The magic behind this savory dish lies within its golden crust, which is stuffed with a colorful assortment of fillings that sets off your senses into heavenly delight!
What kind of fillings? Anything you can dream of! The dish is prepared differently depending on the region – no Gozleme is the same as the next. Fillings that you might commonly see are spinach, feta, or land and spaced beef for meat addicts.
10. Döner – “To Turn”
The rich and colorful dishes of the Ottoman Empire bred this flavorful rotisserie-style dish that remains king among many foodie circles.
When Kadir Nurman emigrated to Berlin, he spun this idea on its head, wrapping the skewered meat into a bread, called durum. They would capture the hearts of late-night snackers, spreading their influence out into Europe.
What’s the big deal? The succulent meat that’s shaved off of a vertical rotisserie is the key, bathed in spices that flood into your mouth after a bite.
11. Karniyarik – “Riven Belly”
This next dish perfectly blends meat and vegetables into a flavorful bomb! It’s featured around eggplants, and the name for the dish comes from the way that the plant is split at the “belly.”
This opens the door for the plant to be stuffed with a heavenly blend of aromatic spices and beef mince, giving you a dish that is as easy to eat as it is tasty! The beauty of its flavors extends to its lengthy history.
It reaches further back than the Ottoman victories of Mehmet II, with the eggplant first being domesticated 4,000 years ago.
12. Sis Kebap – “Skewered Roast Meat”
If some of these food options seem a little heavy for you, then this will be your go-to dish for a relaxing night out with wine, and a little something to ease your hunger. This variation on the kebap is fashioned into smaller meat cubes and served with vegetables, bread, salad, and rice.
Perfect for your night out on the Istanbul waterfront.
13. Zeytinyaglilar – “Olive Oils”
Still hungry? Then don’t leave that cafe yet, because this rich, olive-oil dish could be just to ticket to satiating your remaining hunger! The story for it is just as fascinating.
The story goes, the Sultan was dismayed by the quality of the olive oil in his dish. When the palace chef desperately explained that it was impossible to find the same imported oil at the bustling merchant shops, the Sultan ordered his best men to venture out, and harvest the best olive trees from the Ottoman Empire’s lands.
As a result, this mottled pink borlotti bean dish was born!
14. Imam Bayildi – “The Imam Fainted”
The eggplant makes a glorious return in this vegetable dish! Instead of injecting some beef into the belly of the eggplant, the Imam Bayildi hits you with an intoxicating blend of onion, garlic, and eggplant.
It’s the result, as the legend goes, of an Imam that fainted when he saw his wife had prepared the dish from “leftovers” in their stock of food. Some say it was from pleasure, some say from anger. Whatever the case, the result is a delectable veggie option for your health needs! You have to try this at home, especially with this delicious recipe!
15. Dolma – “Something Stuffed”
Turkish cuisine once again smacks you over the head with this amazing vegetarian dish. Carrying on the theme of stuffing plants, Dolma takes whatever it can find (there’s a dizzying host of variations), and stuffs it with a rice-based mixture.
If you happen into a Turkish restaurant, you could catch of glimpse of a wide range of Dolma, from:
Stuffed vine leavesStuffed seafoodEven stuffed fruit!
This stuffing tradition goes back to Ottoman sultans indulging in stuffed melons. So yes, anything can be stuffed into Turkish cuisine!
16. Iskender Kebap
Alright, but you’re tired of this vegetarian talk. You want to slice into the rich meat tradition that permeates Turkish culture. Well, let’s go back to the land of Kebaps, and explore the most famous of them all:
The Iskender Kebap!
What makes this one so famous? It all started in 1867, at the “Iskender Efendi,” a butcher shop in Bursa. “Mr. Iskender” pioneered the vertical grilling method for Kebap, which gifted you the meat on your plate – 150 years later!
The smoky, grilled meat is slathered in rich tomato sauce, which sits on top of a crispy Pide bread. But the true magic for the dish is the melted sheep butter, set off by the zing of the accompanying yogurt.
17. Corba – “Soup”
All of this talk about main dishes might have you desiring some smooth soup to bathe your insides in flavorful warmth! Well, take in a draught of this Turkish red lentil soup! It’s also the perfect piece to your diet, as in 30 minutes you can have a dish that’s swimming with B vitamins and potassium.
The story has it that in the 1900s, there lived a 20-year-old girl by the name of Ezo. She was from a small village and set up to marry. But her eyes were set on a Syrian, and after her divorce, her mission was to gain the acceptance of his mother.
Only, she was notoriously difficult to please. Her solution? The very first Corba soup won the mother’s heart and set her and her lover on a journey that included nine children.
18. Çig Köfte – “Raw Meatball”
Looking for some meat to supplement your Corba? Then, should you find yourself in Urfa, or any city in southeastern Turkey, then order out this variant on the Kofte. How is it different?
It used to be served as raw meat, but the sweltering heat of Southern turkey made that a risky proposition. Now, it has taken the form of a vegetarian meatball, although you might still see its meat brother being sold on the streets.
The history of this dish is a hazy mystery. Some say Prophet Mohamed was the first to invent it, others say his mother, others yet say Abraham. Whatever the case, history gifted Turkey another excellent dish!
19. Simit – “Circular Sesame Bread”
On a budget backpacking adventure throughout Anatolia? Then take a bite out of Simit, the cheapest street food in Turkey! This humble dish is essentially a type of Turkish bread, coated in molasses and decked out with sesame seeds before it’s baked.
Have it with your Menezen, or a glass of fine Turkish wine!
20. Saksuka – “Mixed Up”
Or perhaps a bowl of this fresh Turkish dish, which is a mish-mash of aubergines and tomatoes. But many people add their spin on this traditional dish, such as tossing in peppers, spices, onion, garlic, or other spices.
The cool and chilled nature of the resulting salad reinvigorates you as you set off onto the Turkish streets.
21. Kisir – “Barren”
Topping off our list is one more savory salad option: Kisir. While waiting for your Kebap to roll out to your table, order out this meze, which is a spicy wheat salad that’s injected with – depending on where in Turkey you are – a punchy, hot pepper paste flavor, or a softer flavor of lemon seasoning.
Explore the World of Turkish Food
And it’s a vast one. From the juicy twists on vegetable dishes to the crispy texture of its bread offerings and the salivating meat choices, you finally have the cuisine that captures your imagination. You might even be planning a trip now, right?
Before you do, check out our hints, tips, and resources, so that you can experience the magical Turkish food awaiting in each region.
Just don’t faint like that Imam!