The basis of the incomparable secret of Turkish cooking, one of the world’s three great cuisines, came from the fusion of the traditional cooking of the Turks who migrated to Anatolia and that of the local inhabitants, together with what those peoples living in Anatolia at the time had in turn inherited from the cuisines of others who had lived there earlier. This vast ocean of flavor emerged as a synthesis of the culinary cultures of all the people who had at various times made their home in Anatolia, from the Hittites to the Romans, with those from the three continents over which the Ottoman Empire spread during its 700-year history.
Turkish cuisine blended together everything the nomadic Turkmen brought with them from the places they passed through on their long westward journey from the steppes of Asia, with what they found in their new homeland of Anatolia and in Middle Eastern culture. It reached a peak of sophistication with the cuisine of the Ottoman Palace, where skilled and experienced cooks created an imperial cuisine based on the very finest ingredients where experimentation could find free rein.
There is no doubt that an important element in the development of Ottoman Palace Cuisine was the earlier Byzantine culture it replaced, so in this respect we can speak of historical continuity. Historians remark many similari
ties between Byzantine cuisine and its modern Turkish counterpart in terms of the number and structure of the meals served.
According to most sources, Turkish Kebab originated in the southeastern part of the country and has its ancient origins in nearby Arab countries. Perhaps the earliest recipe is in the tenth century Kitab al-Tabeekh (book of cookery) by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq of Baghdat. Traditionally, it was served on a plate with rice and a hot sauce with melted butter and ground paprika. In the 19th century the modern form was invented in Bursa, although the original recipe is still served in many cities of Turkey.
The most popular type of kebab in Istanbul as well as throughout Europe is döner. Döner Kebab, literally “rotating meat”, is a sliced lamb, beef or chicken loaf slowly roasted on a vertical rotating spit.
There are literally hundreds of kebab restaurants in Istanbul. Locals and expats alike have a “favorite” kebab restaurant. The following are just some of the more popular kebab restaurants in the city:
The Turkish people have lived far from the coast until their arrival in Anatolia, where for the first time seafood became a part of their cuisine. The native people of the Anatolian Peninsula, surrounded as it is by the sea on three sides, were already great consumers of seafood. That tradition continued with the arrival of the Turks. For most of the year the Çanakkale and Istanbul straits, which link the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, are full of migrating fish, the majority of which are peculiar to those straits.
Istanbul beckons to lovers of seafood, with its straits through which so many of the world’s finest fish pass. The fish restaurants of the Bosphorus in particular offer guests the finest seafood in the world.
Mediterranean cooking led to a transformation in Turkish cuisine. The addition of delicious vegetables and herbs from the coastal regions of the Mediterranean in particular and the incomparable flavour of olive oil led to the emergence of mezes, hors d’oeuvres which are such an integral feature of Turkish cuisine.
It is as if these mezes, so essential when drinking Rakı, the Turkish national drink, had been specially invented to lighten both its pungent taste and the effects of its high alcohol content. Rakı, which is flavoured with aniseed, has been the most important alcoholic beverage from Ottoman times right up to the present day. It is not customary to drink rakı alone, but as an accompaniment to conversation at the dinner table, and it is consumed according to its own etiquette and rituals.
However, raki is far from being the only alcoholic beverage in Turkey. Turkish wines produced from grapes grown in vineyards all over Anatolia, from the coastal plains of the Aegean and the Mediterranean to the high plateaus of Eastern Anatolia, have always maintained their place at the Turkish table. Red, white, rose and fruit wines, traditionally home-made in villages, have won many awards at international competitions. Today production continues at modern plants, altough the flavour remains unchanged, and these wines are now exported all over the world.
Wine returns to its homeland
Since the time of the Hittites around 2000 BC grapes have been cultivated and made into wine in Anatolia, which some regard as the homeland of wine. In antiquity, the Aegean and Marmara shores exported wine and olive oil to all the countries bordering on the Mediterranean and Black Sea, and the resulting wealth enabled them to build magnificent cities graced by marble temples and stone villas.
The most appropriate Turkish grape varieties for making wine are Bogazkere and Öküzgözü grapes grown in eastern and southern Anatolia. One of the world’s best red wines is made from these two grapes. In western Anatolia the Emir grape is regarded as one of the world’s best varieties for making white wine.
Today many hotels and restaurants in Turkey have their own wine cellars. Beyoğlu in central Istanbul is particularly noted for its many wine taverns, where you can taste all kinds of local and Mediterranean wines, accompanied by delicious mezes.
Olive Oil; miracle of nature
The olive, a tree native to the Mediterranean region, is grown widely along Turkey’s Mediterranean, Aegean and Marmara coasts. Many different varieties of olive are cultivated, those growing in the Marmara region mainly being table varieties, while those on the Aegean coast are largely used to make olive oil. The most famous olive oil is that made in the area around Ayvalik on the northern Aegean coast, where there are both large refineries producing olive oil along a large scale, and small traditional refineries, where the methods haven’t changed for hundreds of years.
Turkish olive oils are exported in large quantities and have won several international awards. Cold dishes cooked with olive oil are one of the most celebrated classes of dishes in Turkish cuisine. These olive oil dishes known as zeytinyağlı are mainly made of dried or fresh vegetables, although there are some types made with seafood and more rarely with meat.
One of the principal features of Turkish cuisine is the pastries, dumplings and baked goods of countless diversity made from wheat flour and other cereals in every region of Anatolia. Bread, however holds a special place and it is impossible to imagine a Turkish meal without it. Bread has sacred significance in Anatolian culture.
There is a Turkish proverb that says “Let’s eat sweet and talk sweetly”. Sweet things are enjoyed at all times of the day in Turkey, at meal times or just as snack. The primary reason for this must be that Turkish cuisine possesses an incomparable range of fabulous desserts, including milk puddings, sweet pastries and fruit puddings of various kinds, often flavored with pistachios and other nuts.