BY LEYLA YVONNE ERGIL
Turkish cuisine is well-known thanks to kebabs, baklava and many other sweets. But what do Turks eat at home?
Let’s face it, when it comes to cuisine the Turks have it down pat. With luscious kebabs and elaborate meze spreads for dinner following a famously scrumptious breakfast, Turkish cuisine is well-known for dishing up many crave-worthy specialties famed worldwide. But beyond the kebabs, mezes and gözlemes and renowned breakfast tradition this country is famed for, is a whole different realm of classic dishes that are regularly prepared in homes throughout Turkey and that are consumed for lunch and afternoon gatherings. Check out what the locals are eating behind closed doors and find out how to adapt the same healthy and satisfying eating style yourself.
When water is a key ingredient
Unlike the rich meals of meats and mezes, there is a whole different genre of cuisine in Turkey referred to as home cooking – in Turkish “ev yemeği” – in which dishes that are best conceived of as stews are served up and referred to as “sulu yemek,” which literally translates to “dishes with water.” In summer, these stews are prepared with seasonal pulses and vegetables ranging from white and borlotti beans to green beans, okra and peas with the shared ingredients of onions and tomatoes as a must. There is also a tradition of simply using dill to prepare stews based on the seasonal ingredients of artichoke and broad beans. Yet another exception to the Turkish stew standard is “kuru fasulye.” Hands down one of the most popular comfort foods in Turkey, this dish traditionally solely consists of white beans in a tomato sauce. Many cuisines include a primary dish of beans and rice, and kuru fasulye and pilaf is Turkey’s submission. While most households and restaurants serve this dish plain, sometimes the beans can be topped with chunks of meat or sucuk.
While meat is not regularly included in Turkish home cooking, as you can see there are of course exceptions. What is never an exception, however, is the obligatory side of rice pilaf, cooked to perfection with butter and a sprinkling of orzo throughout as decoration. While this is Turkey’s go-to rice preparation, a tomato-based rice or bulgur pilaf also serve as regular substitutes. Yogurt is a given on the side of many Turkish stew dishes and, of course, integral to the mix are slices of Turkey’s classic freshly-baked loaves of bread. Many households will prepare huge batches of stew-like dishes to have on hand for anyone to easily consume at any time of the day.
The time for comfort food
While home-cooked stews are the general staple lunch meal consumed by the Turks, there are exceptions to this rule when it comes to comfort foods such as “mantı,” “pide” and “lahmacun.” Each more time-consuming to prepare than the other as one is a stuffed dumpling and the others are oven-baked and topped flat breads, these lunch items are mainly eaten out or ordered in. A döner wrap is also a popular grab-and-go meal, but keep in mind you have to get to the döner shop early as many will run out in the later hours of the day.
Season of cold soups
Soups, and especially lentil soup, which comes in two varieties, one being tomato-based, is also a staple in the Turkish household. However, the Turks will switch it up in summer and serve up a variety of cold and nutritious soups to beat the heat. Sometimes referred to as “ayran aşı,” “yayla çorbası” or simply as “yoğurt çorbası,” there is a refreshing yogurt-based soup that is yogurt-based and prepared with chickpeas and whole grains of pearl barley or rice and seasoned with mint and is served hot or cold.
Home cooking at its finest
While these are the dishes that are consumed on a regular basis at home, it is also possible to find restaurants known as “esnaf lokantası” that specifically serve “home cooking” referred to as “ev yemeğı.” These are casual sit-down restaurants that serve the working crowd during the lunchtime hours with a warm buffet of stews. In fact, as each dish is prepared fresh every day, many times these locales will sell out of their selection by mid-afternoon. In addition to stew-like dishes, rice and yogurt, a lunch out may also include “kızartma,” which means “fried” and is a medley of peppers, eggplant and potatoes fried and served with a garlic-infused yogurt.
The classic Turkish buffet spread
What is more elusive to find outside of the home are the traditional salads and finger foods that adorn any buffet, especially those spread out at gatherings in Turkish homes. The number one dish that always has a place in a buffet is “kısır,” a salad of fine-bulghur with parsley and tomato paste that can include onions and be seasoned with pomegranate molasses. Another prominent dish of any get-together is “mercimek köftesi,” which is a red lentil patty filled with tomatoes and spices that is shaped by hand into finger-food-sized oblong shapes and served on a bed of lettuce with lemon juice squeezed over the top.
Turkey’s stuffed grapevine leaves, referred to as “yaprak sarma dolması,” are a specialty in many a household, and while there is a variation with meat, they are mainly served as little pockets stuffed with currant-spiced rice. Single-serving stuffed dishes constitute some of Turkey’s finest cuisine and range from “içli köfte,” which is a bulgur coating stuffed with ground beef sauteed in onions, to a variety of green and red peppers, tomatoes and eggplants, which are stuffed with either a tomato-based or currant rice.
Salads vary from the simplistic watercress in yogurt or a dip-like preparation of sauteed carrots and garlic yogurt to a salad of garlic-infused smoked eggplant. There will also most likely be a Turkish-style potato salad, which is olive oil and lemon or vinegar-based and includes pickles, red peppers, and parsley. One definite constant is that no summer table in Turkey would be equipped if they didn’t have cubes of watermelon on hand to cleanse the palate and finish the meal off with something sweet.
Afternoon tea is a sweet relief
The Turks love their tea, morning, noon and night, before and after meals and, well, pretty much all the time. There is, however, a special time of the day, as in the case in many cultures, in which an afternoon tea is warranted a little more respect. Along with the tea, a slice of cake is usually served in homes and in hotels, the latter as a gesture to make people feel at home. When I say cake, I mean a particular style of loaf-shaped cake that is actually less sweet and moist than what other types of cake can be. Turkish teatime cakes tend to be flakier (read drier) and more refined in flavor, whether it be chocolate-based, lemon or orange or what-have-you. Nonetheless, a slice of Turkish “kek” as it is referred to in Turkey, is subtly satisfying and goes great accompanied by a warm cup of tea.
In lieu of cake, there is another tea-time tradition here in Turkey, and that is to drink your afternoon brew accompanied by the bite-sized cookies that are sold in every patisserie in the nation. Classified as “tuzlu” for salty or savory and “tatlı” for sweet, these delightful snacks are purchased by the kilo by households to have something to offer to guests to snack on. Packaged in paper boxes, a selection of said cookies also serves as an excellent gift when going as a guest to someone’s home.
On the spot: what to serve at popovers
If you have spent any significant time in Turkey, then you too will have experienced the popular “pop-over” in which neighbors, acquaintances or whatnot will just show up at your door to pay a visit. While it is always the norm to offer tea or coffee to your guests, many Turkish households are able to pull off putting out an impressive spread at the drop of a hat. Not only would this include any ready-made home-cooked dishes, but it could simply be a sampling of a selection of olives, cheeses and pickles, coupled by a tasting of tomato or red pepper paste, served either as is or as an “acuka” dip and olive oil. All of which is course accompanied with bread, and lots of it! These ingredients also answer the question of what one would find in a Turk’s refrigerator if one were to open the door at any given time.