When most people think of Turkish food, they imagine kebabs and Turkish delight. In reality the food of this vast nation is among the most vibrant and diverse in the world, drawing influences from the olive-scented villages on the Aegean coast to the dusty towns near its border with Syria.
The epic landscape – the central Anatolian plains morph from mountains to great canyons; lush pine forests in the North spill into the black Sea – means there are an abundance of ingredients, with dishes varying dramatically depending which part of the country you’re in.
I’ve been visiting for over 10 years and for the people there, life is all about food and family. I have family in Samsun on the Black Sea, an unassuming city that’s big on seafood and home to the pide – a boat shaped pizza that’s a classic Turkish dish. Istanbul is one of the great cities of the world, built around the river Bosporus, which splits it between Europe and Asia. You could eat there morning, noon and night and not even scratch the surface. Another great love of mine is Ciya on the Asian side of the city – a local haunt with fabulous eastern Turkish food.
I have been hosting Turkish pop ups and secret supper clubs all year and the food is always a roaring success. It’s time for Turkish cuisine to make the jump from unsung hero to mainstream menus. Here are a few of my favourite Turkish delights.
Kebab from Gaziantep
This city near to the Syrian border is the kebab capital of Turkey. The centre of town is packed with traditional wooden kebab houses, where people gather to eat their favourites, cooked to smoky perfection on an indoor mangal or BBQ. Lamb features heavily; young male lambs with their high fat content are especially revered for their full flavour and juiciness. My favourite is the Adana kebab, a minced lamb version packed with smoky pul biber (Turkish Pepper Flakes). It’s a little spicy, but served with plenty of thick yogurt and pillow-soft bread is utterly divine.
Hamsi from Trabzon
Much loved all over Turkey, this silvery fish is at its best during the late autumn months. Hamsi or anchovy are used for a number of different dishes to get the most out of their fantastic flavour. Purists eat them simply fried in butter with a dusting of smoky chilli flakes. But the real treat is Hamsi pliav, a well seasoned snack packed with nuts and raisins, baked in a dish that’s been lined with filleted anchovy. Once baked and turned out onto a plate, it looks magnificent. The fish gleam and the rice inside goes beautifully fluffy. These Black Sea hamsi are thought to be the best in the world.
Stuffed mussels from Istanbul
Turkey is a seafood lover’s dream and all year round fabulous fresh seafood is caught in abundance and served in Balik (fish) restaurants across the country. In Istanbul, one of the most satisfying snacks is Dolmasi, or stuffed mussels. These beauties are sold on street corners throughout the city, heavy with black pepper and lemon juice. The whopping great mussels are filled with a well-spiced pilav that soaks up all the lemon juice and spices. It’s a perfect pairing. You can buy them for a quick afternoon nibble or a light bite before dinner. To me, they are the ultimate street food snack and a true taste of Turkey.
Pide from Bafra
Just outside the city of Samsun on the Black Sea, the tiny town of Bafra is home to one of Turkey’s greatest snacks, Pide. Traditionally, pide was used to make meat go further. Ground lamb was fried with onions and black pepper and wrapped in dough to look like long sticks of French bread. This was baked in a wood-fired oven until crispy and then covered in butter. Families prepare the filling every Sunday and take it to their local bakers to be wrapped in dough and cooked in the hot ovens. You can find more modern, open pide all across turkey, topped with cheese, sujuk (a spiced beef sausage) or pastrami. Add a squeeze of lemon and a scattering of parsley leaves and you have one of the greatest snacks in the world.
Kumru from Izmir
Everyone loves a sandwich, and in a country where bread is so utterly adored the Turks go mad for them. And non more so than the Kumru, from the Aegean town of Izmir. This killer sarnie is made from long thin strips of beef salami that are gently fried. These are then loaded up into a pillowy soft white roll and stuffed with a simple salad made from the juiciest tomatoes, fresh green peppers and soft cheese. The bread soaks up all the lovely meaty juices and the cheese melts through the whole sandwich. They taste fantastic and even better with an ice-cold beer in the Izmir sun.
Turkish Delights by John Gregory-Smith, published by Kyle Books, is priced £19.99