Food Choices for Expatriates in Istanbul – Turkish Food in Turkey
There is a whole lot more to Turkish food than the döner kebab. The Turkish cuisine is a fusion of Asian, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Eastern European, Armenian and Balkan cuisines. It is a rich and varied cuisine that incorporates every part of the animal combined with the immense range of fresh local vegetables. Istanbul has a vast selection of restaurants to let you experience the delicious and authentic tastes that are Turkey.
Restaurants in the tourist center of Sultanahmet, whilst still serving a wide selection of Turkish dishes are catering to the tourist masses. For a more authentic experience and at a more reasonable cost, head to the suburbs and smaller back streets. Ask your Turkish neighbor for his recommendations.
Meze is a selection of small dishes like appetizers that can be enjoyed before your meal or as a meal on its own when accompanying raki, Turkey’s traditional alcoholic spirit. The selection of meze is vast and rich and for a deeper dive into Turkish meze, check out this page from the Turkish Tourism Board.
Turkish coffee and çay
It won’t take you long to realize the significance of both Turkish coffee and Turkish tea in Turkish life. They are both chief elements of Turkish culture and hospitality. They communicate much more than a warm drink. Most transactions and business dealings are negotiated over a glass of çay. Served in a tulip-shaped glass on a small saucer and accompanied by as many cubes of sugar that you desire.
Turkish coffee is offered later in the day after a long breakfast or lunch. It is brewed in a small copper pot and can be taken either with sugar or without. Turkish coffee completes a meal.
A Turkish breakfast is more of a cultural experience than a meal. Kahvalti in Turkish is a ritual that happens every day. The table is set with cheeses, eggs, jams, real honey-comb, olives, fresh village bread, tomatoes, cucumbers, village butter and sucuk, a type of spicy sausage. There are a few extra specialties that may also be on offer, such as:
Simit is a ring-shaped sesame seed covered bread that is eaten alone or torn apart to dip in your eggs. Simit is usually sold on a cart on most street corners and make a great snack any time of day.
Pekmez is a thick sweet molasses derived from grapes and delicious on fresh bread.
Ayran is a salty yoghurt drink that is both refreshing and healthy for you.
Börek comes in different shapes and sizes but is thin flaky pastry wrapped around either meat or white cheese.
If you are completely new to Turkish food, you will be pleasantly surprised.
Pilav is a rice dish and is an accompaniment to most meat and fish options.
Şiş kebap are pieces of meat, usually lamb, on skewers and grilled on a hot plate.
Köfte are very popular and are simply Turkish meatballs.
Pide and Lahmucan are both types of Turkish Pizza. Lahmucan is very thin and topped with spicy minced meat and vegetables. Its usually eaten by rolling it around parsley. Pide is a thicker bread-like base and can have lots of different toppings. Both are delicious.
Kumpir is a baked potato that is stuffed with a variety of salads and cheeses. The best place to experience this delicious street food is in Ortaköy under the Bosphorus Bridge.
Istanbul Spice market (Mısır Çarşısı)
Turkish cuisine uses a lot of fresh herbs and spices which can be purchased at Mısır Çarşısı, Istanbul’s famous Spice Market located in Eminönü. It was built in 1664 and is also referred to as The Egyptian Bazaar. The atmosphere of this bazaar, along with the aromas, colors and sounds will make your shopping trip an exciting experience.
Depending in which neighborhood you live, you shouldn’t have any problem sourcing your groceries. Turkey has a great selection of supermarkets as well as smaller specialty shops like a cheese shop, or an olive oil shop. Also, don’t forget local weekly farmers’ markets for freshly picked produce and free-range eggs. Often, seasonal fruit can be bought on the street by a vendor pushing along a cart and calling out his produce. Shopping is fun in Turkey.
Bim is found in most neighborhoods and is a budget supermarket, good for the essentials.
Migros is probably the favorite of ex-pats as it does have a much larger and more international product line. Its a bit more expensive but you’re likely to find everything you want, even some British products like Heinz baked beans.
Carrefour SA is another popular supermarket that has a wide range of food products as well as clothes, home décor etc.
A101 is a smaller supermarket but a great store to pick up a bargain. Sometimes it has the most unlikely products like flat-pack furniture or technology items. Its food range may not be as extensive but the prices are good.
Sok is another smaller supermarket that offers the essentials at good prices.
Farmer’s markets are a tradition dating back to Ottoman days and a significant part of Turkish life. They generally are the main source of fresh produce for the Turkish kitchen. Produce from the markets is always fresher and cheaper than the supermarkets. In Istanbul, there are more than 200 weekly farmer’s markets and so there is sure to be one near you. You can check for the location of markets and the days of operation here.
Despite being predominately Muslim, alcohol is sold and consumed freely in Turkey. Wine-making first began in eastern Anatolia some 9000 years ago. Today, Turkey still produces some excellent wines and if you’re a connoisseur, you’ll want to check these out.
Kavaklıdere wines are produced in central Anatolia and due to their excellent quality, they are now exported around the world. A popular grape is the Öküzgözü which translates to ‘ox-eye’ and produces a bright ruby-colored red wine.
Doluca is another very popular wine brand that delivers a wide range of delicious wines. This company has been making Turkish wine for over 90 years and uses a variety of grapes sourced in Germany and France as well as home-grown.
Kavak, Dikmen, Çankaya and Yakut are simple table wines that are drinkable but much cheaper options.
You can also buy imported wine which of course, are more expensive, but why would you when Turkey produces world-class wines of its own.
Raki is the most popular spirit in Turkey. It is the national drink and often called ‘lion’s milk’. It is an aniseed-flavored clear liquid that turns cloudy when water and ice are added. It is 40 to 50% alcohol and therefore quite potent. Raki is never drunk alone and is usually enjoyed with a table of meze. This ritual of raki, meze and conversation can take many hours and is an important part of Turkish culture.
Tekirdağ Raki is believed to be the best but other brands such as Yeni Raki, Efe Rakı and Altınbaş Raki are also popular choices.
After the raki, beer is the most popular choice. Turkey has some excellent lagers. The most popular is Efes Pilsen, but other brands widely available are Tuborg, Becks, Miller and Fosters.
Where to buy alcohol
You can stock up on your alcohol supplies at the supermarkets Migros and Carrefour. Alcohol in Turkey is not as cheap as in recent years, heavy taxes have inflated the price. When shopping at the supermarket, keep an eye out for special offers and promotions.
For an extensive selection of wines and spirits, Vinus Wines and Spirits in the Şişli, Istanbul has a strong reputation. Comedus in Beyoğlu is another one with a wide selection of wines. Suvla Wine Shop also in Beyoğlu stocks organic wines that are produced on the historic Gallipoli Peninsula.
For ‘foodies’ Turkey is a gastronomical wonderland. World-famous cuisine, mouth-watering wines, what more could one want.
To learn more about Turkish gastronomy, here are some excellent books on the subject:
Ozlem’s Turkish Table: Recipes from My Homeland by Ozlem Warren
Sultan’s Kitchen: A Turkish Cookbook by Ozcan Ozan
Istanbul and Beyond: Exploring the Diverse Cuisines of Turkey by Robyn Eckhardt