We didn’t know much about Turkish food before our first trip to Turkey. Now, we’re convinced it’s one of the world’s best countries for food, its greatness measured by its diversity, longevity, and the legacy left behind by an imperial kitchen.
We ate our way through multiple regions in the country and everywhere we went we found amazing Turkish food. Interesting dishes like testi kebap, borek, cig kofte, and kunefe opened our eyes to the diversity of Turkish cuisine. It also made us realize that we were just beginning to scratch the surface of all the delicious things this country had to offer.
Food-wise, there is still so much more to explore in Turkey. Looking at a map, I almost don’t know where to begin. If it’s your first time visiting Turkey, then this list of 27 traditional Turkish dishes gives you a good place to start.
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WHAT IS TRADITIONAL TURKISH FOOD?
Traditional Turkish food is described as the continuation of Ottoman Empire cuisine. The Ottomans fused Central Asian, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Eastern European, and Balkan cuisines to create one of the world’s most diverse and influential cuisines.
Kebabs and dishes made with lamb figure prominently in Turkish food, but the cuisine varies by region. The western coast is noted for its many olive-oil-based dishes, Central Anatolia for its hearty pastries and the cities and towns by the Black Sea for its abundance of fresh fish.
If you’re visiting Istanbul, then you need to have a meal at Ciya Sofrasi. It’s helmed by Chef Musa Dagdeviren who serves obscure but traditional Turkish dishes from different parts of the country. Eating at his restaurant is like taking a culinary journey through Turkey.
POPULAR TURKISH FOOD
To help organize this Turkish food guide, I’ve divided it by section. Some dishes fall in multiple categories but I’ve tried to organize it as best I could. Click on a link to jump to a specific section.
SNACKS / PASTRIES
Leblebi is a Turkish street food snack made with roasted chickpeas. They can be plain or seasoned with salt, hot spices, or dried cloves, even candy coated. They’re a popular snack in Turkey and in other countries in the Middle East like Iran, Syria, and Afghanistan.
2. Meze Platters
Meze means “appetizer” and refers to a family of small dishes served as appetizers in Turkey, Greece, the Balkans, North Africa, and parts of the Middle East. It consists of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes like purees, salads, meatballs, pastries, dips, and cheeses.
Meze platters are often enjoyed as snacks or appetizers and can be found pretty much anywhere in Turkey.
Simit is one of the most popular Turkish foods. You’ll find it sold in these red street food carts everywhere in Istanbul.
Simit refers to a bagel-shaped bread encrusted with sesame seeds. It’s crunchy and chewy and makes for a great inexpensive Turkish snack.
Pide refers to boat-shaped flat bread baked in a brick or stone oven. It’s similar to pizza and can be topped with any number of ingredients like cheese, onion, pepper, tomato, sausage, and egg.
Pide is considered an important component of Turkish cuisine and can be found everywhere, from sit-down restaurants to street food carts.
This was one of my favorite Turkish foods. Lahmacun may resemble a thin cheese-less pizza but it’s actually a type of wrap topped with a host of ingredients like minced meat (commonly lamb or beef), vegetables, herbs, onions, tomatoes, and spices.
To eat, you roll up the lahmacun with vegetables like pickles, peppers, tomatoes, onions, lettuce, and roasted eggplant. It’s baked so it’s crisp around the edges and chewy towards the center, like a pizza.
Borek refers to a family of stuffed pastries popular in Ottoman cuisine. It’s made with a thin flaky dough like phyllo or yufka and typically filled with meat, cheese, or vegetables.
Like lahmacun, borek was one of our favorite Turkish foods. It’s available in many regional varieties like water borek, pen borek, or palace borek. Pictured below is a patatesli or potato borek.
Gozleme is a savory Turkish pastry made with thin unleavened dough. It’s lightly brushed with butter or oil and filled with various toppings like meat, vegetables, mushrooms, and cheese before being sealed and cooked over a griddle.
Like borek, there are many varieties of gozleme that differ from region to region. Pictured below is a kiymali or minced meat gozleme.
SANDWICHES / WRAPS
Durum means “roll” and refers to wraps commonly filled with doner kebab ingredients. It’s one of the most popular types of Turkish street food and can be found pretty much anywhere.
