Unbuckle Your Pants, This is a Long Post About Turkish Food

I think I must have been Turkish in a previous life. Which I guess would make me an Ottoman. And despite the fact that I don’t believe in reincarnation. But neither do the Turks, who are predominantly Muslim, and not Buddhist. Which is just another fact that reinforces my belief that I must have been Turkish in a former life – ie: neither Turkish people nor I believe in reincarnation, ergo: I must have been Turkish in a former life.

The real reason I think this must be a fact is that I absolutely loved every single thing I ate in Turkey. All of it. And not just “liked.” Luuuurrrvved. Made noises and carried on about. Ate more than my fair share of and stabbed others who might have wanted a second helping of something. (Well, I am a girl with a hearty appetite)

Let’s start with my absolute favorite thing in the whole wide world from now on and forever. Behold, Ceviz reçeli. It’s a dessert, but it sounds pretty unappetizing. It’s basically whole walnuts still in their husks and shells, that are softened with slaked lime and then candied in sugar water and spices. I know, I know, sounds gross, right? I thought so too.

ceviz from Istanbul

They come out on the plate all dark and slick and disgusting looking. But ceviz receli are the most unusual and divine thing ever. They’re soft but still firm and just so different from anything else you’ve ever eaten. I immediately demanded that our tour guide Levon takes us to a market stall so I could buy a jar to take home, which I did. I’m also very relieved to find that you can buy a jar online for about $10, so I don’t have to bogart my stash.

One of my favorite dishes and one that I ended up ordering every time I came across it was karniyarik which literally translates as “split belly.” I took this charming name as a personal challenge when it came to this dish, which is eggplant stuffed with ground beef.


I was also pleasantly surprised by two other Turkish dishes that I’m fairly sure were ripped off by those shifty Italians (just kidding, Italy! I love you guys! Even though your salami in Milan gave us food poisoning for 11 excruciating days during the 2011 Tour of Bathrooms of Northern Italy and Zurich).

Anywhoooo, the first is manti, which are basically Turkish raviolis. These little dumplings are made of seasoned ground beef or ground lamb wrapped in a homemade egg pasta and are topped with garlic yogurt and sprinkled with sumac. Homey and delicious.

Turkish food including manti
Manti in the middle there, surrounded by its friends cabbage (on the right) and lentils and beans (on the left)

The other is pide, which is the Turkish take on pizza. It’s a thin flatbread topped with ground meat (usually lamb), finely chopped tomatoes and chopped parsley. It’s served with a lemon wedge and more peppery parsley, that you roll into a yummy little pizza burrito.

One of our favorite things to do on vacation is have a little “bed picnic” in our room. We go to a store or takeout place and buy a ton of provisions and make a little feast to eat on the hotel bed while watching whatever local music channel we can find. Istanbul did not disappoint in either the local pop music scene or the bed picnic feast.

Since it snowed our last night in Istanbul, we dashed out for some take away food and stumbled upon Ali Babba’s. And man, did we load up. We got pide, and three different kebabs, some yogurt sauce, tomato and cucumber salad, and three types of bread. It was a lot of food for two people, but it was good that we could just fall backwards onto our bed to unbutton our pants when we were done.

Our Turkish hotel bed picnic

Another favorite item I stumbled upon quite by accident. We were at the Turkish version of Starbucks, Kahva Dunyasi the morning after our arrival and also the morning after a night of too many free mojitos courtesy of our party crashing described here. I was desperate from some coffee.

After perusing the lovely menu complete with pictures, I grunted and pointed to what looked like a latte. The nice staff person said questioningly, “sahlep?” I grunted more, poking the menu ever harder and nodding vigorously. As she went wandering off, I turned to XFE and offered confidently, “Sahlep means coffee in Turkish,” I explained, while pointing out all the sahlep containers decorating parts of the store.

Well, no it doesn’t.

A few minutes later, I was holding my sahlep, which by the way was SCALDING hot. I cannot emphasize this enough, it was really, really, really hot. I had to wait at least 30 minutes before I could even take a sip without taking skin off the roof of my mouth. Kahva Dunyasi has not, quite obviously, ever been hit with a McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit. (It was really, really, really hot, y’all.)

Hot Turkish salep
Do not be fooled by this innocent little cup. It’s molten lava I tell ya.

Anyway, I started sipping this lovely frothy drink tinged with cinnamon and fell in love. I could immediately tell that it did not, alas, contain any coffee (although by the last day we were there, I finally noticed that you could indeed, get sahlep with coffee in it. Oh well. It’s sahlep kahva for those interested. Yes, kahva. As in, the name of the damn coffee house.)

It was thick and tasted a tiny bit like tapioca. We met our tour guide Levon and he immediately clued me in. He said it was a seasonal drink served in the winter time. When I asked him what the ingredients were, he made a motion indicating something growing and said it was made from the “sahlep plant.”

Once I got home and did some research (after buying a tin of “sahlep” powder to make at home), turns out, sahlep is made from powdered orchid roots mixed with milk. And apparently, I should not be drinking it because it’s made out of very rare orchids. Orchids “so rare, so close to extinction that the Turkish government has banned its export.”

Oops. Guess I should have bought more?

Kahve Dunyasi (aka Turkish Starbucks)
Sahlep everywhere. Clearly, this indicates that sahlep means coffee.

To go with my sahlep, we had what’s known as the Turkish bagel – simit. These are a circular bread, generally with sesame seeds, that are sold everywhere. They’re not as tough or as chewy as a bagel. Rather, they were lovely little slightly flaky, slightly chewy little parcels of warm fresh deliciousness.

XFE preferred the ones with cheese in them, while I took a more unconventional route and got the ones with olive paste or tapenade streaking through them. (Sahlep and olives? Weird you say? Do you not know my love for the perfect flavor combination of sweet and salty??) Besides, would they be selling them for breakfast if people besides me didn’t buy them? Hmmmm?

You know what’s good on your simit or other bread product? Kaymak (clotted cream butter) and honey on the comb. So, so, so good. I was a little intimidated by honeycomb when I first saw it. I wondered if it would taste all waxy and chewy like one of those Nik L Nips wax candies we used to get when we were kids. (Oh great. Nik L Nips are listed on OldTimeCandy.com.)

Anyway, honeycomb was not all waxy. It was wonderful and gave the honey a slight crunchy texture. I plan on insisting that all my honey come on the comb from now on. I’m sure that’s going to go over quite well at the high-quality diners I frequent.

There are some Turkish dishes I stayed away from. I did not try boza, a cold drink made from a fermented grain served with cinnamon and roasted chick peas.

I also stayed away from “lion’s milk,” or Turkish Raki. It’s like a million other regional alcohols made with star anise such as ouzo, sambuca, pastis, absinthe. I hate licorice, absolutely abhor it, cannot even abide the smell of it, so, even though I wanted to try the local drink, I stuck to local wines, which were pretty universally good.

And I definitely did not try kokorec, a dish made of lamb intestines wrapped around seasoned offal, although we did see it on menus. Nor did I try a popular mezze – brain salad. Which we saw a couple of times.

As the menu on our Turkish Airlines flight says: “We hope that tastes in your mouth will last beyond your journey.”

Yikes, that sounds slightly ominous. Especially if you ate lamb intestines. I have some ceviz for that.

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