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Favorite Traditional Turkish Food- Dolma, Tava, Kebap and More
I was assigned to Incirlik (pronounced Injure-lick) Air Base, near Adana, Turkey in the early 90s. I enjoyed Turkey so much that I extended my obligation twice, staying 3 ½ years. I traveled fairly extensively in Turkey. My duty travels took me frequently to Izmir and Ankara Turkey. Since we stayed for a week or more in each place, we ate out a lot. I’m sure my colleagues have memories just as fond as mine of our gastronomical adventures! There was similar food in Adana, Izmir, and Ankara, but there were also special treats specific to each place.
I was also very fortunate to eat with Turkish families many times. As you might suspect, there were some nice treats that were not common to restaurant food. With a few exceptions, like Sheep Face Soup, I love traditional Turkish food.
I’ll present some of my favorite dishes that I encountered in my gastronomical travels in Turkey. Many are so simple that you might wonder how they could taste so good, or be so special. One key is fresh produce. Turks always use fresh vegetables and fruits, which are plentiful and inexpensive. My friend Necmiye and I went to the big pazaar in Adana and for $10 could fill my trunk up with produce, and pay a boy with a cart to collect it all and take it to the car!
Turkish Meal Staples- Salad and Pilaf
Virtually all Turkish meals include salad and rice pilaf.
Coban (pronounced Joe-Bon) salad, or shepherd salad, is the salad I encountered most frequently in Turkey, both in restaurants, and in private homes. It is made from chopped tomatoes, onions, and cucumbers. Sometimes chopped parsley is used. The vegetables are dressed with olive oil, fresh lemon juice, salt and minced garlic. I don’t miss shepherd salad, because I never stopped making it!
Rice Pilaf is made similar to Rice-a-Roni. You brown pasta in a pan with butter or olive oil. I usually use Mexican fideo, or orzo pasta. When the pasta is browned, add your rice and water, then cover and cook until water is absorbed. I could eat myself silly with rice pilaf and a big scoop of shepherd salad piled on top! You can see my blog post on shepherd salad and pilaf for more details on cooking rice pilaf.
Turkish meals may sometimes have bulgar instead of rice pilaf. Bulgar is from wheat, and is like couscous, though Turks typically use a courser grind of bulgar than is common for couscous. One of my favorite dishes was bulgar pilaf with lentils.
Tava is like a stew. Most restaurants in the Adana area made tava in individual portions in clay dishes in the oven. Tavas are made with fresh tomatoes, onions, peppers, and garlic. You can get chicken, lamb, or shrimp tava, which is usually served with rice pilaf. My favorite was chicken and shrimp tava in Incirlik Village, from “BP Restaurant”, which was complete with the green sign, because it used to be a gas station.
In Turkish homes, there are many kinds of tava, some with meats, and some only vegetables, cooked in a large pot on top of the stove. Some of my favorites were eggplant tava and chicken tava. I also like green bean tava, though technically that is Zeytinyağli Taze Fasulye, and not considered to be tava by most Turks. I make this dish often. It is a family favorite, and we eat it with rice pilaf.
Dolma and Sarma
Dolma is a generic term for stuffed vegetables. Although dolma could be made vegetarian friendly, with rice and spices, most of the dolma that I had was made with a little ground meat added in. My friend Necmiye educated me that something rolled would be more correctly called sarma.
Necmiye made tomato, zucchini, bell pepper, eggplant, and potato dolma. She said the potato dolma was more of a Curdish variation. The vegetables are hollowed out, and stuffed with the meat and rice mixture. Necmiye cooked dolma in a Dutch oven on top of the stove, with a heavy salad plate inverted on top of them to keep them upright and weighted down.
Necmiye also made grape leaf and cabbage sarma. The rice and meat stuffing was the same, but was rolled into cylinder shapes.
Dolma and sarma are very high on the short list of my absolute favorite Turkish foods. I had variations in Egypt and Greece, but like the Turkish the best. Some cultures make the stuffing with rice, raisins and pine nuts.
Börek and Sigara Börek
Sigara Börek was very popular, at least in the restaurants near the base. I think the merchants near base were very astute in figuring out what food and goods we liked, and they provided them.
Sigara Börek is pastry sheets filled with goat cheese, or meat, or a combination, and fried. They are similar to spring rolls or lumpia, except they don’t have vegetables. My favorite was a chicken, ground beef, and shrimp sigara börek from a tiny restaurant near the Air Base’s gates.
The börek served in most Turkish homes is a layered dish, like lasagna but with layers of philo-like dough. Goat cheese was the most common filling that I encountered. Incidentally, cheese in Turkey is always a white goat milk cheese. I never saw cheddar cheese in Turkish food or markets.
Shish Kebap, Döner Kebap, Köfte, and Lamb Chops
Shish kebap, döner kebap, köfte, and lamb chops are popular meat entrées in Turkey. Lamb is also the most common meat used. I had had mutton once before moving to Turkey, and was not in the least impressed. I very much enjoyed lamb in Turkey however! See my hub on Kebaps for more information including recipe links.
Kebap is a Turkish form of cooking that essentially means roasted. Shish Kebap is very popular in Turkey, both in restaurants and at family gatherings. Lamb shish is the most common, though you might find chicken, or in some areas of Turkey, goat.
Adana kebap is spiced ground lamb pressed onto a flat skewer.
Döner Kebap is similar to Greek gyro. Turkish döner is meat layered on a pole, alternating lean meat with some form of fat so that the meat is self basting. The meat is rotated on a vertical spit, and the outside is trimmed as it becomes cooked. The shavings of meat are typically served on squares of pide, and drizzled with melted butter. My favorite was the Iskender döner kebap, which had tomato sauce and yogurt.
Köfte is like a large flattened meatball. It is typically made with ground lamb, bread crumbs, onions, and spices. Köfte is usually grilled.
Grilled lamb chops are also served in Turkish restaurants, and delicious, but not as common or popular as the kebaps.
Fish and Seafood
My favorite restaurant in Izmir, and one of my favorite restaurants on the planet, is the Deniz, or Sea Restaurant on the First Cordon, in view of the Aegean. I think I blathered on and on about this restaurant in my hub on My Turkish Travels.
My favorite entrees were grilled sea bass, or chipura, which was like a sea bream. They also had the absolute best calamari, bar none.
One of my team’s favorite restaurants when we traveled to Ankara served a salt crusted fish. It was prepared in an oblong fish kettle. The salt was chiseled away, and the fish boned table-side.
Oh, by the way, small whole fish are always served with the head on. Turks are fond of the head meat and eyes.
My Personal Travel PhotosClick thumbnail to view full-size
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- Doner Kebap on Flickr - Photo Sharing!
studiokumar.com copyright (c) 2008 all rights reserved by Dev Kumar firstname.lastname@example.org Canon S3 IS A vendor carves and serves some delicious, questionable street meat.
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My birthday dinner. Turkish food.
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Pinarbasi Restaurant (03) 9383 4966 279 Sydney Rd Coburg VIC 3058
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Delicious Turkish Lunch
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Dinner at a fish restaurant near our hotel. Freshly grilled red mullet and mackerel.