One of my best friends here in Istanbul has some friends visiting this weekend. We all went to 5 Kat, a restaurant in Cihangir on the fifth floor with an incredible view of the Bosphorus. While enjoying my limonata (lemonade) and lokum (Turkish Delights) that they purchased at the Grand Bazaar, one friend asked, “What are your top three Turkish Delights, so to speak?”
That got me thinking… What ARE my favorite aspects about living in Turkey? Choosing only three seems just next to impossible, which I’m sure is why every expat blog I ever look at features lengthy lists of things unique to this city, culture, and their lessons learned while living here.
Let’s start with the cuisine.
1. Acılı Kebab… Or Any Turkish BBQ…Yes, döner kebabs are delicious, and I have a go-to guy for that, but a spicy lamb şiş kebab served over a bed of tomato bulgur along with a delicious side salad covered in pomegranate vinaigrette can’t be beat, in my opinion.
2. Mezes – Sometimes all I want for dinner is mezes. Mezes are hot or cold appetizers, usually dips, served with an abundance of bread… Which is why I believe mezes are a perfectly acceptable dinner. I certainly don’t need a main course after consuming that many carbs, but hey, if I had to follow my mezes with some fish, I would not complain…
My favorite dip mezes are:
Ezme – Spicy, crushed tomato salad
Haydari – Yogurt with garlic, white (feta) cheese, and mint
Patlıcanlı – Eggplant salad
My favorite non-dip mezes are:
Dolmas – Stuffed grape leaves, usually with rice or bulgur
Red Lentil Balls – …Exactly as they sound. I don’t know the Turkish name for them. Squeeze some lemon juice over it and roll it up in a lettuce leaf. I tried making these once. It was a miserable failure.
Ciğ Köfte – Raw Meatballs. No, you won’t die. Served much like the Red Lentil Balls, except there’s usually a jelly instead of lemon juice.
I found recipes (although I don’t know how authentic they are) for all of these. Click here.
To get our fill, my friends and I typically wind up at Nevizade (the party street) early in the evening before it gets too crowded or at the Çiçek Pasaj (the old flower stalls) late at night. In either case, there’s great people watching and live Turkish music.
3. Turkish Breakfast
Everything about Turkish Breakfast is good: olives, cucumbers, cheeses from all over the country, eggs, breakfast crepes (although the Turks call them pancakes), menemen (tomato scrambled eggs)… But the BEST part about Turkish breakfast to me is the fresh bread (again) served with honeycomb and kaymak.
Kaymak is a dense cream that you spread on the bread. Cover that with honey and enjoy. If that alone was my breakfast everyday…well… I wouldn’t be losing any weight, but my belly would be satisfied.
1. Apple Tea – There is NOTHING tea about Apple Tea. It is straight up sugar in a tiny pear shaped glass. That’s it. Sugar. The first time I had Apple Tea, I likened it to hot Jell-O.
Part of Turkish hospitality is offering you a tea. This applies to homes and businesses. The further away from the tourist attractions you go, the less likely it is that you will be served or even have the option of Apple Tea. Some Turks really like Apple Tea, but I think it’s definitely a tourist drink.
Turks drink black tea in the same pear shaped glass. Most, I would say, also put two sugar cubes in their tea. And they drink tea all day long. Several glasses in the morning, all day at work, and all evening with their family. Like…they don’t go to bed until all the tea in their double decker tea pot is finished. It’s fascinating to observe.
2. Nane Limonata – Mint lemonade is great all year round, but I’m enjoying it a great deal as the weather warms up just like I would back home. What blows my mind is that the lemonade here tastes NOTHING like lemonade in the States.
3. Ayran – Ayran is a salty yogurt drink that you have with your kebabs. Much like your wine or beer, you may not enjoy the first experience unless you’ve paired it with the right meal. For instance, I probably wouldn’t drink this for the first time with my lentil soup… Drink it with the right meal so that you enjoy it. Many of my friends still can’t get behind Ayran, but I wouldn’t drink anything else with my kebabs now.
4. Salep (…It’s my blog. I can pick a fourth drink if I want to…) – Salep is served in the cold winter months. I think it is very similar to Mexican horchata, except it is served warm.
I haven’t tried making it yet, but if you’re curious, give this recipe a whirl:
1. Baklava – VERY thin layers of pastry, glued together by honey or syrup, with pistachios or walnuts. This is probably the most well known Turkish and Middle-Eastern dessert.
2. Rose Flavored Lokum (Turkish Delight)– When I brought Lokum home at Christmas time, someone told me it tasted like Dots (American candy), and another person told me they tasted like something Grandma would give you at Christmas. Lokum is a chewy jelly cube, basically, covered in powdered sugar. There are many different kinds. I like the plain, citrus or rose flavored lokum, but most people go for the lokum with nuts inside. There’s even a marshmallow kind!
3. Künefe – This is difficult to describe. It’s essentially a hot cheese pastry…but pastry is probably the wrong word. It’s nothing like a French pastry or Baklava… Anyway, it is drenched in syrup and usually served with ice cream or kaymak on top.
Additionally, there are plenty of street foods to enjoy. I’ll admit, experiencing most of the street food is still on my to-do list. I do LOVE the fish sandwiches under the Galata Bridge, but I haven’t tried any of the mussels from the street vendors, for instance. There’s corn, chestnuts, fresh fruit, simit (bread rings with sesame seeds), and much more.
The food culture in Istanbul is incredible.