If you think of Turkish food, the first thing that probably comes to mind is kebab. There are so many different kinds, no one could blame you for getting your carnivore on in Istanbul and trying as many as you have time for. Doner kebab — lamb sliced off a rotating vertical spit — is eaten hot, wrapped in pita bread, with the juices running down your chin in the street.
Hunkar Begendi — meaning “the Sultan loved it” — are chunks of lamb on a bed of smoky, creamed aubergine. Iskender is döner meat dressed up with yoghurt and tomato sauces, lying on cubes of bread, drizzled with melted butter. And we’ve not even mentioned ground meat kebabs like the Beyti, Urfa or Adana kebabs.
In Istanbul, where people from all over Turkey’s distinct food regions converge, all roads lead feastwards. So I mean it, feel free to completely ignore my suggestions for venturing off the kebab highway onto lesser known paths. If you’re vegetarian, you’ll pretty much have to explore further, though you’re in luck as meze, a selection of small dishes served as starters, are mostly meat-free. So, if you fancy something a bit different, here are five dishes to try that you might be less familiar with, but are just as easy to find.
Everywhere I’ve ever travelled that’s not Italy, I have one rule concerning pasta. Don’t order it.
The only exception is Turkish manti, a ground meat-filled dough, reminiscent of ravioli but more influenced by Chinese dumplings in shape as they came to what is now Turkey from Central Asia.
Manti are served topped with a garlicky-yoghurt sauce, sprinkled with red pepper, sumac and dried mint and drizzled with oil. Making them from scratch at home is a long task, traditionally done as a family activity.
If you’re visiting, there’s only one place to go if you want the best manti: Bodrum Manti in Arnavutköy, one of the charming Bosphorus villages that are worth visiting just for the scenic bus or ferry ride. The menu offers several different fillings, including potato so vegetarians needn’t feel left out.
Manti are usually boiled but you can also get a version here where the dumplings are lightly fried in butter after cooking, crisping them up for and adding another layer of flavor.
Lahmacun and Pide
Turkey isn’t famous for pizza, but it should be. Cheap, filling and found everywhere, lahmacun offers the thinnest of bases, whipped up from scratch in seconds and topped with spicy lamb, tomato and onions. But don’t eat it flat like an Italian pizza; make like the locals and top it with salad, a sprinkle of red chilli pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice and roll it up.
For a more substantial meal, pide is a boat-shaped flatbread topped with meat, Turkish sausage, cheese, eggs or spinach. The best place by a mile is Simsek Karadeniz Pide Salonu near Taksim Square (Istiklal Cad. 2A) where they’re made in various styles accoriding to which area of the Black Sea they’re from, all brushed with butter from Trabzon as they come out of the oven.
The name might mean “dry beans” (something like canellini or haricot beans), but this dish is anything but dry. White beans cooked in a tomato sauce, are transported into flavour heaven with butter and juices from lamb that’s fried off in the pan before the beans are added. Considered to be the Turkish national dish, kurufasulye is served with a white rice pilaf. A locally renowned place to try the dish is Ali Baba Kanaat, opposite Sülemaniye mosque, where they use ox tail fat to add richness to the sauce.
To call borek a breakfast pastry might mislead if you’re thinking along the lines of a light croissant. Turkish borek is as far from a light start to the day as you could get. Set aside plenty of room in your stomach, plan to forgo lunch and then all you have to do is decide which of the two main types to go for. Though some places do all kinds of variations, with spinach, meat or even aubergine, the most ubiquitous are filled with crumbly white cheese, like feta, and are best bought from special borek shops called borekci. You can find the shops on almost any street corner but the best, and most historical, are in Sariyer, way down along the Bosphorus.
Peynirli börek is made of buttery layers of filo pastry and cheese or meat. It’s a flaky, greasy, salty indulgence, chopped into cubes with an impressively wielded but terrifying knife that looks more like an axe. Su boregi (water borek) resembles pasta underneath where it’s wetter, but crisps up on top. Both kinds are cooked in large tray-sized batches and served up in portions or half portions. The latter is enough for one person. You can order to go – paket – or eat in with tea which is a much more typical Turkish start to the day than coffee, even though the Turkish word for breakfast, kahvalti, literally means “before coffee.”
It’s sacrilege to say but, while I couldn’t eat enough of the stuff when I first visited Turkey, I got sick of baklava after I’d lived there a while. Turkish baklava is another dish that has a hundred variations, filled with pistachio, walnut or hazelnut, layered up and sweetened with sugar syrup, rather than the honeyed version more common in Greece. It was the syrup I grew less fond of. Even for me, a complete sugar addict, it was just too sweet. The dessert sits in it, soaking up syrup which oozes out when you press your fork into it. If that sounds like heaven, go ahead.
But if you yearn for something lighter, crisper and more buttery, “dry baklava” is the one to seek out. The best place to indulge is Karakoy Gulluoglu, run by the Güllü family who has been making baklava since the 1800s. They have every kind of baklava and Turkish sweet imaginable, including chocolate baklava, cocoa filo sheets sandwiched together with hazelnut praline, so you can stock up – or they can ship your sticky souvenirs to anywhere in the world.
Nicola Prentis writes fiction and materials for English teaching. Teaching took her all round the world trying different cuisines, including a spell as restaurant critic in Istanbul. Her treasured Vermont cookbook features heavily in her cooking. Follow her @NicolaPrentis.