Until recent years Turkish food in the Western mind was identified with kebabs. Actually Turkish cuisine (more accurately OTTOMAN CUISINE) is regarded as one of the best cuisine of the world, with Chinese and French, thus it is worth learning and enjoying.
The Ottoman Empire encompassing as it once did Eastern Europe, Europe, Asia Minor, the Caucasus, the Levant, Iraq, Arabia, Egypt, and the rest of North Africa as far west as Morocco evolved a cuisine that reflects a huge array of diverse influences.
Added to these culinary influences were the nomadic cooking traditions the Turks picked up as they migrated from the Far East through Central Asia and the Caucasus arriving in
Anatolia beginning in the late eleventh century.
Without a doubt food occupies a much higher place in the Turkish scale of values than it does in many other cultures. Restaurants are one of the best run institutions in our country. They are excellent because we demand food and service of very high standards.
This is true at every level in both public and private life. Indeed, a young woman traditionally has not been considered marriageable until she could prepare a simple rice pilav and Turkish coffee properly (and in the rural areas prove that she could spin and weave).
At the government level it has always been state policy, whether under the Sultan or Prime Minister, that food should be plentiful and cheap for the populace. Even in our most difficult economic and political times we have had food markets overflowing with vegetables, fruit, meats, chickens.
Rather than being a recent imported Western tradition, restaurants are an old and central feature of Turkish life. We have always loved to dine out. Men of all classes typically gather nightly with friends in restaurants to while the evening away with endless meze (appetizers), and raki (our national drink, that is anisette and grapes distilled with 45 percent alcohol, thus it is 90 proof)
Eating out in our culture, for most cases is not just to feed ourselves, yet it is a social occasion and pretty much a ritual to be enjoyed.
The Organization of a Turkish Meal:
Foreigners are probably more baffled by the way a Turkish meal is put together than by its ingredients. The most typical Western meal breaks down into three defined courses: the starter, the main course, and the dessert.
Tourist restaurants and restaurants catering to the increasingly Westernized Turkish upper class have increasingly moved in this direction, but in most Turkish restaurants you will need to adapt to a different, and more wonderful structure.
In Turkey, and at lest in the beginning you will be boggled by menus that have interesting and confusing categories.
The bewildering categories you routinely will choose from include: soups, mezes, vegetable dishes, vegetables in olive oil, grills (koftes, lamb varieties, veal varieties, chicken varieties) and fishes.
We choose from these dishes more small portions of many different dishes, more so from the mezes. Once you sort out how we order our meals, you will be more excited and will enjoy experiencing this yourself., then understand why our cuisine is regarded as a major world cuisine.
Not only is the variety of the menu confusing, mind boggling, but so is the variety of places to eat. Thruout Turkey you will see ‘Restoran’ (an Italian borrowing), ‘Lokanta’ (a French borrowing), ‘Kebabci’ (Kebab House), Meyhane (a casual eating & drinking place serving mezes and drinks).
Also you will see ‘Et Lokantasi’ (specializing in grilled meats), and ‘Balik Lokantasi’ (fish); and also Laz Lokantasi (serving Black Sea food) Adana Kebabci (serving kebabs of Adana), etc.
An Ottoman Meal:
So let’s begin with a few generalizations: for one, there is really no main course in your sense since the meat, fish, or chicken serving is very small by your standards and not very dissimilar in size from the other dishes that precede or follow it.
Therefore, you are not structuring your meal around this course but rather this course is one of a string of episodes in eating that tend to be equal in value.
But let’s start at the beginning with the meze. You can encounter these tapas-like dishes in a number of ways depending on the restaurant: as a list in the menu, as a selection on large trays circulated by the waiters, or displayed in a glass fronted cooler cabinet.
There will be cold mezes served at room temperature and ready to serve as is, and there will be hot mezes that need to be grilled or fried. Initially, you will be baffled by the variety of choices and apprehensive of the costs.
First, the mezes are not priced like your starters, you can easily afford a nice selection. Say as a general rule: three hot and three cold mezes for a couple and then share them. With a larger group you can obviously multiply the mezes considerably.
