Sampling traditional Turkish food is a highlight of travelling to Turkey. Indulging in the local delicacies when you travel is just as important as seeing the Hagia Sophia, or embarking on a Bosphorus cruise.
Falling in Love with Turkish Cuisine
Turkish cuisine is renowned for its sumptuous marinated meats, spiced teas, and sweet sticky dessert pastries. The country’s food culture has deep roots in Turkey’s Ottoman history.
Many of the dishes enjoyed in Turkey today follow traditional recipes that have been used for hundreds of years. The Ottoman Turks also ruled over Greece for centuries. Consequently, there are many similarities between Turkish and Greek food today.
The doner kebab may well be the first thing that springs to mind when you think of Turkish cuisine. However Turkish food goes far beyond kebabs and grilled meats.
Traditional Turkish cuisine incorporates a mouth-watering blend of seasoned meats, fresh vegetables, indulgent mezes, and fresh juices. Many travellers are surprised by precisely how diverse the national cuisine is.
40 Mouthwatering Turkish Food Dishes to Try
To assist you in selecting your dinner options from unfamiliar menus, I’ve compiled this list of 40 of the best traditional Turkish dishes you should try during your upcoming trip to Turkey.
The Turkish diet consists of a lot of red meat. However all of the meat dishes that you will find in Turkey use cuts of the highest quality.
Lamb, beef, and chicken are cooked slowly over open fires or grills until they become so tender and juicy that they fall apart in your mouth. There is no such thing as a greasy, oily, or fatty Turkish meat dish.
There are numerous variations of kebabs available in Turkey. While “kebab” may be something that we associate with being unhealthy, greasy, and nasty in the west, the quality of the meat in Turkey is usually pretty good.
Doner kebab meat is marinated and then cooked on a vertical rotisserie. Meat is then “shaved” into a pitta. You can select the toppings that you want to add to this. Typically your pitta will be stacked with onions, salads, spices, and a delicious garlic yoghurt.
While in Turkey, seize the opportunity to sample the world-famous sis kebabs in the place where the concept was born. Sis kebabs can be found practically everywhere in Turkey. However, it is impossible to get bored of them!
Cubes of beef or lamb are beautifully marinated and added to a skewer. Next, the meat is cooked over hot charcoals.
This type of “shashlik” dish is very popular in Southern Europe, the Middle East, and the Caucuses. Sis kebabs are typically served with salad, yoghurt, and spicy tomato sauce.
A yogurtlu kebab is made from sumptuous kofte kebabs that are prepared with beef or lamb. The kebabs are then served on a bed of pitta bread before the dish is topped with fresh yoghurt, tomato sauce, and herbs.
The Iskender kebab is a popular Turkish food that shares some similarities with the yogurtlu kebab. It was named after its inventor Iskender Efendi (Master Alexander).
Iskender was a prominent figure in the 19th-century Ottoman Empire. His namesake kebab is served over rice and then topped with a spicy tomato sauce.
Hünkar Beğendi is a wonderful Turkish dish for meat lovers. Soft, marinated chunks of lamb are served on top of a bed of pureed eggplant, butter, and melted cheese.
This dish is often nicknamed “Sultan’s delight”; it was a Royal favourite during the Ottoman Empire.
Manti bears a similar resemblance to Italian risotto. However, it is completely different when it comes down to taste and texture.
These little meat-based dumplings are made with either beef or lamb. They can be boiled or fried and are then served with yoghurt and a range of spices.
Kuzu Tandir is a roasted lamb dish. The meat is slow-cooked over many hours.
This results in a delicious lamb dish that is so tender that it falls apart in your mouth. In some ways, it reminded me of Moroccan mechoui.
The name “tandir” comes from the name of the oven that was used to cook the lamb centuries ago. The lamb was cooked underground, just like Moroccan mechoui is today.