The durum was one of our favorite things to eat in Turkey. We enjoyed it on multiple occasions but the best durum we had was from the popular Durumzade shop in Istanbul. It was featured on the Istanbul episode of No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain.
These doner kebab vertical rotisseries are ubiquitous in Turkey. Seasoned meat (typically lamb, beef, or chicken) is stacked in the shape of an inverted cone and turned slowly next to a vertical heating element. When cooked, the outermost layer is shaved off in thin pieces and served on a plate or wrapped in a durum.
9. Islak Burger
The unattractive islak burger represents Turkish drunk food at its ugliest and most delicious. These soggy and greasy orange-tinged burgers are dunked in a garlicky tomato sauce before being left to steam in a hamam-style glass box, hence the name “wet burger”.
Islak burgers are moist, chewy, and garlicky. They don’t look all that appetizing but they’re oddly delicious, especially after you’ve had a few beers. It’s impossible to eat just one.
Kizilkayalar in Taksim Square is one of the most popular places to have islak burgers in Istanbul. A favorite among late night boozers, it was also featured on the Istanbul episode of No Reservations.
10. Balik Ekmek
Balik ekmek translates to “fish bread”, which describes exactly what it is — a Turkish fish sandwich. It consists of a grilled mackerel fillet sandwiched in a bun with onions, lettuce, tomatoes, and a spritz of lemon.
Balik ekmek is a sandwich best enjoyed by the water. You’ll find several balik ekmek stalls on either side of Galata Bridge in Istanbul.
MEAT / SEAFOOD
Kofte refers to a family of meatball or meatloaf dishes popular in Central Asia, India, the Balkans, and the Middle East. In its simplest form, it’s made with minced or ground meat (typically beef, lamb, or chicken) mixed with onions, herbs, and spices.
Kofte is an important dish in Turkish cuisine. You can find almost 300 varieties of kofte in Turkey, some of the most well-known being kuru kofte (dry), sulu kofte (soup), cig kofte (raw), and sis kofte (skewered).
Lamb is the most popular type of meat used in Turkish food. When someone says “meat” in Turkey, more often than not they’re referring to lamb. Turkish people eat a lot of lamb so you’ll find it in many dishes like kebabs, kofte, lahmacun, pide, ragout, and casserole.
13. Testi Kebap
Testi kebap was the most interesting Turkish dish we had in Cappadocia. Testi or pottery kebab is an Anatolian speciality prepared in a clay pot or jug. It’s usually made with lamb, beef, or chicken mixed with vegetables, potatoes, and garlic.
The ingredients are placed in the pot and sealed with bread dough before being left to cook in its own juices for several hours in a tandoor or clay oven. When ready, the jug is brought out and cracked at your table.
Photo by franz12 / Shutterstock
14. Fresh Fish
Turkey is surrounded by four seas so its coastal areas are known for its abundance of seafood. Lamb figures prominently in Turkish cuisine but so does fresh fish.
People visiting Istanbul will have plenty of seafood restaurants to choose from. It’s surrounded (and divided) by water so you’ll often find many types of fish being offered at different times of the year.
If you go on a Bosphorus cruise, then you can enjoy seafood dishes at one of the many seaside restaurants in Anadolu Kavagi. It’s the last stop on the cruise and where most tourists get off to have lunch or dinner.
15. Midye Dolmas
Midye dolmas is a popular Turkish snack made with mussels stuffed with herbed rice, pine nuts, and currants. They’re spritzed with lemon and commonly sold as street food in coastal cities like Istanbul and Izmir.
Menemen is a traditional Turkish dish made with eggs, onions, tomatoes, green peppers, and spices. It’s similar to shakshouka and commonly eaten for breakfast with bread.
17. Imam Bayildi
Imam Bayildi refers to a whole eggplant that’s been stuffed with onion, garlic, and tomato then simmered in olive oil. It’s served at room temperature and substantial enough to be eaten as an entree.
There’s an interesting story on how this Turkish dish got its name. Imam bayildi means “imam who fainted”.