It’s best to see the eating event as a communal one with no individual portions, indeed we, until recently didn’t bother transferring meze portions to our plates but simply speared and forked through the scattered communal dishes.
We accompany our meals typically with raki, It is extremely potent and turns white when water is added
(hence known amongst the Turks as “lion’s milk”). It is an extremely good combination with the olive-oil laced food. It usually is mixed with water, turning from clear to white, and ice cubes are added. Some of us drink it straight with a water chaser.
Take it easy until you know your tolerance. Turkey is also now producing some decent wines, but in most places there will not be the kind of wine list you are accustomed to. Efes in my experience of dining out with foreigners, even Germans, Dutch and Belgians was regarded as one of the best beers my guests ever had, and then there is Tuborg, which is a Danish brand that brews in Turkey, and this is good as well.
Of course there will always be a nice selection of bottled mineral waters, fruit juices, and other soft drinks available for those who do not wish anything alcoholic.
When it is time to order, my favorite cold mezes are ‘patlıcan sogurme’ a smokey, grilled eggplant dish, ‘zeytinyağlı fasulye’ a white bean dish, ‘’ artichokes, and you may ask for white cheese and honey melon which are the best with raki.
For the hot mezes, you should try Pacanga borek, (fillet dough with yellow cheese and veal bacon in it) fried Albanian liver, and bread routinely accompanies all of this in great quantities.
If you wish you can, as we often do, stay with mezes all night, ordering as you need them, punctuating the eating with glasses of raki and conversation. A Turkish meze meal can be a four – five hour affair, or more. You might want to include a salad (there are usually 4 or 5 choices–usually dressed in lemon juice & olive oil) along with your meze.
When you are done with your mezes, you might want to try a vegetable dish: a stuffed eggplant, or broad beans in oil, or stuffed bell peppers, eggplants, or squash. Then you might want to go on to your meat, chicken, or fish dish.
It may sound like a lot of food to you but not to us, and actually it is not as much as it sounds since the portions are small and the food relatively light and easily digested. To you, we seem to eat a lot of things in a meal; but Turks who have visited the U.S. are shocked by the huge portions of meals.
You don’t need to order your entire meal in advance but instead can build it as you go along, this is easy since so many of the dishes are pre-prepared and served at room temperature. Also at the Lokantas you will be ushered, if you wish, into the kitchen where the cook will delight in showing and explaining what his kitchen has to offer.
Since so much of the food is pre-prepared and standing in kettles and vats you will actually be able to see what you will be getting.
As to what you think of as the “main course” meat portions will look shockingly small to your meat-oriented tastes. Actually a Turkish meal in the aggregate is really more of a vegetarian affair.
The lamb chops will be miniscule (but real lamb not mutton) and the beef (more likely veal) served in tiny cutlets. If you like steak Turkey is not the country to ask for it.
Fish is priced by weight, rather than by portion. The practice is either to go to the display area to choose your fish or have it brought to the table, next you have the whole fish or fillets weighed and priced, and then you indicate how you wish it cooked, grilled or fried.
Turks know how to cook fish exquisitely. The seas around Turkey as in many places have been dangerously over fished; therefore, fish is no bargain. Remember that you should know the price of fish before you finalize your order.
As for desserts; typically it is fruit, that is the Turkish choice, maybe a plate of sliced melon, bananas, apple, and pear sprinkled with cherries.Or you might choose a quince compote spread with kaymak, a delicious thick cream. There will also be rice and rice flour puddings, and baklava available.
All of this ends with Turkish coffee. American coffee is for some reason not an alternative, but you can get packets of instant coffee and hot water. Since Turkish coffee is made by boiling the mixture of water, sugar, and coffee over a flame you must indicate on ordering whether you want little sugar, medium sugar, or a lot of sugar.
In the old days true hospitality involved roasting, grinding and boiling the coffee in the presence of the honored guest. While the coffee is served in tiny demi-tasse cup it packs a great deal of flavor. Glasses of tea are also an option.
‘Afiyet olsun’, Turkish for ‘Bon Appetit’.