Today, the “traditional” way to cook the dish in Turkey is to hang the lamb up over hot coals. In Istanbul, you can find many specialty restaurants serving this Turkish delicacy.
Kofte is a common addition to Turkish meze platters. It can be considered a staple part of the local diet. The dish consists of balls or patties of ground beef or lamb and can be served in a variety of ways.
You can find kofte meatballs in delicious casseroles (izmir kofte), eat them totally raw, or have them coated in egg and then fried (kadin budu).
The different variations of kofte available have different levels of spice, different ingredient blends, and come in all sorts of shapes and sizes.
Turkish Street Foods
Turkish street food is both flavourful and filling. You will find street vendors setting up shop in every Turkish town and city. This is a good way to grab a light, affordable meal on the go.
Lahmacun is a popular Turkish street food dish that is widely available across the country. This is a crispy flatbread. It is usually topped with minced meat, salad, and lemon juice. However, different variations of lahmacun are available.
If you’re having a busy day sightseeing and you want to grab a quick yet delicious snack, lahmacun is a great option.
Islak burgers are “wet hamburgers”. Rest assured, these are much more appetizing than they sound!
My Turkish friend Betul and I had been wandering around Taksim in Istanbul. When she suggested stopping for an islak burger, I screwed my nose up in disgust at this ludicrous suggestion. A wet hamburger?? When I ate one though, I completely fell in love!
There is a notable difference between islak burgers and regular burgers. Islak burgers are soaked in a rich, garlicky tomato sauce.
The entirety of the burger and the bread bun is drenched in sauce. The burgers are then stored in a little steam cabinet.
Islak burgers are teeny tiny. They cost just $1 each. As such, they are one Turkish food that you definitely have to take the time to try!
Durum is the Turkish cuisine alternative to the Mexican burrito or the Greek gyro. It is made by wrapping doner meat in lavas flatbread.
This is typically chicken, lamb, or beef that has been slow-cooked. The wrap is then stuffed with a selection of vegetables and condiments.
If you find yourself wandering along the seafront promenades of Ortakoy during your Istanbul itinerary, be sure to look out for the street food vendors serving up hot steamy plates of balik ekmek. Balik ekmek is a grilled fish sandwich. It is prepared using the day’s latest catches.
Pide is the Turkish answer to pizza. This is a boat-shaped flatbread that can be stuffed with a variety of toppings.
Sucuk (spicy Turkish sausage), melted cheese, spinach, and fresh vegetables are popular pide toppings. You can find pide at many takeaway establishments around Istanbul.
Kokoreç is a flavourful dish that less adventurous eaters may feel a little wary to experiment with at first. However once they have experienced the mouthwatering taste and texture of this marinated meat dish, they will no doubt be happy that they tried it.
Kokoreç can be made with either lamb or goat intestines. The meat then wrapped around seasoned offal.
Kokoreç is actually technically a Turkish “street food”. You will find street vendors serving this dish everywhere from Antalya to Konya.
This dish comes in a couple of forms. You can enjoy Kokoreç as part of a sandwich, or as just a plateful of meat
Kumpir sounds exotic and all, but the reality is that kumpir translates to… baked potato! However, who doesn’t love a good old fashioned baked potato?
You can find several street food vendors across Istanbul and other large Turkish cities that serve up delicious hot Kumpir. These stalls are especially popular in trendy Ortakoy.
If you want a filling and affordable dinner on the go, kumpir is a good option. Fillings for Turkish baked potatoes are very similar to those we enjoy in the west. You can pile your potato high with Russian salads, coleslaw, melted butter, and generous mounds of cheese.
Vegans and vegetarians will not be struggling to find things to eat in Turkey. You will find many meat-substitute dishes on a lot of Turkish menus. For instance, you can often find spicy vegetarian versions of Turkish meatballs and kebabs that are made with bulgur wheat instead of meat.
Vegetarian travellers will not be restricted to only being able to order salad and soup in Turkey. This remains the case even if you eat out frequently.
