Strolling through the crowded Tire Bazaar during a recent trip to Turkey, I found myself constantly lagging behind my group as I stopped to gawk at the plump, picturesque produce on every stand. Who knows if I was letting the thrill of being in a foreign country cloud my judgement, but something about those tomatoes and eggplants just seemed to pop differently than the stuff back home at Ralph’s.
Utilization of the rich flavors innate in quality ingredients, rather than overwhelming the taste buds with a barrage of disparate ones, is a central ethos of Turkish cuisine, and one that has kept the local fare relatively uncomplicated over the millennia. In the few days I spent touring the nation’s Aegean Sea and the adjacent Izmir region, I was not only surprised by how much I enjoyed the traditional dishes introduced to me, but also the fresh perspective and appreciation I gained for foods I thought I already knew well.
Picking just nine standouts from so many amazing meals was a struggle, but nobody ever said food writing would be easy. Below, you’ll find the Turkish food and drink that tasted great, filled me up and occasionally forced me to reevaluate my entire culinary reality.
Pushing aside my preconceived notions about this fruit allowed me to experience it in its purest form. Whereas before I’d really only had them stuffed with cheese and wrapped in prosciutto, the ones I had in Izmir were desserts in their own right, presented straight up, with no more augmentation than some sugar crystals on the outside.
One of the best street foods I had on the trip was named for the knocking sound made by the cleaver hitting the chopping board as the food is prepared. My iteration involved oily tandoori lamb and bread, but the dish comes in a slew of other varieties (some of which feature organ meat).
Rolled up like a sleeping bag, this thick clotted cream dish (also known as “kaymak”) is a national breakfast staple. Often times, the diary log will sit in a puddle of honey. Mine was smothered in a berry compote. Getting a sweet component in there to balance out the cream’s richness is the important thing.
Turks love their pickled veggies. If their presence on almost every plate set in front of me on the trip wasn’t enough of a hint, the rows of colorful jars peppering shops and market stalls gave it away. Beyond having a pickled palate that goes well beyond cucumbers, Turkey’s pickles are differentiated because not even the brine goes to waste. Believed to aid in digestion, pickle juice is scooped right from the jar and served to customers. Many shops specializing in this centuries-old beverage practice highlight the acidity or bitterness of each jar’s contents to help customers dial in on the vat that will work for them.
Köfte or kofta simply refers to a family of minced or ground meat dishes popular around the region. I had this three times in Izmir and could likely eat it once a day for the rest of my life. This involved lamb kebab meatballs, about as thick and a little longer than Jimmy Dean breakfast sausage links. The quality of meat is superb, but what really sets the dish off is the bed of oily tomato sauce and yogurt accompanying it.
Unfortunately, I cannot recommend Turkey’s traditional spirit, raki, because I hate the taste of anise. Fortunately, there’s a wine boom happening in the mostly sober country that helped me find a more refined buzz during my visit. Taking advantage of the warm Mediterranean climate, a number of wineries like Sevilen and Urlice are producing delicious bottles of shiraz, syrah and more, hoping the region will soon be giving Napa (or at least Bekaa) Valley a run for its money.
Remember this moment, when you first heard of pide. This pizza precursor was nothing short of an illumination, and if I were ever going to bet on a Turkish dish capturing the hearts and minds of picky eater Americans, it’d be this one. Each pide is an oven-baked bread boat with meat and veggies or sweet and creamy toppings. Slicing the finished product into strips makes it easy to share and difficult to stop shoveling more into your mouth.
Doughy, fried and cylindrical, these desserts appear to be mini churros at first glance, but don’t be fooled. These bad boys have been soaking in a sugary syrup and are so teeth-wigglingly saccharine that ice cream is often served with them to help cut the sweetness.
Sipping on a flight of olive oils, one cup pressed from olives I’d just picked minutes earlier, I was shocked at the peppery, citrusy and earthy notes differentiating each sample. Over the course of this tasting, as I learned that the ancient product can indeed have many different tastes, I also learned that my knowledge of olive oil was not only mostly wrong, but severely lacking. Apparently much of the world’s supply is produced in Turkey and merely bottled in Italy. When you recover from that world-rocking news, I highly suggest giving Turkish olives a chance. If they can convert a former olive-hater like me, they’ve clearly got something special to them.
Main photo: A dish from Istanbul-based Mikla (currently ranked No. 52 in the world). Other photos credits: Dates by ORGANIChouse/Wikimedia, caymak by E4024/Wikimedia, kofta by Jules/Flickr, wine by Lelya.a/Flickr, olive oil by Umbe Ber, and all others by Justin Caffier.