One thing I was really excited about when traveling to Turkey was the food. I love a good foodie destination and truly believe that one way to experience a culture when you are traveling is through its food. Turkish food is a meat-heavy cuisine that centers around vegetables, bread, and rice on the side. It is largely influenced by Ottoman cuisine, which is a fusion of other cuisines such as Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Eastern European, and Central Asia.
Since I’m an OCD traveler, I made a “bucket list” of must-try foods for traveling through Turkey because I didn’t want to miss anything. To save you some research, I’ve compiled my list of must-try food and drinks while you’re visiting Turkey. Of course, some of these things I LOVED, and some weren’t for me, but I’ve included everything because everyone has different tastes. 😉
Street Food & Snacks
Let’s start off with street food or snacks in Turkish cuisine. This is one of the best ways to travel on a budget because there is so much amazing food that you can grab and go for cheap. Some of these can even fall into being a full meal. Here are some I recommend:
Balik Dürüm or Balık Ekmek (fish wrap or sandwich)
These are traditionally found in Istanbul, near the Galata Bridge and surrounding neighbourhoods. A Balik Dürüm is a wrap with fish and other toppings, and the Balık Ekmek is the equivalent but in sandwich form. I read that the wraps are better so I went to Sokak Lezzeti Tarihi Balık Dürümcü Mehmet Usta which is one of the more popular spots (expect to wait in line), but after trying it, I definitely could have settled for any of the other stands nearby serving the same thing without a line.
Midye Dolma (stuffed mussels)
Midye Dolma are stuffed mussels and a popular street food you’ll see around Turkey, especially in the coastal cities, but I tried it on the Asian side of Istanbul. These mussels are stuffed with herbed and spiced rice. To me, they were tasty, a little fishy, but would be easy to buy a plate of these and devour them.
Kumpir (baked potatoes)
Okay, I love the idea of this so much that I think we need to bring it to Canada. Kumpir is a street food you’ll find in busy tourist areas in Istanbul like Istiklal Street, but the best place to go for it is in Ortaköy, Istanbul where there is stall after stall selling these. Essentially it is a massive baked potato that you can stuff with all the most amazing toppings you wish. Picture a build-your-own-sandwich sort of deal but with a potato. The ultimate comfort food and so filling!
Simit (Turkish bagel)
A circular bread that resembles a Turkish version of a bagel. It’s traditionally encrusted with sesame seeds, but sometimes you can find them topped with things like poppy seeds, flax, or sunflower seeds. You will find street stands EVERYWHERE, even on the trains. You’ll be able to have the option to spread it with Nutella, or spreadable cheese, and really, these would be good dipped in just about anything.
Kestane (roasted chestnuts)
Usually found during fall and winter, but I saw them even in the spring when I visited, roasted chestnuts are readily available from street vendors in all touristy areas. You’ll see them roasting the chestnuts over a fire on a metal pan with holes drilled into them. They look beautiful and smell even better.
Doner kebab essentially means rotating, roasted meat. You’ll find vendors and shops selling these everywhere, for cheap. They consist of slices of marinated meat, usually served on a plate with sides, or on a wrap.
Dolmas (stuffed grape leaves)
Not only will you see these at plenty of restaurants, and shops in the markets, but you’ll also see grape vines grown in all sorts of places, primarily for the leaves. Dolmas are typically grape leaves stuffed with the filling of rice, minced meat, seafood, fruit, or any combo of veggies.
Gözleme (stuffed turnover)
You can find these all over Turkey and they make the perfect snack, or honestly, you could make them a full meal. They’re a savory, Turkish-stuffed turnover, stuffed with everything you can imagine. You can get sweet or savory ones, and everyone I had was delicious. Such a good comfort food!
Kokoreç (grilled intestine and offal sandwiches)
Okay, this one is going to sound gross to some people, but if you can past what this meat sandwich is made of, I promise it’s very tasty, Kokoreç is a popular fast food in Turkey. It consists of lamb or goat intestines wrapped around seasoned offals such as sweetbreads, hearts, lungs, or kidneys, and is grilled. We tried this at Reks Kokoreç on the Asian side of Istanbul.
There are so many delicious foods you can have in Turkey for a main course. You can even have a combination of the things listed under the above heading for a meal, however, here are some of the dishes traditionally served on many menus across the country that you’re going to want to try:
Manti (Turkish dumplings)
This was one of my favourite foods I tried in Turkey and I desperately need to find where I can get it back home in Toronto. Manti is a Turkish dumpling that is stuffed with things like lamb, beef, cabbage, potato, or pumpkin. It is then served with a variety of toppings – you can find things like sour cream sauce, ketchup, onion sauce, garlic sauce, etc. When I had it, it was this delicious garlic-sour cream sauce with chili oil on top. So good!
