Turkish cuisine combines Mediterranean, Central Asian, Caucasian, and Arabic influences, and is extremely rich. Beef is the most important meat (lamb is also common but pork is very hard to find although not illegal), and eggplant (aubergine), onion, lentil, bean, tomato, garlic, and cucumber are the primary vegetables. An abundance of spices is also used. The main staples are rice (pilav), bulgur wheat and bread, and dishes are typically cooked in vegetable oil or sometimes butter.
There are many kinds of specialized restaurants to choose from, since most do not prepare or serve other kinds of food. Traditional Turkish restaurants serve meals daily prepared and stored in a bain-marie. The meals are at the entrance so you can easily see and choose. Kebapçis are restaurants specialized in many kinds of kebab. Some Kebab restaurants serve alcohol while others don't. There are subtypes like ciğerci, Adana kebapçısı or İskender kebapçısı. Fish restaurants typically serve meze (cold olive oil dishes) and Rakı or wine. Dönerci's are prevalent through country and serve döner kebap as a fast food. Köfeci's are restaurants with meatballs (Köfte) served as main dish. Kokoreçci, midyeci, tantunici, mantıcı, gözlemeci, lahmacuncu, pideci, çiğ köfteci, etsiz çiğ köfteci are other kinds of local restaurants found in Turkey which specialization in one food.
A full Turkish meal at Kebab restaurant starts with a soup, often lentil soup (mercimek çorbasi), and a set of meze appetizers featuring olives, cheese, pickles and a wide variety of small dishes. Meze can easily be made into a full meal, especially if they are consumed along with rakı. The main course is usually meat: a common dish type and Turkey's best known culinary export is kebab (kebap), grilled meat in various forms including the famous döner kebap (thin slices of meat shaved from a giant rotating spit) and şişkebab (skewered meat), and a lot more others. Köfte (meatball) is a variation of the kebab. There are hundreds of kinds of köfte throughout Anatolia, but only about 10 to 12 of them are known to the residents of the larger cities, kike İnegöl köfte, Dalyan köfte, sulu köfte etc.
Eating on the cheap is mostly done at Kebab stands, which can be found everywhere in Istanbul and other major cities. For the equivalent of a couple dollars, you get a full loaf of bread sliced down the middle, filled with broiled meat, lettuce, onions, and tomatoes. For North Americans familiar with donairs wrapped in pita bread or wraps, you should look for the word "Dürüm" or "Dürümcü" on the windows of the kebab stands and ask for your donair kebab to be wrapped in a dürüm or lavaş bread depending on the region.
Vegetarian restaurants are not common, and can be found only in very central parts of big cities and some of the tourist spots. However, every good restaurant offers vegetable dishes, and some of the restaurants offering traditional “ev yemeği” (“home food”) have olive-oil specialities which are vegetarian in content. A vegetarian would be very happy in the Aegean region, where all kinds of wild herbs are eaten as main meals, either cooked or raw, dressed with olive oil. But a vegetarian would have real difficulty in searching for food especially in Southeastern region, where a dish without meat is not considered a dish. At such a place, supermarkets may help with their shelves full of canned vegetables, or even canned cooked olive-oil courses and fresh fruits. If you are a vegetarian and going to visit rural areas of Southeastern region, better take your canned food with you, as there will be no supermarkets to rescue you.
Some Turkish desserts are modeled on the sweet and nutty Arabic kind: famous dishes include baklava, a layered pastry of finely ground nuts and phyllo dough soaked in honey and spices, and Turkish Delight (lokum), a gummy confection of rosewater and sugar. There are also many more kinds of desserts prepared using milk predominantly, such as kazandibi, keşkül, muhallebi, sütlaç, tavuk göğsü, güllaç etc.
Turkish Breakfast, tend to comprise of çay (tea), bread, olives, feta cheese, tomato, cucumber and occasionally spreads such as honey and jam. This can become very monotonous after a while. A nice alternative to try (should you have the option) is Menemen a Turkish variation on scrambled eggs/omelet. Capsicum (Red Bell Pepper), onion, garlic and tomato are all combined with eggs. The meal is traditional cooked (and served) in a clay bowl. Try adding a little chili to spice it up and make sure to use lots of bread as well for a filling hot breakfast. Bread is omnipresent in Turkey, at any given meal you'll be presented with a large basket of crusty bread.