Imam bayildi is a lovely home-cooked Turkish dish. It shares some similarities to dolmas.
The literal translation of “imam bayildi” is quite comically, “the Imam fainted”. In other words, this dish is so delicious that it could cause someone to pass out! It is made by stuffing eggplants with garlic, onions, and tomatoes.
Imam Bayildi is perhaps not the best choice for fresh breath. However, it is definitely a nice vegetarian option that is bursting with flavour!
Mercimek koftesi is the vegetarian version of kofte meatballs. The little balls are stuffed with chickpeas, vegetables, and bulgur wheat instead of meat.
Lentil Soup (Mercimek Corbasi)
Simple yet delicious, Turkish lentil soup, or “Mercimek Corbasi” is a blended puree of lentils and spices. This puree is then garnished with cilantro and a squeezed lemon slice for added zing and flavour.
Served with hot pitas on the side, this dish is satisfying and filling while remaining inexpensive. You will note that it is widely available at most restaurants and eateries. Lentil soup is arguably the most popular Turkish starter dish.
Small Plates and Mezes
Meze dishes are a huge part of Turkish culture. A “meze” consists of lots of small plates.
This is comparable to Spanish tapas. Mezes are a great way to sample lots of different Turkish foods without having to commit to large portions.
Forget about the boring “continental breakfast” that most travel destinations offer, the kahvalti is far more unique and tasty. Turkish breakfast is served meze-style. You will be presented with a selection of different bowls and platse.
Arguably hotels in small villages and off the beaten path Turkish travel destinations serve some of the best kahvalti. However, rest but assured most accommodations around the country serve fabulous breakfasts.
Sliced cucumbers, peeled tomatoes, olives, and cheeses make a regular appearance in kahvalti. Instead of spreading butter or jam on your bread, opt for typical kaymak (clotted cream) and honey. I had plenty of kahvalti during my time in Turkey, including some really fancy spins on the dish in Cappadocia.
Menemen is a popular Turkish breakfast. Scrambled eggs are cooked in sauteed vegetables before being served with warm bread. Yum!
Haydari is a yoghurt dip that makes the perfect accompaniment to any Turkish foods. The dip is somewhat similar to Greek tzatziki.
It is made by combining fresh yoghurt, cucumber, garlic, and herbs. It is delicious whether smothered on warm bread or meat dishes.
Mezes are among the most popular Turkish foods. A meze selection typically consists of hummus, yoghurts, and perhaps an assortment of other such dips. Warm fresh bread is served with kofte (meatballs), dolmas (rice stuffed vine leaves), and eggplant salad among other tasty local favorites. This concept is great as it allows you to try a little of everything.
Turkish Rice (Pilav)
Turkish rice is called pilav. Pilav is a major staple of Turkish cuisine and is often served as a side dish alongside meats and mains.
Turkish rice is far more flavourful and special than your standard boiled white rice. It is cooked in butter and salt, making it extra soft and flavourful. As you explore Turkey, you will no doubt encounter variations of pilav. Some restaurants add chopped mushrooms (Mantarli pilav), while others add chickpeas (Nohutlu pilavı).
Dolma is a popular dish in Turkey, Greece, and various parts of the Middle East and the Balkans. This dish is comprised of vine leaves that are stuffed with meat, vegetables, rice, and spices. Dolmas can be eaten on its own as a light lunch. It also makes a common appearance as a part of meze platters.
Beloved Turkish Pastries
Turkish pastries are a popular savoury breakfast choice or on-the-go snack. They can be eaten alone, or taken home and then heated up to enjoy alongside yoghurt and salad.
Borek is a stuffed pastry that is essentially Turkey’s answer to the pie. This hearty delicacy can be found at the majority of bakeries around the country though you will also find dedicated borek shops where the quality is notably better. Borek pastries are typically filled with meat, cheese, potato or spinach,
The pastry also comes in several variations, for example, su borek (also known as ‘water’ borek) is a very soft, wet pastry whereas sigara borek (“cigarette” pie) comes in the form of a long, thin puff pastry.
