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.

A Taste of Home, Displaced

Last Saturday I went to see Dalia Mortada, a Syrian-American journalist, talk about the work she’s been doing with Syrian refugees over the last couple of years.  Mortada came to Turkey in 2011 with plans to move to her family’s native Damascus and was thrown off course when the civil war started; she’s been in Istanbul ever since.  In her words, Mortada is unable to write about the war in Syria itself, so instead she has focused on telling the stories of the people displaced by the war through the lens of food.  Her project Savoring Syria was born, and she has traveled to several different countries to spend time with refugees, share meals together, and keep traditional Syrian recipes alive.

It was a great talk, with a great discussion afterward.  There are anywhere from 500,000-1.5 million Syrian refugees living just in Istanbul, but integration hasn’t been a priority and the refugee community mostly exists separate from the rest of us who live here.  It’s an odd feeling to be in the midst of a humanitarian crisis and yet still know so little about it on a personal level.

While I was listening to Mortada speak, two things really stuck out to me.  The first was when she talked about how the Syrian refugees living in camps in countries like Turkey and Greece not only missed the ability to cook, but had difficulty adjusting to not having the foods and ingredients they’re used to even when they can cook.  How the vegetables and spices are different, how they don’t have access to the things they usually use when cooking.  Even Mortada mentioned that she mourned the fact that she couldn’t find good pita bread in Istanbul, something that was a mainstay in her Syrian-American home growing up.

Anyone who hasn’t lived outside of their own culture cannot understand just how true this is.  When I moved to Turkey, re-learning how to cook was the biggest challenge I faced– not culture shock, not the language barrier, not the social interactions.  Just feeding myself.  I was a vegetarian for years before coming to Turkey and everything I was used to eating– portabello mushrooms, spaghetti squash, tofu, black beans, seitan– wasn’t available here.  There were no Mexican or Thai or Indian spices, no crock pots or microwaves.  I literally could not cook anything that I really knew how to cook, and even navigating the grocery store was an immense challenge until I understood the language better.

It’s something that seems so small, but in reality is a huge part of daily life– we feed ourselves three times a day, after all–and having to completely change how we do it is daunting and frustrating.  On top of that, we inevitably miss the things we can’t have.  I miss chunky peanut butter every single day, and real Mexican food.  When I go to the US to visit family, I spend as much time planning what I’m going to eat while I’m there as I do planning which friends I will see.  Don’t get me wrong, Turkey has great food, and most of the time I’m happy to eat it.  It’s just not home, not the things I grew up eating and taught myself how to cook.

And if I feel this way– the initial deep frustration at not having access to “my” food, the deep longing for tastes and textures I love– when I freely chose to move halfway across the world, what must people who have been displaced by war, who had no choice in leaving, feel?

The other thing that stuck with me was when Mortada described how the refugees she’s been in contact with are opening up restaurants all over the world– in Germany, in the United States, in Canada.  And I thought to myself, Yes, this is how it goes.  One of the things I absolutely love most about the US is the immense diversity of food available, and most of that is thanks to the large number of immigrants.  In a mid-sized American city, you can easily go out for Vietnamese, Greek, Ethiopian, and Cuban food in one weekend and think nothing of it.

People seem to forget that virtually every big wave of immigrants or refugees has been feared and discriminated against at first.  America is such a melting pot and now there are so many nationalities that we inherently consider “American-American,” like Germans or Irish or Italians, that each faced their own difficulties when the communities first came here.  But eventually, it becomes normal and everything blends together, and no one even notices it anymore.

With the tragedy of the current humanitarian crisis, I’d like to have hope that one day, it will normalize and blend together; the cornerstones are being laid now as Syrians fan out into the world and take their food and their culture with them; one day, hopefully not too long from now, maybe we will all say, “Oh, let’s go to that Syrian place downtown” the same way we do with Italian or Mexican.  History repeats itself, for better or for worse, but sharing food culture is one of the “for betters.”