Turkish Cuisine is considered to be one of the top three in the world (along with French and Chinese). The vast Ottoman Empire which stretched from Vienna to the Southern tip of the Arabian peninsula gave Turkish cuisine its richness and diversity. Here are a few of the basics:
Turkish dinners often begin with mezeler (similar to antipasti or tapas) such as vegetables either stuffed or prepared in olive oil, spicy salsas, yoghurts and dips eaten with ekmek, pide or bazlama (types of bread), deep fried seafood etc. You can make a whole meal out of mezeler if you like.
Soup is a big part of Turkish cuisine. When I lived with a Turkish family, soup was the first course of every dinner. The varieties are endless, but the one you’ll see on almost every menu is mercimek corbasi, lentil soup. This doesn’t taste anything like the lentil soup I’m used to; in America lentil soup is made with dark lentils, and it’s almost like a lentil stew. Here, the lentils are orange, yellow or green, and they are pureed to a much thinner consistency.
If you’re interested in the many varieties of coup, head to a Corbaci, where soup is the specialty. Be on the lookout for things you might not want to eat: Soups are made with brains (beyin), feet (ayak), intestines (iskembe) and pretty much everything.
Gozleme are like savory crepes, but grilled over an open flame. You’ll find these at roadside stands everywhere and are the ideal snack with your tea-break while travelling. They’re usually available with spinach, kiyma (chopped meat), potatoes or cheese.
This delicious flatbread lunch or snack is often translated as Turkish Pizza, but it’s really it’s own thing. It comes in several varieties, and is usually served with a bit of salad (shredded lettuce, carrots, cabbage). Sometimes it’s the main course, other times it functions as a meze.
- Kimali – ground beef with various seasonings
- Kasarli – mild melty yellow cheese
- Peynirli – white cheese (usually drier and saltier than kasar, somewhat like feta)
- Kusbarili – small cubes of meat, usually with tomatoes and green peppers
- sucuklu yumurtali – sausage (similar to american pepperoni) and egg
- karasik – a mixture of everything
The best places for pide are usually places that specialize in it, called Pide Salonu. One of the best around is Samsun (branches downtown and in Liman Mahallesi), which has round pides overflowing with meat. Another favorite is Davet Ustu, which also serves excellent kiremitte (caseroles) and kofte (meatballs) dinners for about 6 US dollars. The general Turkish restaurant, Guneyliler (Ataturk Bulvari a few blocks west of 5Migros) also has exceptional pide. Karadeniz is another good pide chain.
Translated as barbeque, mangal is actually just grilled meat and chicken. At a Mangal Evi you can usually find some sort of beef steak (antrecot), lamb or chicken cubes (sis), lamb chops (pirzola) meatballs (kofte) and chicken wings (kanat). The meats are usually served a la carte and priced per kilo (you can order 200 grams). Various salads are available as side dishes. There are two good Mangal Evis on Ataturk Bulvari in Konyaalti, and further out in Liman is a Guneyliler Mangal Evi, which is a cut above. 7Mehmet, one of Antalya’s most famous restaurants, also specializes in grilled meats. It’s a fancier place, so service is better and the variety of mezes and salads is more interesting than most. Prices are comparable though.
Balik (fish) is always a good choice on the Mediterranean. Any Balik Evi will let you pick out your fish, and they’ll grill it and serve it whole. A few places, like Lara Balik Evi (there’s one in Lara and one in Konyaalti) offer special preparations. Lara Balik Evi doesn’t overcharge for the fish, but usually ends up being more expensive than your basic place because of the mezes, salads and drinks. Don’t order a bottle of wine without asking the price.
Home Cooking Places with this designation are usually extremely inexpensive and variable in quality Typically they offer four dishes for five lira. One dish is soup, one salad or cacik (yoghurt cucumber dip), one pilav (rice, bulgar or noodles) and one main casserole dish. Our favorite is Zencefil, in Konyaalti. They post their daily menu on their facebook page.
If you’re on a short visit you won’t need these places, but if you live here you might want a break from Turkish food now and then. The best of these restaurants is Seraser, in Kaleici. It offers international quality at an international price. In other words, the bill is usually about three times that of a typical Turkish restaurant. But if you have a hankering for duck a l’orange, that’s the place you’ll find it. The decor and service are also exceptional, making this a good place for a special occasion.
Also in Kaleici but less ostentatious (and with less variety) is Otantik, where you can get a western-style filet steak, a carpaccio appetizer and a nice glass of wine. Decor is charming and service is friendly. There are a few Turkish offerings on the menu, such as sac kavurma (beef stew), but most of the menu is pasta, salad and steak.
Just outside Kaleici on Ataturk Caddesi (not to be confused with Ataturk Bulvari) is Lemon, an informal place with an extensive menu of westernish offerings. I say westernish because they’re not actually anything you’d eat in the west, but are rather Turkish interpretations of western food. Dishes have odd names, but there are many of them to choose from. Meat, chicken, pasta, pizza, sandwiches – it’s all there, and it’s all edible, if not memorable. They also have good coffee.
In Ataturk Park, with beautiful views, The Big Man Restaurant has very good continental food at a price higher than most restaurants but not as extreme as Seraser. They also have the best coffee and cheesecake around. They do western right.
Various soft drinks are available at most restaurants. The most popular are ayran, a mixture of yoghurt, water and salt which tastes better than it sounds, and Salgam, fermented carrot juice, which doesn’t. Restaurants with liquor licenses will offer Raki, the national fire-water with an anisette flavor, and Efes, the local brand of beer.
Tea is drunk after every meal, and is usually complimentary with meals. Turkish coffee is often available, and is ordered either sade (plain); az (slightly sweetened); orta (medium) or sekerli (sweet).
Most famous for Baklava, the syrupy confection with ground nuts, Turkish cuisine also includes various desserts such as sutlac (rice pudding), irmik tatlisi (semolina helva), and kunefe, which is a combination of sweet crunchyness and melted cheese topped with sugar syrup. Odd, yes, but tasty.