From baklava to dondurma, here’s a look at Turkish cuisine…

From baklava to dondurma, here’s a look at Turkish cuisine…

Topkapi palace, Anatolia and the migrations, all had culinary impact

Alinazek cuisine
Turkish cuisine: Alinazek Kebab is a rich meaty dish with a smoky eggplant base. Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque/Gulf News

There is a Turkish proverb that says, “Life comes through the food”. And if you have visited the historical country, you will know that food is more than just a means to live, it is a way of life – and we are not just talking about the classic baklava (sweet), döner kebabs, and dondurma (battered ice cream).

Turkish cuisine is definitely more than that. Especially since every bite taken has a tale to offer up and a history to cherish.

A history to embrace

Located between the two continents of Asia and Europe, lies Turkey. Known for its flora, fauna, and rich culture, the country has been a melting pot of geographical influences from several adjacent countries over time. But among all this, it is Turkey’s rich culinary history that cannot go unnoticed. It is highly reflective of the Seljuk and Ottoman empires that ruled the country in the past.

Located between the two continents of Asia and Europe, lies Turkey
Located between the two continents of Asia and Europe, lies Turkey Image Credit: Shutterstock

While the food is as delicious as it looks, the Turkish will tell you that the cuisine is divided into three styles – palace food, food with influences from other countries, and Anatolian food. And each of them differs by a great margin of flavour.

That being said, the imperial kitchen of Turkey had set the standards of flavour at the time of its functioning at Topkapi Palace. Legend has it that the kitchen could accommodate 1,300 members of staff, cooks, and their assistants all at once. If these numbers seem surprising to you, then it will come as a shock to know that the Ottoman imperial kitchen alone cooked and fed an average of 5,000 people on a regular day!

Ottoman Empire
The sultans during the reign of Seljuk and Ottoman empires were quite particular about what touched their palates Image Credit: Shutterstock

As for Turkish food with roots and influences from other countries, quite a few of their meals were tweaked to suit the palates of other monarchs and seafarers.

According to, “The Turkish Cuisine has the extra privilege of being at the crossroads of the Far-East and the Mediterranean, which mirrors a long and complex history of Turkish migration from the steppes of Central Asia (where they mingled with the Chinese) to Europe (where they exerted influence all the way to Vienna).

“All these unique characteristics and history have bestowed upon the Turkish Cuisine a rich and varied number of dishes, which can be prepared and combined with other dishes in meals of almost infinite variety, but always in a non-arbitrary way. This led to a cuisine that is open to improvisation through the development of regional styles, while retaining its deep structure….”

Anatolia is popularly known as the 'bread basket of the world', mainly because they paved the way to the making of unleavened flatbreads since wheat was in abundance in those areas. Manti (dumplings), börek (pastry) were some of the common dishes, which were highly valued.

Bread basket - Turkey Image Credit: Expect Best/

Anatolians often prepare a sweet soup dish called Asure, which uses beans, wheat, and dried fruits as its key ingredients. There are speculations when it comes to the legend behind this dish, which is said to have first come from the Ark of Noah.

Apart from this, when it comes to spices, the Turkish focus a lot on their specific flavours. Sumac was one such spice that dominated and continues to dominate Turkish cuisine. Red pepper flakes, black pepper, thyme, cumin, and mint are among other spices, which are dominantly used in Turkish cooking.

Times have changed, and of course, cooking styles have also changed, especially since the emergence of modern technology and innovation. But visit a standard Turkish kitchen today, and you will undoubtedly find a slab of butter, a bottle of olive oil, pepper, and tomato paste.

Murat Selim Ozturk

Murat Selim Ozturk, a Dubai-based Turkish singer said that a typical meal in a Turkish home is usually structured. Starting with soup, it could be tarhana, ezo gelin or lentil soup. He said: "One of my favorite soup is yoghurt soup. Later, we eat the main course such as imambayıldı which is made with minced meat and roasted eggplant, or white beans (kurufasulye), you could have a fish like a hamsi depending on the season, else there is always meat. Just as tea is one of the mandatory items for the breakfast, salad is the same for the dinner. You could also have shepherd salad (çoban salatası)."

