yoghurt, yoghurt, yoghurt (and some other stuff as well)

Istanbul Travel Blog

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mmm, hamsi...
I remember going to a supposedly very good Turkish restaurant in London several years ago, and being decidedly unimpressed.  I don't know whether the food that night actually wasn't very good, or I've become a much less picky eater over the course of this trip (my money's on the latter), but i've definitely changed my opinion of turkish food for the better.  It's actually not terribly easy to define Turkish cuisine, because it varies significantly depending where you are and due to numerous regional influences.  In the west along the Aegean it's lighter and very similar to Greek food, with a lot of fish and meze (small 'appetizer' dishes comparable to tapas); food from the central and eastern parts of Anatolia are heavier and more meat-based (to match the harsher, more mountainous climate), with a more middle-eastern flavor; there's also 'Ottoman cuisine' and different fish-based cuisine from the northern Black Sea coast. 

One of the few constants is yoghurt, and plenty of it.  Yoghurt (yoğurt in turkish, meaning it's pronounced more like yo-urt) probably makes up the biggest part of the refridgerated section in turkish supermarkets, where it's available in everything from the Danone snack cups we Americans are eminently familiar with to industrial-sized vats.  It's certainly one of the staples used most widely in Turkish food, and has a wide variety of uses:  there's ayran (after rakı, probably the national drink), a roughly 50-50 mixture of yoghurt and water; a variety of thickened yoghurts with vegetables as meze (many similar to tzatziki); and iskender kebab, a plate of sliced döner kebab with pita, a tomato-based sauce, and - you guessed it - yoghurt.

For all of the variety in Turkish cooking, there's also a simplicity to many of the main dishes.  Turkish breakfast is a relatively straightforward affair:  fresh bread or sliced simit (ring-shaped sesame rolls) with a variety of cheeses and jams, complemented by fresh vegetables (usually tomato, cucumber and pepper) and olives. Lentil soup, jazzed up to taste with lemon juice and chili flakes, is available almost everywhere, as are köfte (meatballs, which come in literally dozens of different forms), kebabs (various types of skewered meat), and pilav (buttered rice, sometimes with chicken).

Of course to list all of the other dishes I've had since coming to Turkey would take forever (not to mention be really hard, since half the time I haven't known whatever it was I was eating), but I'll try to go through some of the highlights.  Of the zillions of different meze dishes, one of my favorites is acılı ezme, a fairly spicy tomato and chili paste eaten with bread.  Menemen is a tasty alternative to the normal turkish breakfast:  spiced scrambled eggs with tomatoes, onion and pepper.  I've also had some fantastic seafood while I've been here:  grilled palamut, an oily Black Sea fish not dissimilar to salmon; both grilled and fried hamsi (which I've seen translated as anchovies but remain unsure as to whether I completely buy the translation), 2-3 inch fish served and eaten whole except for the head (although I'm not too keen on the tail myself); and some grilled octopus - served almost whole - which was AMAZING.  For dessert, of course there's baklava (which apparently should be served with a dollop of super-heavy cream that's basically unsalted butter), but also some sort of warm sesame-paste dessert (tahin?) that after a few spoonfuls will have you bouncing off the walls in no time at all.  And I've also had some really good General Tso chicken at a great Chinese restaurant not far from my apartment, but that doesn't really count...
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mmm, hamsi...
mmm, hamsi...
Istanbul
photo by: Memo