Turkish breakfast is quite the production and a must-do when you are traveling in Turkey. It’s usually comprised of a series of plates, that can be different everywhere you go. Things like olives, vegetables, cured meats, dips, eggs, fresh cheeses, baked bread, and fruit preserves, and just some of the items you can find in a Turkish breakfast spread. As someone who loves a meal that is just comprised of a bunch of little snacks, this was my ideal way to eat! Here is a great list of places to eat for breakfast, but seriously, there are endless amounts of places that offer great ones.
Essentially the Turkish version of meatballs, which come in all forms, are usually made with minced lamb and/or beef. You’ll find them across Turkey, served with things like veggies, salad, and rice. This was one of my go-to meals because it was good wherever I went, and healthy.
Lahmacun (Turkish pizza)
Lamacun is kind of like a Turkish pizza. It’s a Middle Eastern flatbread that is topped with minced meat, vegetables, and herbs. It’s really flavourful but simple. Makes for a great lunch, or even a snack.
You’ll find kebabs all around the world, and in Turkey, there is no shortage of them. In fact, you’ll find about 110 varieties of them. Kebabs are usually types of meat skewered or cooked on a spit. The thing is though, there are SO many variations of these you can try.
Iskender Kebab is incredibly popular in Istanbul and is made by slicing bits of meat onto pide bread cut into bite-size squares, covered in melted butter, a spiced tomato sauce, and creamy yogurt on the side. It’s seriously to die for! Testi Kebab is famous in the Cappadocia region and is meat and veggies cooked in a clay pot over the fire. Before eating you have to chop/break off the lid of the pot to reveal the sizzling deliciousness inside. Furun Kebab I ate in Konya and it was a delicious oven-baked kebab. So many options!
For a full list of 20 of the best kebabs to try, click here
Beyran Çorbası (lamb soup)
Also one of my fav dishes I had while in Istanbul. I did a food tour, and it was one of my favourite stops. This is a traditional soup that is made from rendered lamb fat, and topped with rice and shredded lamb meat. It’s spicy and served with lemon to squeeze on top and fresh Turkish bread on the side. We had it at Lezzet i Şark in Istanbul.
Menamen (Turkish-style scrambled eggs)
A popular breakfast dish made with eggs, tomato, green peppers, and spices that is cooked in olive oil. It resembles a scrambled egg dish with added flavour from the veggies and spices. Perfect dish to eat alongside your Turkish breakfast, and you’ll often find it included in such.
Pide (Turkish flatbread)
These delicious Turkish flatbreads are incredibly popular. They are essentially another version of a Turkish pizza, and you can get them with a variety of different veggie or meat toppings. They are a great comfort or hangover food!
If you read the below you’ll notice a trend that Turkish people tend to like more bitter beverages than we drink over here in North America, but a lot of these drinks are definite must-try items. Especially since you may love them (but you also may hate them):
You will see tons of street vendors that serve freshly squeezed juices for cheap. I tried the fresh pomegranate juice that came highly recommended by everyone and it was so deliciously tart. This juice cost me next to nothing. A freshly squeezed juice at home would cost me upwards of $15 CAD. So tasty, especially on a hot day.
You obviously need to try Turkish coffee when in Turkey. Even if you’re not a coffee drinker, I recommend you try it. Turkish coffee is prepared in a cezve using very finely ground coffee beans without filtering. It is served in a smaller cup, kind of like an espresso, as it’s much stronger (and thicker) than your average cup of coffee. Servers will ask you if you want it sweetened or not, this is when you make the call on if you want sugar as unlike North American coffee, you add the sugar in while it’s being brewed, not after the fact.
Tip: Do not stir your Turkish coffee. Since it is unfiltered, the grounds all go to the bottom of the cup, and if you stir it, you’ll mix the grounds up into the coffee you’re drinking
Ayran (yogurt drink)
This was not for me but the Turkish LOVE it. Ayran is a cold, savory yogurt-based drink that you’ll find on every menu in Turkey. It’s primarily made with yogurt, water, and salt, so it’s healthy for you (and your gut), but to me, it was too bitter.