And this has created the path to what you are served at a Turkish restaurant today, starting with breakfast.

Breakfast in Turkey

A regular morning in Turkey often begins with simit, a kind of circular bread made with a twisted strip of dough, which is then covered in sesame seeds and baked to golden-brown perfection. Every resident or visitor would have at least one of these in their hands as they rush to work or to explore the city.

Camcigil and his family members grew up eating at their grandmother Samia's house. "There was always an occasion with beautiful table settings and the starters may have changed but the main was always oven-baked manti (as opposed to boiled). The crunch of the paper-thin dough combined with the garlic yoghurt is divine".

- Necip Camcigil, owner of One Life Kitchen and cafe at Dubai Design District

From a wide variety of food, pastries remain the most loved dish amongst the Turkish community, within and outside the region. “Our breakfast table is a huge spread, right from cheese to bread and most important of all, pastries. We love to eat and it all begins at the breakfast table in all homes across Turkey,” said the head Chef Muhamat Ors at Babaji Istanbul restaurant in Dubai.

Cheese spread during a Turkish restaurant
Cheese spread during a typical Turkish breakfast

While it starts with simit, a traditional Turkish breakfast is so much more than just bread. Visit any restaurant or café in or outside Turkey and you’ll be welcomed with cheese, meat, eggs, jams, spreads, more bread, and a classic Turkish coffee or tea with the famed Turkish delight.

“Breakfast in Turkish (kahvaltı) means ‘before coffee’, so coffee is not a part of this meal,” quotes an article on Turkish cuisine by

Necip Camcigil, who owns One Life Kitchen and cafe at Dubai Design District has a couple of Turkish-inspired dishes from his homeland. He said: "We love having bread with some Feta (we call it beyaz peynir) and fresh-cut tomatoes. On weekends, we might get fresh simit from the bakery, which is like a Turkish version of a bagel. For lunch, we typically have something light like a stew with rice, a small salad. We don’t really do heavy meals at home or things you would find in a Turkish restaurant or kebabci (kebab restaurant)."

Here’s a guide to making the famed Alinazek kebab at home from the kitchen of Babaji Istanbul, Dubai.

Camcigil and his family members grew up eating at their grandmother Samia's house. "There was always an occasion with beautiful table settings and the starters may have changed but the main was always oven-baked manti (as opposed to boiled). The crunch of the paper-thin dough combined with the garlic yoghurt is divine".

Speaking about some quirky aspects of Turkish cuisine, Necip said: "A dish called Yaprak Sarma or Dolma is basically vine leaves stuffed with meat and rice served with garlic yoghurt and a light tomato sauce. Interestingly the version without meat is called 'yalanci' in Turkey, which is a Turkish word that means 'liar'. So the dish is posing as a dish with meat but actually is vegetarian."

Pastries, kebabs and the legendary Gavurdagi salad

Apart from pastries and bread, kebab and meat dishes such as yahni (stew) are popular amongst locals and tourists. The way meat is cooked is what makes the cooking method different. Meat, tomatoes, onion, water are added to the main dish after being roasted in oil. Whereas, tomato and onion paste are the main ingredient and base for most of the dishes.

Gavurdagi Salad
Turkish recipe: Gavurdagi Salad Image Credit: Shutterstock

Vegetables are mostly consumed raw, in salad. Coban (tomatoes, cucumbers, and green peppers) salad, bulgur wheat salad and chickpea salad rule the Turkish vegetarian menu. However, the legendary Gavurdagi (Gavurdağı Salatası) has topped the Mediterranean charts for reasons more than one. Prepared with fresh tomatoes, cucumber, walnuts and pomegranate, this salad comes from the Gaziantep region (a South Eastern Anatolian city more than 10,000 years old) in Turkey. What makes it special is the dressing – a delicate mix of pomegranate molasses, sumac tossed in olive oil. Along with a fresh pick of roma or even tomatoes.

