ISTANBUL: Discover some of the hidden gems of Turkish cuisine that Turks crave often and are most likely to order or have at restaurants, plus a few that make them miss home
Turkish cuisine is revered for its kebabs, köftes, mezes and gözlemes, all regularly available on the tourist trail, but there is a whole other world of wonderful dishes that Turks pine for that may be less apparent to the foreign eye. In fact, foreigners may miss out on these dishes entirely if they are not “in the know” of what these dishes are and where to find them.
Hence, the following is a list of the top foods Turks crave in Turkish cuisine:
This particular variation of döner kebab became so popular that the family responsible for creating it has patented the dish. Hailing from Bursa, the Iskenderoğlu family have been in the döner business since its very creation as they claim it was their own ancestor who invented the rotating spit and döner as we know it. In this dish, thin slices of döner are spread out over cubed pieces of fluffy oven-baked pide bread that is then covered in a tomato sauce and accompanied by yogurt. The real treat is when the waiter pours sizzling butter over the top of the dish tableside. In truth, as they have patented the name, the dish by the name Iskender should only be available at the official Iskenderoğlu chain of restaurants, of which Bursa is the base.
Serving as the ultimate comfort food for Turks, mantı is a satiating dish consisting of minced meat-stuffed dumplings covered in a sauce of yogurt with garlic and then a dousing of tomato sauce on the top.
Sometimes in lieu of or in addition to, another sizzling chili-butter sauce is poured over the top. Unlike Iskender kebab, mantı can be found nearly everywhere and many regions in Turkey have their special variation on this popular dish.
Kayseri is a region especially known for its mantı, which are tiny in size. There is a well-known saying that 40 of these mini dumplings can fit on a spoon. Kayseri also serves up a larger fried dumpling variation referred to as yağ mantısı that is especially indulgent. Equally delicious but smaller in size is Bodrum mantısı, in which tiny little dumplings are fried in oil and covered in yogurt and butter sauce.
There are a number of Circassian mantı dishes that are prominent in Anatolian cuisine, such as Hengel, consisting of dumplings stuffed with potatoes. There is also Bosnian mantı, which is more like pastry covered in yogurt and that special sauce. These days, mantı is regularly available as take out, but there are also a number of restaurants that specialize in the dish, serving the aforementioned styles as well as some with a variety of vegetarian stuffings.
Turks are obsessed with lahmacun – and rightly so as this thin and crispy round oven-baked dough topped with minced meat, tomatoes, onions and spices is truly crave-worthy. Each one is light, thin, spicy and scrumptious, so people usually order at least two or three as a portion. There is also a smaller variation referred to as fındık lahmacun that may sometimes be part of a Turkish meat restaurant meal. However, the larger ones are a staple as lunch in many Turkish places of businesses and for takeaway to eat at home. According to a leading online takeaway platform, lahmacun is one of the most ordered items for takeout in Turkey along with döner and Adana durum. Lahmacun can be found at most pide-serving restaurants and sometimes come in spicy and mild varieties. The custom is to stuff the center with a parsley and onion salad that usually accompanies it roll it up like a wrap and eat it with your hands.
While a “wet hamburger” (sloppy joe) may not sound appealing, Turkey’s ıslak burger is a favorite for on-the-go meals. Served up at “tost” (grilled cheese sandwich) and döner stands open at all hours, this petite burger, Turkey’s answer to a slider, is a simple patty and a bun that is dipped in a thin garlic-oil tomato sauce.
A specialty from the Black Sea region, mıhlama is a Turkish-style fondue. Found in most restaurants focusing on the region’s cuisine, mıhlama consists of an oozy mixture of butter, corn flour and cheese. The cheese used to prepare the dish is traditionally Trabzon’s kolot cheese or the Turkish çeçil string cheese.
There is a similar dish hailing from the Black Sea region by the name of kuymak, which is prepared quite similarly with the sole difference being a heavier emphasis on cornflour versus cheese. Understandably, mıhlama is more like a cheesy fondue, whereas kuymak veers slightly into the range of grits. Both dishes are consumed with a loaf of Turkey’s beloved white bread, or as they do in the Black Sea, with a slice of the region’s famous cornbread.
To satisfy a sweet tooth, Turks most always crave “lokma” – and who wouldn’t delight in this small fried ball of dough dipped in syrup. The satisfying combination of a crispy crust, an airy and soft center and oozing golden syrup is truly a special treat. Lokma is most regularly found as a specialty served up for a “hayır,” a charitable event held by Turks to commemorate or express gratitude for something or someone.
The Hayır is an integral part of Turkish culture that can be held for various reasons, such as in remembrance of the deceased or when sending a family member off to the military. These days there are actually giant food trucks that give out these addictive little balls for free. A serving can include up to a dozen or so. The latest lokma trend in Turkey is to lavishly fill the balls, which essentially resemble airy donut holes, with various types of chocolate and then cover them in a chocolate sauce.
One of the most painstaking delicacies in Turkish cuisine is hands down içli köfte, a carefully shaped oval casing of bulgur and sometimes minced meat filled with onion, parsley, walnuts and minced meat stuffing that is fried to crispy golden perfection. There is also a more health-conscious boiled version, but it is definitely the fried içli köfte that is the star of any meal it adorns. Luckily, there are a number of charcuteries that will have içli köfte on offer for takeaway, but the real deal is having one piping hot from one of Turkey’s wonderful specialty meat restaurants.
Last, but certainly not least, on this list is the Turkish yaprak sarma, or stuffed grape leaves. Yaprak dolması is also a name attributed to this hand-rolled delicacy, traditionally stuffed with a rice mixture of currants and spices such as cinnamon and allspice. There are also variations in which cabbage and even kale leaves are stuffed with rice and meat.
Any kind of dolma, which refers to a dish in which a vegetable casing is stuffed, is in fact an integral part of home cooking in Turkey and something those away from home are likely to miss. These are also the months in which eggplants and peppers are hollowed out and dried and strung up in the pantry to be stuffed with tomato-based rice and enjoyed later in the year.