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Turkish Regional Cuisine

Written By Rikki Lee Roath

Turkish Cuisine

As the home of the agricultural revolution, the cuisine of the Anatolian sub-continent is as diverse as its people and history. Each region is full of its own surprises; the only thing you can be sure of is that no matter the area, you’ll surely find something delicious.

Positioned between Eastern Europe, the Aegean, the Caucasus Mountains, and the Middle East, Anatolia is a melting pot of language, culture, and flavor. Influenced by its neighbors since the beginning of time, the diverse climate of Anatolia is suitable for growing a veritable cornucopia of fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans. The central Asian nomadic herding culture brought to the region during Turkish expansion into Anatolia added a variety of cheeses, yogurt, and meat to this ever growing list. Today, Turkish food has become an absolute delight of regional tastes and deeply rooted traditional dishes; it’s much more diverse than first meets the eye.

On the Aegean coast, local cuisine is quite similar to that of the Greek islands, as this region was historically more accessible by boat than overland. Here you’ll find countless different greens, boiled and tossed in olive oil, garlic, and lemon, or sautéed with onions and finished with an egg or two. The locals here love their vegetables, with green beans, artichoke, zucchini, eggplant, fava beans, leeks, broccoli, and cauliflower comprising some favorites in addition to all those greens. The main flavorings in this region are simple: herbs, garlic, lemon, and lots and lots of olive oil. Although vegetables often make up the main course in this region, fish is another favorite, and bread is an indispensable part of any meal. Breakfast usually consists of cheese, olives, raw vegetables like tomatoes, cucumber, and fresh herbs, along with bread and jam made from local fruits. Fruit is often eaten as a snack or after meals; figs, grapes, and pomegranates are especially common. As this region is generally more liberal than the rest of the country, many locals drink, with raki, an anise flavored liquor, the most common libation.

Aegean Coast

Heading a bit to the east, the Mediterranean coast poses its own unique dishes. Thanks to high mountains providing good summer grazing lands, this region is now home to a tradition of semi-nomadic herding. Dairy products made with goat and sheep milk are staples in the region, with easy to grow crops like wheat and beans rounding out most of the traditional diet. Cheeses are usually made simply and eaten un-aged; yogurt is often strained to make it thick and creamy. Wheat is either ground into flour to make a variety of breads or pre-boiled and broken into bulgur. Carob has also served as an important staple for nomadic people’s journeys over the barren landscape, as the trees grow without much care; today it is boiled down into a syrup and is commonly eaten for breakfast. Sesame is also an important crop, and locals add freshly ground tahini to seemingly everything, from desserts to appetizers and side dishes. During the last few decades, vine-grown vegetables like tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers as well as citrus have begun to play a major role in the economy, and in turn have affected the cuisine quite a bit as well.

Mediterranean Coast

South East

The southeastern region of Turkey is home to bold, spicy flavors, a dramatic contrast from the cuisine of the coast. Here, most dishes are flavored with hot chilies, either dried and ground into flakes, or cooked down into a paste. Meat plays a role in most dishes, even so called ‘vegetable dishes’ are usually cooked with at least a bit of meat. Locals in this region prefer vegetables like eggplant, potatoes, peppers, and tomatoes to green leafy vegetables. An important ingredient in salads and starters is pomegranate molasses, which adds a sweet and sour flavor to lots of cold dishes. In addition to meats and vegetables, bulgur wheat is used to make a variety of dishes including pilafs, cold appetizers, and fried and boiled dumplings. Chickpeas add bulk to a variety of dishes; yogurt is eaten as a side dish, or used in soups or stews; walnuts are also a common ingredient in many savory dishes. No meal in southeastern Turkey is complete without dessert, of which baklava in some variation is the most popular. This region is home to a wide variety of ingredients and cooking techniques, making for some of the most unique tastes in the entire country.

In stark contrast to the bold flavors of the southeast, the Black Sea is known for its mild and simple dishes reminiscent of Eastern Europe and the Caucasus Mountains. Quite different from the rest of the country, the bulk of the diet in this region consists of corn, beans, greens, and dairy products. Instead of the wheat consumed throughout much of Turkey, the most popular grain in the Black Sea area is corn, from which locals make dense, filling bread. The green landscape means enough green grass to support larger animals like cows, meaning that butter and cheese are big staples in the diet. One popular breakfast dish consists of corn meal toasted in butter, cooked into a thick porridge with cheese and eaten with bread. Synonymous with the region, kale is a favorite ingredient and is usually made into a soup, stew, or stuffed with rice or meat. Beans are also very popular, fresh beans are pickled in their pods and more mature beans are taken out of their pods and dried. During winter, fish plays an important role in local diets, especially small oily fish like anchovies which are dipped in corn meal and pan-fried.

Black Sea

The dry plains of Central Anatolia lend themselves well to animal husbandry and wheat and potato production. Wheat is used to make an endless variety of savory breads and pastries; flat bread with lamb, cheese stuffed ‘borek’, and round bread cooked on the side of a tandoori oven, just to name a few. Meat is also common in this region with lamb being the most popular. As in most of the country, beans and lentils also provide easy nutrition and are quite widespread. This simple diet of wheat, beans, and meat is enriched with the wide variety of fruits that grow well in the continental climate of central Anatolia. Apples, quince, sweet and sour cherry, and apricots are some of the most popular. In some areas, grapes also grow well and are used to make a sweet syrup commonly eaten for breakfast or used to add a bit of sweetness to savory meals; the grape leaves themselves are stuffed with rice and meat and serve as a delicious meal in their own right. While wine was historically important in the region, today its production is mostly confined to touristic areas.

Central Anatolia

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