What to Eat
Fresh is the best first adjective to apply to Turkish cuisine -- abundant, healthful foods grown without chemical additives are enjoyed in season.
Turkish cuisine is not spicy except in certain parts of the southeast, where preparations can reflect a peppery Arabic influence. Typical seasonings are mint, dill, flat-leaf parsley, paprika, cumin and the lemony, dried and ground berries from an edible sumac shrub. The use of garlic and onions is liberal. Sauces are simple and light: a lemon and egg yolk sauce, a yogurt and garlic sauce and "au jus" predominate.
Meze (plural mezeler) are appetizers and they often are accompanied by raki, Turkey's anise-flavored national drink distilled from grapes. Hot dishes follow cold dishes and range from simple white sheep's cheese to an elegant dish of shredded chicken in walnut sauce topped with paprika-flavored walnut oil.
The most popular meat is lamb, with beef and chicken distant second choices. Pork, prohibited by the Muslim religion, is uncommon. A rich family of meat dishes includes seasoned minced meat patties, savory pastries made with thin sheets of dough, and kebabs, the most familiar being shish kebabs.
The surrounding seas provide a bounty of fresh fish and much of the day's catch ends up on the grill. Interestingly, the Turks market fish by age, naming young and old specimens differently. Fried mussels are a perennial favorite in the seafood category, and are especially tasty with a ground nut sauce containing garlic and vinegar or lemon juice.
Vegetables are widely enjoyed by the Turks and eggplant is number one. Other popular vegetables are tomatoes, peppers, squash and fresh green beans.
Strawberries, peaches, figs, melons, cherries, apricots, grapes, quinces -- an endless list of fruits -- are plentiful and are eaten primarily fresh, stuffed or in cold compotes.
Among the warm, soothing soups, a favorite is lentil. Also popular is tripe soup, which is believed to ward off hangovers. For this reason, special restaurants featuring this soup are often open all night!
Pilafs showcase rice. A variety of ingredients such as nuts, raisins, tomatoes, onions, currants, even liver, can be added to embellish one. Pilafs also are made of bulgur.
Breads show a rich versatility. There are crusty, aromatic loaves, a delicious flat bread that often becomes a pizza-like dish, and twisted, ring-shaped rolls encrusted with sesame seeds, which are the most popular street food.
The dessert category bursts with temptations, but most sweets are enjoyed with tea, not following meals. Fruit is the typical end to dinner.
Coffee and tea are both Turkish institutions, but most Turks crave tea after dining.