18. Mushroom with cheese
I don’t know what this dish is called in Turkish but it’s English name describes exactly what it is – mushrooms served with cheese. You can find different variations of it – some made with kofte for example – but it’s basically a Turkish dish of mushrooms, vegetables, and cheese baked and served in a clay pot.
19. Cig Kofte
Cig kofte was one of the most interesting dishes we had in Turkey. It’s a Turkish raw meat dish made with either beef or lamb commonly served cold as a meze or in a durum.
In its traditional form, cig kofte is made with finely ground fatless raw beef kneaded into a thick mixture with bulgur and a host of ingredients like onions, tomatoes, fresh mint, parsley, and spices.
Unfortunately, the sale of authentic cig kofte — the kind made with actual raw meat — has been banned since 2009 as a health precaution. Most commercially available cig kofte is now made without meat.
This was one of the best desserts we’ve ever had. Kunefe refers to a crisp cheese-filled dessert made with shredded kadayif dough soaked in sweet syrup and topped with clotted cream. It’s a traditional Middle Eastern dessert that’s popular in Turkey, Greece, the Balkans, and the South Caucasus region.
When served piping hot from the oven, the cheese comes away in these stretchy gooey strings. It’s absolutely delicious and easily one of my favorite Turkish dishes.
I’ve always wondered where baklava comes from and it’s interesting to learn that it may have its origins in Turkish Ottoman cuisine. According to this article, its current form may have been perfected in the imperial kitchens of Topkapi Palace.
Baklava is a rich and sweet pastry made with layers of phyllo dough filled with chopped nuts and held together with syrup or honey. It’s popular in Turkey and in many other countries in Central Asia, the Middle East, the Balkans, the South Caucasus, and Egypt.
Sambali refers to a rich and sticky type of semolina cake made with milk or yogurt, molasses, sugar, almonds, and lemon juice. We tried it off a street food cart in Selcuk but I think it’s available at Turkish pastry shops.
23. Halka Tatlisi
Halka tatlisi is a fried dessert dipped in sweet syrup. It’s like a Turkish version of churros that’s often served as street food. You’ll find halka tatlisi vendors everywhere in Istanbul.
Dondurma is Turkish ice cream. It’s a sticky type of ice cream that’s made with salep and mastic which makes it chewier in texture and more resistant to melting. It’s delicious and one of the best ice creams I’ve ever had.
Like chestnut or simit carts, dondurma shops are everywhere in Istanbul, which is hardly a bad thing.
25. Turkish Delight
Turkish delight or lokum refers to a family of gelatinous confections commonly flavored with rosewater, mastic, bergamot orange, or lemon. It’s often cut and eaten in small cubes dusted with powdered sugar to prevent clinging.
As you can see below, premium varieties have other ingredients bound to the gel like chopped dates, pistachios, hazelnuts, and walnuts. It’s one of the most popular Turkish souvenir food items and can be found at many shops and markets throughout Istanbul.
26. Fresh Pomegranate Juice
Turkey is one of the world’s largest producers of pomegranate so you’ll find fresh juice stands everywhere. They were particularly ubiquitous in Selcuk and made for a refreshing drink after visiting the Ephesus ruins.
Salep is an interesting Turkish drink. It refers to both the drink and the flour used to make it. Salep flour is made from orchid tubers containing a nutritious, starchy polysaccharide called glucomannan.
Dusted with cinnamon and enjoyed as a dessert beverage, the salep drink is sweet and intensely rich with a unique, somewhat floral flavor. It was almost like drinking a milky, watered down porridge infused with orchid.
We tried salep in Sirince, a rural hill town near Selcuk, but many places offer salep in winter. It’s usually served piping hot so be careful when you drink it.
As big and diverse as Turkey is, this list barely scratches the surface of what Turkish cuisine has to offer. There is so much delicious Turkish food to be had in this vast country that you’ll need to stay for several months to really do it justice.
Apart from having fascinating food, Turkey is a stunningly beautiful country and home to some of the kindest and warmest people we’ve ever met. We enjoyed it so much that we could really see ourselves living there.
To be honest, we haven’t felt that way about many countries and a lot of that has to do with the allure of Turkish food.