How To Eat Like A Turk

I was cooking dinner tonight and as I got a lemon and a container of yogurt out of the fridge, it occurred to me that I use both of those things almost every day now– a habit that I only picked up after moving to Istanbul.  It got me thinking and I thought it would be fun to write up a post about some of the awesome food culture in Turkey.  Enjoy!

1) Put Lemon On Everything

Cut open a lemon and give it a squeeze over whatever you’re eating.  Seriously, it works with almost anything, and really brightens up flavors.

2) Put Yogurt On Everything, Too

One of the best things I’ve learned from living in Turkey is that yogurt is super versatile, not just for a sweet snack with tons of added sugar.  Turks use regular plain yogurt (sour-tasting) and süzme yogurt (strained yogurt, similar in texture to Greek yogurt) as a regular part of meals– both by itself, with spices (I love putting a bit of garlic powder and mint in plain süzme yogurt and eating it as a snack or a side), dolloped on meat, lentils, into soups…. it’s everywhere in the cuisine here, and it’s delicious.

3) Accept That Your Fish Stares Back At You

Fish in Turkey are almost always served whole, with head and scales and tail, and you de-bone it yourself and pick out the meat.  It’s also common to get little fried anchovies called hamsi and eat them whole, even the bones.  The first time or two it’s weird, but then you get used to it (mostly because it tastes so good).

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4) Realize That Small Dishes Are Amazing

Meyhane is a type of restaurant where you get a bunch of mezes (small dishes similar to Spanish tapas) for the table to share, along with a bottle or two of raki (anise-flavored liquor similar to Greek ouzo) and each person typically gets their own fish course.  However, I love mezes so much that my husband and I often skip the fish course and just have a long dinner of nothing but side dishes, and enjoy the heck out of it.  This is my favorite kind of Turkish dining.

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And sometimes, a kitten wanders over to help you eat your mezes

5) Carve Time Out Of Your Weekend For A Long, Glorious Breakfast

Turkish breakfasts are my other favorite kind of dining here.  Like in meyhanes, proper Turkish breakfasts are long and made up of many different small dishes.  Of course most Turks don’t eat like that every day (and who has time for that before going to work?), but oh man, Turkish breakfast is like brunch on steroids.

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6) Cut Down On Sugar

There isn’t much added sugar in Turkish foods, not even really in their baked goods.  Most of their cookies and cakes are way less sweet than their American counterparts.  There are exceptions to this, of course– like birthday cakes with lots of frosting, and tres leches cake has become very popular here– but generally cakes don’t have frosting at all.  When desserts are super sweet, it’s usually because it’s been soaked in syrup.

7) Drink Tea, Not Coffee

Turkish coffee is a cultural institution and great (albeit very, very strong– imagine a shot of espresso with the grounds still in it), but it’s usually only drunk after meals to help with digestion.  Instead, Turks typically drink black tea in the mornings and throughout the day.  The tea is strong too, brewed for 15-20 minutes in a double boiler until a concentrate is made and then mixed with warm water according to taste, and is drunk in little tulip-shaped glasses.

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8) Be Open To Weird Flavor/Texture Combinations

There are some Turkish dishes that most Americans would never imagine working.  Some of them I love, like künefe, a dessert that has melty cheese surrounded by shredded wheat, submerged in syrup, and topped with kaymak (a kind of sweet, creamy butter) and sometimes pistachios.  If it sounds heavy, it is; don’t expect to be able to move afterwards.  But it’s delicious!  Others, like ayran, a frothy yogurt drink with salt, have been more of an acquired taste.  Regardless, there are a lot of flavor combinations that seemed weird when I moved here that now seem totally normal and appealing.

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Yogurt and salt– what’s not to love?

9) Put Egg On Your Pizza

Or pide, to be more specific.  Pide is the Turkish version of pizza, and it’s the same kind of idea– there’s dough, and you put stuff on top of the dough, and you bake it.  Simple.  There are some differences, though, like the fact that pide doesn’t have tomato sauce.  Another (amazing) difference is that you can get an egg on your pide.  Either scrambled or just kind of cracked on top.  Such a great idea, I don’t know why more cultures haven’t picked this up.

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10) Speaking Of Eggs… Cook Them With Peppers And Tomatoes

I’ll be honest, even after two and a half years here, I don’t know how to cook many Turkish dishes– a lot of them require lots of hands-on work and long cooking times, and, well, I’m more about the quick dinners after work.  But one thing that is super easy to make and super delicious is menemen, where eggs are scrambled with chopped peppers, tomatoes, and olive oil (or butter).  My husband used to make an improvised version of this using salsa when we lived in the US, but real Turkish menemen is heavier on the green peppers.  You can also add different cheeses and meats to it if you want, or you can eat it plain.  Here is an English-language version of the recipe from Ozlem’s Turkish Table.

11) Roll Your Bagels In Sesame Seeds

Turkish simit are like thin, crispy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside bagels that have been covered in sesame seeds.  We used to find frozen ones in a Turkish store in North Carolina and they are worth the trek if you have an international foods store in your area.  Or you can try to make them at home, if you’re feeling ambitious.

