One of the very best things that happened to me while being an au pair (cross-cultural nanny) in Istanbul, Turkey was that I fell in love with all different kinds of Turkish foods.
Prior to going to Istanbul I had never had Turkish food before. I could not have told you anything of what Turkish foods were like. I wouldn’t have known if Turkish food was like Mediterranean food, Middle Eastern food, Asian food, European food, or something entirely different.
So, what is Turkish food like?
Well, what I learned is that Turkish food involves elements of each of those cuisines! Istanbul itself is partly in Europe and partly in Asia, and Turkey borders countries like Greece as well as Bulgaria and Syria – countries that are very different from one another. So it makes sense that Turkish food would involve aspects of different kinds of cuisines, right? In my opinion, I think the diversity of flavors and influence must be part of why Turkish food is so incredible.
I was an au pair twice for two different Turkish families, and both families had a private cook. As you can imagine, I looked forward to mealtimes probably more than anything else each day. One of the cooks especially wanted me to try everything available (multiple dishes per meal) and wanted me to have seconds and thirds at every meal!
Thankfully, aside from the pastries and desserts, most Turkish food is very healthy and made from fresh ingredients. Turkish cooking involves a lot of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, zucchini, eggplant, lemon, yogurt, lamb, beef, and fish. Sometimes we ate rice, bread, and pasta, but not often. I learned to love eating yogurt with all kinds of savory foods, especially meat.
Since returning to the US, I have been on the lookout for authentic Turkish restaurants (and no, kebab shops don’t really count). My favorite Turkish restaurant I’ve tried here in the States is called Bosphorus Istanbul Café, located in Indianapolis, Indiana. If you have a chance to go there, I highly recommend their İskender Kebab, it is amazing!
Whether you are planning a trip to Turkey or want to try out a Turkish restaurant, I’ve put together my top 14 Turkish foods you absolutely must try!
This is easily my #1 favorite of all the Turkish foods I’ve tried. The meat is called döner and is thin strips of grilled lamb. The döner is topped with tomato sauce and served over pieces of buttery pita bread. It is all served with grilled peppers, tomatoes, and yogurt. I’ve gotten a few of my friends hooked on İskender since introducing it to them at Turkish restaurants here in the US! I highly recommend it.
Karniyarik (Stuffed Eggplant)
This might be a slightly more adventurous dish for some, but extremely delicious. Karniyarik is a stuffed eggplant dish usually containing peppers, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and ground meat. It is often also served with yogurt.
I ate lamb chops with my host families often, probably because it was a kids’ favorite! You can eat them by picking them up by the bone “handle”. They’re especially good with yogurt sauce for dipping.
Mantı (Turkish Ravioli)
Mantı consists of small dumplings usually stuffed with ground beef or lamb, served hot with cold yogurt and garlic, as well as a tomato sauce. It is very similar to ravioli and is rich and delicious!
Lahmacun is also known as Turkish pizza. It is a flat, thin piece of dough topped with minced meat, herbs, vegetables, and spices. Often it is folded and eaten like a wrap.
Dolma is the word used to describe the stuffed grape leaves pictured above, but there are also many other types of dolma eaten in Turkey. I had stuffed peppers, zucchinis, cabbage, and eggplant, and all of them were delicious! They’re often stuffed with rice and meat, with lemon juice and herbs.
Köfte, or Turkish meatballs, were another favorite with the kids I nannied for, so we ate it often. Usually the köfte I had in Turkey was made with flavorful and juicy beef or lamb. We ate köfte often with yogurt, but you can also find köfte sandwiches in kebab shops.
Börek is a savory Turkish pastry, usually stuffed with cheese, spinach, and sometimes meat. It can be served as a meal, or as a snack. There is a similar food to börek called Su Böreği, which is like a cross between a pastry and lasagna. I ate it often with my host family and it was an amazing comfort food.
Baklava is a syrupy sweet pastry with buttery, flaky layers and nuts. All types of baklava are good, but I like the kinds with pistachios best.
Kunefe was my favorite dessert that I tried while in Turkey. It is made of baked, melty cheese in flaky pastry dough, soaked in syrup and topped with pistachios. It has an amazing contrast between soft cheese and crusty dough. The savory cheese and sweet syrup make an excellent combination as well.
If you’ve only heard of one thing on this list, it’s probably Turkish coffee. Turkish coffee is strong and thick, prepared unfiltered. That means the grounds will settle into the bottom of your cup. Don’t drink the last sip!
Çay (pronounced the same way we pronounce “chai”, but an entirely different drink than what we call chai) is the Turkish drink of choice. It is a black tea brewed in a double teapot and served in small clear tulip shaped glasses. Çay is central to Turkish social culture, and is enjoyed multiple times a day! Feel free to add sugar or lemon, but don’t add milk unless you want to get weird looks from locals.
Turkish Apple Tea
Apple tea is a sweet, caffeine-free tea with a strong tangy apple flavor. It’s less of a traditional Turkish beverage and more of a recent trend, but it’s still tasty and very worth trying!
I’ve been told that most tourists don’t care for ayran, but I love it! Ayran is a cold and salty diluted yogurt drink that’s very popular in Turkey. It’s especially refreshing during the hot summer and tastes great alongside any meat dish.
Have you tried Turkish foods before? Are there any Turkish foods you think should be on this list that I missed? Let us know in the comments!
If you love travel, you might also be interested in reading about how we got $200 round trip flights from the US to Europe!