Here's a recipe for Gavurdagi salad

Variety of herbs

A well prepared salad calls for a good dressing and herbs. Turkey is home to some of the most flavourful and nutritious herbs – vine, hibiscus, nettle, arugula, parsley, radish sprouts, thistle, chicory, poppy, Kushto of plantain, blessed thistle, dandelion, Helvajik, asparagus and more. Not only this, these herbs hold great economic and cultural value in Turkey.

The different kinds of herb in Turkey Image Credit: lilartsy/

Oil, lard, fat and butter are given great importance in the preparation of dishes and consumed generously. “We use a special butter which we import from Turkey, and this makes our kebabs flavorful. It’s called the Iskender butter,” explained Chef Ors.

Surrounded by neighbouring countries such as Bulgaria, Greece, Iraq, The Balkans, Syria and Iran, and owing to the migration of the 1980s and 1990s, the food culture has seen reciprocal influence, such as dishes like Dolma, börek, kebab and mantı (Turkish ravioli). The Western influence or Turkish Aegean cuisine made rice more popular as compared to the traditional bulgar or cracked wheat. It also uses fewer spices in cooking as compared to other regional dishes.

Dolma: a family of stuffed vegetable dishes from Ottoman cuisine Image Credit: Farhad Ibrahimzade/

Charting the map from East to West and North to South, Ahmet H Demir, manager at Babaji Istanbul restaurant, Dubai, said: “Western coast is more about Mediterranean style while the south is all about kebabs and heavy food.”

Fancy chicken in your dessert?

While the Turkish are famous for their meaty kebabs and flaky borek, their love for all things sweet is also unbeaten. A warm and sticky stack of baklava, one of the most famous desserts eaten in Turkey accompanies virtually every cup of evening tea in the country.

Their phyllo pastry-based sweets with generous additions of walnuts and pistachios are world famous, but they also have desserts that are lesser known. Did you know that at a Turkish restaurant you can order a plate of chicken breast pudding called Tavuk Gogsu? The chicken breast pudding is a simple but unusual dessert that is made with finely shredded white meat. The chicken is mixed with milk and cinnamon, making the flavour of the meat undetectable.

Tavuk Gogsu
Tavuk Gogsu Image Credit: Shutterstock

Desserts like syrupy Tulumba (fried dough), rich Kunafe (dough layered with cheese and soaked in sugar syrup), and chewy Turkish delight are also common.

The sweets don’t end there, some of them come with a show. Turkish ice cream or Dondurma has a special gummy, stretchable quality thanks to the mastic (plant resin) used to make it. Usually sold in iconic street-side stalls by sellers wearing fezzes, ready to tease you before handing you your ice cream cone.

Hafiz Mustafa – Serving desserts for more than 157 years

The shop started as a small producer of rock candy in Istanbul’s harbour-side district of Eminonu. Now, it has branches across Turkey and its first-ever international store opened up in Dubai.

The confectionery is usually lined with endless rows of baklava and Turkish delights in every colour and flavour. Believed to have first been made in the 18th century, Turkish delights are made from starch and sugar, and flavours such as rose, pistachio, orange, and more. The dessert, dubbed 'comfort of the throat', holds significance in the Ottoman Empire and Turkish history. The candy is usually served with tea and coffee.

Selim Ozturk said: "Festivals and celebrations are many in Turkey. For example, on Eid, there needs to be Baklava. Baklava could be made at home or people nowadays buy it ready-made. Another special dish is Aşure, which is prepared some certain times of the year. There is a legend behind it."

Baklava - a layered filo pastry filled with chopped nuts and sweetened with sugar Image Credit: Supplied by Hafiz Mustafa

“We chose Dubai to open our international store because of its diversity and people here appreciate our desserts,” said Remzi Akbas, branch manager at the store located in The Dubai Mall.

Only a number of Turkish sellers do not use glucose in their desserts, like Hafiz Mustafa, as it reduces the product’s shelf life but also gives it a better taste.

Turkish delight rolls or Sultan rolls
Turkish delight rolls or Sultan rolls Image Credit: Supplied by Hafiz Mustafa

According to Akbas, the recipes they use are the same as the time of the Ottoman Empire, during which the store first opened.

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