Katmer is a special type of borek pastry that originated in the cultural city of Antep. This city is rumoured to grow the best pistachios in the world. Katmer is your chance to try them as the delightful pastry is topped with finely chopped pistachios from Antep.
Acma is a soft Turkish pastry that is often regarded as being the “Turkish bagel”. However, there are both sweet and savoury versions of Acma available. Sweet acma is somewhat similar in flavour and texture to a croissant – flakey, buttery, and delicious.
Most bakeries around Turkey sell acma. They make for a great breakfast or a light snack on the go.
Simit is a popular Turkish food to enjoy in the mornings. This is a circular piece of bread that topped with sesame seeds.
Simit could be regarded as the Turkish answer to the American pretzel. It is also very similar to the Greek street food “koulouri”.
Tea and coffee culture is huge in Turkey. It is not unusual to see locals sitting outside of Istanbul tearooms for hours as they smoke shisha and enjoy a pot of tea among friends. However, there are many other beverages that are unique to this part of the world.
Nothing is more cosy and comforting after a long day of sightseeing than a steamy cup of salep. This is especially the case if you are travelling to Turkey during the winter.
Salep is a rich, milky, cinnamon-tasting drink. Its flavour is somewhat comparable to Indian chai. However, salep is made from orchids.
Orchids are boiled, dried, and ground into flour. Next, cinnamon is added.
Salep is not only delicious: the beverage known for its health benefits. Specifically, salep is said to aid respiratory and gastrointestinal problems.
Fresh Fruit Juices
Street vendors selling fresh fruit juices can be found all over Turkey. A lot of the fruit is incredibly fresh, high-quality, and locally sourced.
You can find all of your favorite smoothie and fruit juice blends in Turkey. However,f if you are looking for something completely unique, consider ordering a glass of “Tursu Suyu”.
Tursu Suyu is an acquired taste but it is incredibly healthy. The juice is made from blending pickles with vegetables.
Turkish Teas and Coffees
A highlight of any Turkish adventure is found in simply wandering the narrow streets and marketplaces of Izmir, and stumbling across quaint little tea rooms that are decorated with lanterns and Turkish carpets.
Tea is a huge part of Turkish culture. In fact, more tea is consumed in Turkey than in any other country. Sitting in a quaint Turkish tearoom and people watching a nice way to pass the time. However, complimentary tea is also commonly handed to you as you browse stores and markets.
Traditional Turkish tea is black and flavourful. It is usually enjoyed with a few dollops of sugar. Flavoured teas are also very popular here, one of the most common is the Turkish apple tea. Don’t let the bright green colour put you off!
On the contrary, Turkish coffee is very strong and thick in texture. It is the same as Arabic coffee and is served in a tiny dish.
Turkish coffee has a bitter, acquired taste that you may either love or loathe. At the end of your drink, it is customary for locals to read their fortunes from the coffee smudges at the bottom of the cup.
You may have unknowingly sampled many Turkish desserts in the past. This is especially the case if you have spent any time travelling through the Middle East, Central Asia or Southern Europe.
Many Turkish desserts date back to the Ottoman Era or Ancient Arabia. The founders introduced these sweet treats to all of the countries that they conquered or occupied. As such, many Turkish desserts are also enjoyed in Greece, the Middle East, etc.
Halva is a crumbly dessert that is popular across Southern Europe and the Middle East. It is commonly made with sesame or nut flour.
There are hundreds of variations of halva. If you take a stroll through the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul, one of the many vendors will offer you a piece to try.
Delightfully sweet, sticky, and sinful, kunefe is a popular dessert across the Middle East and in Turkey. Turkish dessert menus will often present a selection of kunefe and baklava treats.
This flavourful dessert is made from cheese. It is then topped with shredded pastry and scatterings of pistachio nuts.