Tursu Suyu (pickle juice)
It’s clear when you read my reviews of some of these drinks that the Turkish like their bitter beverages more than I do. However, there were people on my food tour who LOVED this drink, so much so that they bought a jug to bring back to India with them. Tursu Suyu is essentially made with pickled cucumber and cabbage with lots of bright pink pickle juice. It is known to be a hangover cure, and very refreshing, but I couldn’t finish mine!
Visne Suyu (sour cherry juice)
Next on my list of bitter, Turkish beverages to try, is Visne Suyu which is sour cheery juice. I actually did not mind this at all, and you’ll find it in cans in convenience stores or gas stations, and on menus. Sour cherries are native to Turkey and locals love to drink this juice on the side of a kebab.
Now for the one alcoholic recommendation on this list which again, I didn’t like, but I do recommend you give it a try because some people love it. Raki is the national drink of Turkey and is made of twice-distilled grapes. You can drink it straight, or more popularly, add some water to it. It has the black licorice taste of Ouzo and Sambuca, so if you don’t like that flavor, this probably isn’t for you.
Desserts & Treats
Now onto the tasty, sweet treats of the Turkish culture that you absolutely are going to have no self-control over. It’s hard not to eat dessert with every meal (or for a meal) with all these pastries, and sweetness that are available in Turkey. Here’s what you need to try:
Baklava (layered pastry)
Baklava is a layered pastry dessert which is arguably the most famous dessert you can try in Turkey. It’s filled with chopped nuts and sweetened with syrup or honey, which can be sometimes flavored with rose water. Turks take baklava very seriously and you can’t make it in just any restaurant, you have to have a special certification to do so. It’s incredibly delicious and a must-try with some Turkish tea or coffee.
Lokum (Turkish delight)
Lokum is a Turkish delight, and of course, you need to get your hands on this famous sweet when in Turkey. You can find it basically everywhere, in the markets, in shops, etc. but you’ll want to make sure you get some that is made fresh (vs. in a box at the grocery store that has been sitting there for years). Lokum is made from the gel of starch and sugar, and premium varieties include things like chopped dates, and nuts, while traditional varieties are flavoured with things like rosewater (my fav), bergamot orange, and lemon. Some famous places to go in Istanbul are Ali Muhiddin Haci Bekir and Hafiz Mustafa 1864.
Halva (Middle Eastern fudge)
Halva is essentially the Turkish version of fudge. It’s made of sesame seed paste and you’ll find it served in a variety of flavours like vanilla, and chocolate, or contain nuts like pistachios or walnuts. It has a crumbly texture and is a tasty treat.
Dondurma (Turkish ice cream)
Dondurma is Turkish ice cream and what makes it unique is that it contains salep, which is a flour made from the tubers of wild orchids. It comes in a variety of flavors, and you can even find it paired with a magic show in the touristy areas of Istanbul. I recommend trying it at the famous MADO, which has locations across the country (and even internationally).
Künefe (sweet cheese pastry)
I first had this delicious sweet cheese dessert in Jordan, and let me tell you, it’s something else. It sounds odd to pair sweet and cheese into one pastry, but trust me on this one, it works. Künefe is made with spun pastry called kataifi, then it is soaked in a sweet syrup called attar, and layered with cheese. OMG my mouth is watering just talking about it.
Bal Kaymak (clotted cream with honey)
This is traditionally served with breakfast but I added it under desserts because I don’t know where else to put this sweet, delicious, goodness that is Bal Kaymak. Bal Kaymak is a combination of kaymak which is a dairy produced from water buffalo milk, similar to the consistency of clotted cream, that is then, doused with honey. Eat it with some fresh bread, and honestly, it’s hard not to eat this entire dish. It’s so good!
Boyoz (pastry with tahini)
A Turkish pastry that is famous in İzmir, Turkey, however, you can definitely find it in cities like Istanbul as well. It’s made with boyoz paste which is a mix of flour, sunflower oil, and tahini. From there it is kneaded by hand, and left to rest, flattened into a dish, and left to rest again, before being kneaded AGAIN and formed into a roll. They are delicious, and not too sweet.
İzmir Bomb Kurabiye (stuffed cookie)
Also known as Bomba’s, these cookies are stuffed cookies stuffed with a praline spread similar to Nutella. They are incredibly rich and can be hard to perfect. I’ve even managed to find these at a cafe right here in Toronto called Lokum.
I could seriously keep writing about Turkish food forever! There is so much fantastic food in this cuisine. Is there something that you would add to this must-try list? Share below in the comments!