12) Eat Raw Meat

Okay, not really… but there is a dish called çığ köfte, which literally translates into “raw meatball,” and did indeed used to be made out of raw red meat.  Now, though, there’s a wonderful vegetarian version made out of bulgar mixed with bread crumbs, tomato paste, walnuts, and spices.  Typically it’s eaten wrapped in a lettuce leaf and squeezed with lemon.  It’s a great light lunch or dinner.  My back-up life plan is to move to the US and market çığ köfte to hipsters as exotic health food (vegan! served with lemon and lettuce! made with exotic oriental spices) and charge them a lot of money for it without mentioning that it’s one of the cheapest foods you can get in Turkey.

13) Load Up On Lots Of Fresh Fruits And Vegetables

Unlike in the United States, fresh produce is one of the cheapest foods you can buy in Turkey, and there are vegetable and fruit stands literally on almost every corner of Istanbul, so it’s easy to grab anything you need on the way home.

There are so many more things I could talk about, but these are the things that immediately came to mind.  Hopefully it inspires some people to either book a trip to Istanbul or maybe just find a Turkish restaurant in their area.

Stranger in a Strange Land: When Being an Outsider Makes You an Insider

During lunch today with a coworker, our conversation turned to the different places that we’ve lived.  I’m American, and have lived up multiple places on the East Coast– from small rural towns to big cities– and have been living in Istanbul since 2014.  My coworker is Australian but lived in London for six years before moving to Istanbul in 2016.  The conversation turned to how difficult it can be to move someplace new as an adult, specifically how difficult it can be to make friends.  One thing we agreed on: making friends in Istanbul has been far easier than any other place we’ve lived, in large part because there is a thriving expat community here and everyone is looking for friends.

I went to university about an hour outside of Washington DC and then moved to Boston after graduation with two of my college roommates.  Making friends in high school and college is easy because you spend all day with hundreds of people your age, and you’re bound to like at least a couple of them.  There are also school-organized social events specifically created to let you meet and bond with people.  It’s a whole different ballgame as an adult without that scaffolding– it’s up to you, and you alone.  I loved living in Boston and did make some casual acquaintances through writing groups, but since I was living with my two best friends, I never bothered getting that close to anyone else; I was already having all of my social and emotional needs met.

That changed completely when I moved to North Carolina for graduate school.  I moved by myself and lived by myself– my first time living without roommates.  I was lonely and had a really hard time making friends.  My grad program was small, almost everyone was older than me, everyone was married or in a serious relationship, and many of them had kids.  I was a very single 24-year-old who didn’t have much extra time for socializing, given my coursework.  I lived in North Carolina for five years and did end up making absolutely wonderful, close friends there, both in grad school and then later at my job, but it took awhile and I felt very isolated for a long time before finally finding a social group.

Then I moved to Istanbul, and making friends here has been so easy.  I was looking online for a local writers group to join, and in the process I stumbled upon a women-only expat group.  I joined the group, went to one of their social get-togethers a week or so later, and BOOM, met my first batch of friends– out of that first group of maybe ten or twelve women, a couple become close friends and I kept in touch/socially hung out with a few others.  Later, I went to other social gatherings put together by the expat group and continued meeting people.  I wasn’t working my first year here because it took nine months to get a work visa, so I had plenty of time to socialize and ended up meeting dozens of women whom I could call friends.

If you randomly throw fifty women into a room, it doesn’t mean that they will all get along, or have anything in common.  However, it’s different when you’re an expat.  There is something– a few somethings, really– about being a stranger in a strange land that brings people together.  Everyone is in the same boat and is building their social network from scratch and looking for friends.  We automatically have at least one thing in common: we are the kind of people who are willing to move to a new country.  Being so far from your support network means that people are often almost desperate to connect to and talk to people who might understand them.  And just the mere fact that you’re both outsiders creates a weird sort of bond; we are yabanci, the Turkish word for foreigners, and that alone makes us identify with one another.

Rather than having difficulty making friends, the problem I’ve run into here is that people come and go quickly.  I have made incredible friends here, and watched most of them leave one by one for various reasons– usually for a job in another country.  The expat community is transient and friendships often feel like a long goodbye, when it’s known that someone doesn’t have plans to stay.

I’ve become less social these days.  I work long hours as a high school teacher and, quite frankly, when I’m not at work wrangling teenagers, I prefer to spend time at home or sightseeing with my husband rather than going to big meet-ups.  I also am incredibly lucky to have wonderful coworkers who have become friends, which has at least partially filled the gap of friends who have left.  I’m pretty happy with my muted social schedule.

Still, it’s nice to know that in this city 6,000 miles from home, new friendships are waiting in Istanbul’s crowded, hectic streets if I decide to seek them.  It’s counter-intuitive, to think that going so far from your own culture would make it easier to make friends, but somehow that’s exactly what happened.