If you find yourself wanting to sample a Turkish dessert delicacy that is a little different, step inside a local patisserie and ask for a Kayısı Tatlısı. Kayısı Tatlısı is fresh apricots stuffed with cream.
Lokum – Turkish Delight
Don’t be fooled by the imitation versions of Turkish Delight that you find in your home country. Even those who believe that they don’t actually like Turkish Delight find themselves pleasantly surprised when they visit Turkey for themselves and try the authentic versions.
Turkish Delight ( “Lokum”) comes in hundreds of different flavours. Chopped pistachio and fragrant rose are two of the most popular versions. Little bowls of Turkish delight are often served as a complimentary side order when you order a glass of Turkish tea or coffee.
The precise origins of lokma fritters are unknown. However, it is believed that the original concept for this dish was developed in Arabia. The name likely stems from the Arabic word “luqma” which means “mouthful”.
These sweet, sugary treats are prepared with flour, sugar, yeast and salt. The concoction is then deep-fried before being drizzled in syrup and honey.
Lokma is a popular dessert in Turkey, the Middle East, and in Greece. In Greece they are known as “loukoumades”.
Muhallebi is the Turkish rice pudding. This delightfully smooth, creamy dessert peers out from behind glass counters in many Turkish bakeries and restaurants.
The original version of muhallebi was made with pieces of shredded chicken. There are still many restaurants across Turkey that still follow the original recipe. However, today, many people prefer a sweet milk version, or versions of muhallebi that are made with fruit coulee and cinnamon.
Muhallebi is believed to have been created in Persia (Iran). You can also find this sweet treat in Greece and parts of the Middle East.
Baklava is arguably the most popular dessert in Turkey. This is a sticky, sweet filo pastry that consists of several pastry layers, filled with chopped nuts and held neatly in place together with syrup or honey.
Since the dish is so popular, you are certainly sure to have the opportunity to try it during your trip. Most restaurants and tearooms serve baklava.
Fırın Sütlaç is an alternative version of Turkish rice pudding. This light and creamy dessert is made from rice blended with milk, cinnamon, and sugar. It is found in a lot of bakeries and restaurants and can be enjoyed either hot or cold.
Kazan Dibi is a wonderful Ottoman Turkish dessert that is in some ways like the Turkish answer to Panna Cotta. The dessert also has a pretty funny story behind its invention as it was created completely by mistake!
Several centuries ago, an Ottoman Sultan asked his Chef to invent a new dessert. The chef tried making a concoction of cream and sugar but all of the ingredients burned and stuck to the bottom of the pan. The Sultan loved the burnt mess and thus, Kazan Dibi was born!
Gullac is the unofficial dessert of Ramadan in Turkey. If you find yourself exploring Turkey during this holy month, then you will find gullac in plentiful supply. It commonly makes an appearance on seasonal restaurant menus, and is sold in local bakeries.
Gullac dates back to the Ottoman era. It is a soft dessert that is made with milk, pastry, and sweet pomegranate. Sometimes, different bakeries and regions put their own spin on the dessert.
Turkish food is rich, diverse and varied. The above list gives you an insight into the types of Turkish dishes that you can expect to find during your travels through Turkey but it is by no means extensive.
Although at first glance Turkish food seems to place a lot of focus on meat dishes, you will quickly discover that there are also many options for vegetarians.
Wherever you travel in Turkey, ask your accommodation host or hotel receptionist to advise you of the best restaurants in that area, and the delicacies which are native to that region. This will help to ensure that you eat the very best, most authentic Turkish cuisine, rather than falling into tourist traps.
Have any further questions about Turkish cuisine, or what other food from Turkey you should try? Feel free to reach out to me via the comments below.
I’ve travelled to Turkey a bunch of times over the last few years and strongly regard it as being one of my favourite countries! The food from Turkey is perhaps some of the best in the world! Safe Travels, Melissa xo