Updated: Feb 22
Turkey is undeniably a foodie paradise. Most people are probably not familiar with much more than kebabs and Turkish ice cream, but if you only stick to these basics you are really missing out. After three months in Turkey, trying new foods constantly, I was still discovering more every day. I fully expected to feast on incredible food over the course of my stay, and was very much looking forward to it, but I was pleasantly surprised at the variety of amazing foods, the delicious flavor combinations, and some of the odd and surprising ingredients. I can't even get close to including everything I would love to share with you, so I tried my best to narrow down some of my favorite and most unique dishes that you absolutely must try when visiting Turkey.
1. Turkish Breakfast
Kahvalti, literally meaning "before coffee," feels like more of an event than a meal. It is an array of cheeses and spreads, always accompanied by lots of olives, tomato and cucumber, and often a boiled egg. It is common to have several different kinds of cheeses, and the spreads may include jam, butter, honey, and nutella. This of course comes with a basket of bread (and sometimes simit - kind of like a sesame seed bagel) and plenty of Turkish tea. To take it one step further you could add an order of menemen, which is an egg dish with tomatoes and peppers, similar to shakshuka. Many hotels offer a buffet-style Turkish breakfast with your stay, but I would definitely recommend trying one like these at least once for the full experience.
Manti was a fan-favorite amongst my friends while in Turkey. The concept is quite simple, and actually really easy to make at home (by make I mean buy the ingredients from the market, not make the dumplings completely from scratch!). It's basically a tiny Turkish ravioli, usually filled with minced meat, and topped with yogurt and a red chili butter sauce.
3. Beyran Corbasi
Something about this soup just really does it for me. It is actually a breakfast dish, but honestly, I could eat it ANY time of day. The main ingredients are bone broth with lamb, and you can add as much lemon and rocket as you like. The ingredients just work so well together, and it has SO much flavor. This is not something you find just everywhere, so head to Lezzet-i Sark Antep Sofrasi near the Eminonu entrance of the spice market or Kimyon Kadikoy if you are on the Asian side.
I am probably going to get a lot of flak for putting jacket potatoes on this list, but hear me out! While everyone has undoubtedly had a baked potato in their life, and no, potatoes are not unique to Turkey, the way they do potatoes there IS unique, and was one of the surprising foods I kept going back for. These are like twice-baked potatoes to the next level. You purchase the potato for a flat price (for some reason I was expecting them to charge me by weight or the amount of ingredients!), then just load on tons of different toppings. There's cheese, yogurt, olives, cabbage, pasta salad, couscous, pickles, and so many other things that I didn't even recognize. You can get these at Patatos on Istiklal Street, but I've heard that the best place to go is Ortakoy, where there are several little potato stands along the Bosphorus.
Kokorec is the ultimate street food. It's a late-night snack and found literally everywhere near pubs and nightlife. If you've seen my YouTube video, you might know that it is ......lamb intestines! (And if you haven't, go watch it here). The intestines are wrapped around a huge skewer and grilled rotisserie-style. It's then diced up and put on either bread or a wrap.
In this pic it's served with midye dolma, or stuffed mussels, which is another super popular street food that comes out in the evenings, and a yogurt drink called ayran. All three of these are absolute musts when visiting Turkey, and you won't have to search hard to find them.
6. Pickle Juice
Another odd one that tops the list is the Turkish affinity for pickles. There are whole shops full of pickled EVERYTHING. Pickled carrots, cabbage, beets, okra, green beans, cauliflower, peppers, you name it. You can just walk into the shop and order a cup of pickle juice in a bright pink hue, with whatever veggies you feel like. Pickle juice has been known to help with digestion, blood sugar, weight loss, and even hangovers, so they might be on to something!
7. Gozleme and Pide
These two dishes are made from flatbread with different ingredients on top or inside. Pide is shaped into a long oval-like shape and topped with cheese, minced meat, or vegetables, then baked in an oven like a pizza. Gozleme is rolled out really thin on a flat grill, then stuffed with crumbly cheese, spinach, or eggplant. I didn't discover gozleme until I went further into central Turkey to Cappadocia and Antalya. Here you'll often see the women sitting around rolling out the dough with long thin rolling pins and preparing it right in front of their customers.
8. Iskender Kebab
I know I said Turkish cuisine is so much more than kebabs, and it definitely is, but they are still a big part of the food culture. There are also so many different kinds of kebabs, so I wanted to do a quick little kebab 101. "Durum" means the kebab is going to be served wrap-style. It could be any type of meat and might include French fries inside. "Doner" means the meat (any kind) is cooked on the vertical rotisserie. This is probably what comes to mind when you think of a Turkish kebab. A shish kebab is served on a skewer, and although I saw lots of this, I never saw it referred to as anything other than just "kebab." The Adana kebab is a popular one, named after the city it comes from. This one is minced meat, usually lamb, with a little spice, and is served with all the usuals - pita, salads, sometimes pilaf. I quite like this one, but my absolute favorite has to be the Iskender kebab and I think you're going to understand why.
The Iskender kebab, named after the man who invented it (Iskender is a variation of Alexander), consists of lamb doner stacked on top of thick pita bread, then drenched in a hot tomato sauce, THEN melted butter, and served with a dollop of yogurt. It is absolutely mouthwatering and blows any and all other kebabs out of the water.
As I said, it is just impossible to include everything I wanted to, and I tried to steer clear of some of the typical Turkish foods that you might already know about, but they are definitely worth a try as well! But I think if you spend any amount of time in Turkey, you can't miss Turkish tea, coffee, baklava, Turkish ice cream, or mezze platters even if you tried.
If you want to check out ALL the Turkish foods but want a little guidance, we did an AMAZING food tour called Taste of Two Continents, where our lovely guide took us to all the best spots and fed us non-stop for 6 hours. A lot of the foods on this list are on the tour, and I highly recommend it.
Were you surprised by some of these dishes? Let me know which ones you would try in the comments below!
Watch me explore Istanbul's Spice Bazaar or even eat kokorec (lamb intestines!) on my YouTube channel: