The Basics

Turks love to eat out, particularly in restaurants serving their beloved national cuisine. It's a good idea to book tables in advance when dining on Friday and Saturday evenings or when by the seaside in summer.

  • Meyhanes Taverns Where mezes, grilled meats and fish are enjoyed and where live music is sometimes performed. Particularly popular on weekends.
  • Ocakbaşıs Traditional kebap restaurants where customers watch meat being grilled over coals.
  • Hazır yemek lokantası (often abbreviated to lokanta) Simple and cheap eateries serving ready-made meals; popular for lunch.

The Year in Food

For Turks, sourcing ingredients from the freezer or supermarket cold room is anathema – theirs is a cuisine that is resolutely and deliciously seasonal.

Spring (Mar–May)

Kalkan (turbot), levrek (sea bass), mezgit (whiting) and karides (shrimp) are in plentiful supply, often enjoyed with new-season lemon. Salads feature artichoke, broad beans, radish and cucumber; strawberries and green plums are plentiful.

Summer (Jun-Aug)

Sardalya (sardines) and ıstakoz (lobster) are summer treats. Meze spreads draw on freshly harvested artichoke, broad bean and walnut. Seasonal salads feature cucumber, corn and tomato; watermelon and fig start their four-month seasons.

Fall (Sep–Nov)

Locals celebrate the start of the four-month hamsi (anchovy), palamut (bonito) and lüfer (bluefish) seasons, as well as the short çupra (gilthead sea bream) season. Pomegranates appear in October and are plentiful until the end of February.

Winter (Dec–Feb)

The best season for fish; December is known for its hamsi and January for istavrit (horse mackerel), lüfer and palamut. Chestnuts are harvested and roasted on street corners throughout the country.

Food Experiences

Keen on the idea of a gastronomic odyssey? You've come to the right country.

Cheap Treats

Balık ekmek Grilled fish fillets stuffed into bread with salad and a squeeze of lemon; sold at stands next to ferry docks around the country.

Simit Bread ring studded with sesame seeds; sold in bakeries and by street vendors.

Midye dolma Mussels stuffed with spiced rice and sold by street vendors.

Döner kebap Lamb cooked on a revolving upright skewer then thinly sliced and served in bread with salad and a sprinkling of sumac.

Gözleme Thin savoury pancakes filled with cheese, spinach, mushroom or potato; particularly popular in central Anatolia.

Ayvalık tost Toasted sandwich crammed with cheese, spicy sausage, pickles, tomatoes, ketchup, mayonnaise and anything else its creator can think of; named after the North Aegean town where it was invented.

Dare to Try

Kokoreç Seasoned lamb/mutton intestines stuffed with offal, grilled over coals and served in bread; sold at kokoreçis (kokoreç stands).

Boza Viscous tonic made from water, sugar and fermented barley that has a reputation for building up strength and virility. Best sampled at historic Vefa Bozacısı in İstanbul.

İşkembe or kelle paça çorba Tripe or sheep's trotter soup; the former is reputed to be a hangover cure.

Şalgam suyu Sour, crimson-coloured juice made by boiling turnips and adding vinegar; particularly popular in the eastern Mediterranean city of Mersin.

Tavuk göğsü Sweet milk pudding made with chicken breast meat.

Söğüş Poached tongue, cheek and brain served cold in bread with chopped onion, parsley, mint, tomato, cumin and hot chilli flakes. A specialty of İzmir.

Local Specialities

İstanbul

It's the national capital in all but name and Turks relocate here from every corner of the country, meaning that regional cuisines are well represented within the local restaurant scene. The Syrian-influenced dishes of Turkey's southeast are particularly fashionable at the moment, but the number one choice when it comes to dining out is almost inevitably a Black Sea–style fish restaurant or meyhane (tavern). The only dishes that can be said to be unique to the city are those served at Ottoman restaurants where the rich concoctions enjoyed by the sultans and their courtiers are recreated.

Thrace & Marmara

In Marmara – and especially in its capital, Edirne – liver reigns supreme and is usually served deep-fried with crispy fried chillies and a dollop of yoghurt. Dishes in Thrace are dominated by fish rather than offal, and the locals are fond of sweet treats such as Gökçeada island's efi badem (sugar-dusted biscuits made with almond, butter and flour). In recent years, local wineries here have been producing some of the country's most impressive vintages and can be visited by following the Thracian Wine Route.

The Aegean

Mezes made with seafood, freshly picked vegetables, wild herbs and locally produced olive oil are the backbone of Turkish Aegean cuisine, providing a delicious inducement for visitors. Fish dominates menus on the coast, but inland villagers love their lamb, serving it in unusual forms such as keşkek (lamb mince and coarse, pounded wheat). The island of Bozcada is dotted with picturesque vineyards supplying its well-regarded local wineries with grapes, and wines from the İzmir region are starting to develop a national profile.

Western & Central Anatolia

Turkey's heartland has a cuisine dominated by kebaps. Regional specialties that have become national treasures include the rich and addictive İskender, or Bursa, kebap (döner lamb on a bed of crumbled pide, topped with yoghurt, hot tomato sauce and browned butter) and the tokat kebap (skewers of lamb and sliced eggplant hung vertically, grilled, then baked in a wood-fired oven and served with roasted garlic). Both take their names from the cities where they originated. Popular sweets include kestane şekeri (candied chestnuts).

The Mediterranean

The eastern Mediterranean is home to three towns with serious foodie credentials: Silıfke, Adana and Antakya. Silıfke is known for its yoghurt, Adana for its eponymously titled kebap (minced beef or lamb mixed with powdered red pepper then grilled on a skewer and dusted with slightly sour sumac) and Antakya for its wealth of Syrian-influenced dips, salads, croquettes and desserts. The best-loved of these desserts is künefe, layers of vermicelli-like noodles cemented together with sweet cheese, doused in sugar syrup and served hot with a sprinkling of pistachio. Both gooey and crispy, it's dangerously addictive – consider yourself warned.

Black Sea

Hamsı (anchovies) are loved with a passion along the Black Sea coast. Generations of Karadeniz (Black Sea) cooks have used this slim silver fish in breads, soups and pilafs, thrown them on the grill or dusted them with flour before snap-frying them. It's not the only culinary reason to head here, though. Muhlama (cornmeal cooked with butter and cheese), karalahana çorbası (collard soup) and the decadently rich Laz böreği (flaky pastry layered with custard and hazelnuts) are other dishes that demand gastronomic investigation. Also of note are the hazelnuts grown around Ordu and the black tea grown in Rize.

Southeastern Anatolia

Top of this region's foodie hit parade is Gaziantep (Antep), destination of choice for lovers of pistachio. The local examples are plump and flavoursome, showcased in the city's famous baklava and katmer (thin pastry sheets layered with clotted cream and nuts, topped with pistachio, baked and served straight from the oven). Also notable is Şanliurfa (Urfa), home to urfa kebap (skewered lamb with tomatoes, sliced onion and hot peppers) and the country's best examples of the Arabic-influenced wafer-thin pizza known as lahmacun. Other regional treats include sweet apricots from Malatya.

Northeastern Anatolia

Fruits of the forest and field are on show in this far-flung corner of the country. Flowery honey from small producers is slathered on bread and topped with ultra-creamy kaymak (clotted cream) in a breakfast ritual that is now being emulated across the country, and kaz (goose) and lamb are roasted or stewed in dishes reminiscent of those served in neighbouring Iran, Georgia and Armenia. In Kars, milk from animals grazed on rich steppe grasses is used to make many delicious varieties of cheese. Unusual drinks include reyhane, made from purple basil.

How to Eat & Drink

Like all countries with great national cuisines, Turkey has rules and rituals around where and when to eat.

When to Eat

Kahvaltı (breakfast) Usually eaten at home or in a hotel, although böreks (sweet or savoury filled pastries) and simits (sesame-encrusted bread rings) are popular eat-on-the-run alternatives.

Ögle yemeği (lunch) Usually eaten at a cafe, lokanta (eatery serving ready-made food) or fast-food stand around noon.

Akşam yemeği (dinner) The main meal of the day, eaten with family and/or friends around 6pm (rural areas) and 7.30pm to 8pm (cities).

Where to Eat

Balık restoran Fish restaurant.

Hazır yemek lokantası (often abbreviated to lokanta) Eatery serving ready-made meals.

Kebapçı Kebap restaurant.

Köfteçi Köfte (meatball) restaurant.

Meyhane Tavern where mezes, grilled meats and fish are enjoyed and where live music is sometimes performed.

Ocakbaşı Kebap restaurant where customers watch meat being grilled over coals.

Pideci Pizza restaurant.

Menu Decoder

Ana yemekler Main courses; usually meat or fish dishes.

Bira Beer; the most popular local tipple is Efes Pilsen.

Dolma Something stuffed with rice and/or meat.

İçmekler Drinks.

Meze Small tapas-like hot or cold dish eaten at the start of a meal.

Porsiyon Portion, helping. Yarım porsyon is a half-portion.

(Kırmızı/Beyaz) Şarap (Red/White) Wine.

Servis ücreti Service charge.

Su Water; maden suyu is mineral water.

Tatlı(lar) Sweets; often baklava, stewed fruit or a milk-based pudding.

Zeytinyağlı Food cooked in olive oil.

Turkish Coffee

A thick and powerful brew, Türk kahve (Turkish coffee) is usually drunk in a couple of short sips. If you order a cup, you will be asked how sweet you like it – çok şekerli means 'very sweet', orta şekerli 'middling', az şekerli 'slightly sweet' and şekersiz or sade 'not at all'. Though you shouldn't drink the grounds in the bottom of your cup, you may want to read your fortune in them – check the Turkish Coffee/Fortune Telling section of the website of İstabul's longest-established purveyor of coffee, Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi (www.mehmetefendi.com) for a guide.