Ubiquitous simit (also known as gevrek in some Aegean cities such as Izmir), much like bagel but somewhat thinner, crustier, and with roasted sesame seeds all over, is available from trolleys of street vendors in virtually any central part of any town and city at any time except late at night. Perhaps with the addition of Turkish feta cheese (beyaz peynir) or cream cheese (krem peynir or karper), a couple of simits make up a filling and a very budget concious breakfast (as each costs about 0.75 TL), or even a lunch taken while on the go.
The legal age of drinking alcohol is 18 in Turkey.
Ayran is a popular drink of water and yoghurt not unlike the Finnish/Russian buttermilk or Indian lassi, but always served without sugar (and, in fact, typically with a little salt added). A version loved by the locals köpüklü ayran is a delicacy if you're travelling by bus over the Toros (Taurus) Mountains. Ask for yayık ayranı or köpüklü ayran.
Turkish coffee (kahve), served in tiny cups, is strong and tasty, just be careful not to drink the slugdy grounds at the bottom of the cup. It is much different than the so called Turkish coffees sold abroad. Sade kahve is served black, while as şekerli, orta şekerli and çok şekerli will get you a little, some or a lot of sugar in your cup.
Instant coffees, cappuccinos, and espressos are gaining more popularity day by day, and can be found with many different flavours.
Despite coffee takes a substantial part in national culture, tea (çay) is also very popular and is indeed the drink of choice, and most Turks are heavy drinkers of tea in daily lives. Having entered the scene just in 1930s, tea quickly gained ground against coffee due to the fact that Yemen, the traditional supplier of coffee in Turkey then, was cut off from the rest of Ottoman Empire in early 20th century, and the first tea plants took root in Eastern Karadeniz after some unsuccessful trials to grow it in the country, as a result of protectionist economic politics that were put into effect after WWI. Be careful, if your tea is prepared by locals, it can be much stronger than you're used to. Although it is not native-typical and a rather touristic feature, you have to taste the special apple tea ( elma çayı) or sage tea (adaçayı, literally island tea) of Turkey!
Boza is a traditional cold, thick drink that originates from Central Asia, but also common in several Balkan countries. It is fermented bulgur (a kind of wheat) with sugar and water additions. Vefa Bozacisi is the most known and traditional producer of boza in Istanbul. In Ankara, you get excellent Boza from Akman Boza Salonu in the old city in Ulus. Boza can also be found on the shelves of many supermarkets, especially in winter, packaged in 1-litre PET bottles. However these bottled bozas lack the sourness and consistency of traditional boza, they are sweeter and less dense.
Sahlep is another traditional hot drink, made from milk, orchid root and sugar, typically decorated with cinnamon. It is mostly preferred in winter and can be found in cafes and patisseries (pastane). You can also find instant sahlep in many supermarkets sold with the name Hazır Sahlep.
Red Poppy Syrup is one of the traditional turkish drinks made of red poppy petals, water and sugar by natural ways. Bozcaada is famous with red poppy syrup.
International brands of colas, sodas and fruit-flavoured sodas are readily available and much consumed alongside some local brands. Please note, in Turkish, soda means mineral water, whereas what is called as soda in English is gazoz or sade gazoz in Turkish.
While a significant proportion of the Turks are devout Muslims, alcoholic beverages are legal, widely available, and thoroughly enjoyed by the locals. The local firewater of choice is rakı, an anise-flavoured liquor double distilled from fermented grape skin. It is usually mixed with water and drunk with another glass of iced water to accompany it. You may order 'tek' (single) or 'duble' (double) to indicate the amount of rakı in your glass. Rakı is a national drink of Turkey. Make sure to try it but don't overindulge as it is very potent! Remember not to mix it with anything else. There is a wide selection of different types in supermarkets. Mey, and Efe Rakı are two of the biggest producers. Only the connaisseurs know which type is the best. Yeni Rakı which is a decent variety has the wıdest distribution and consumption.
As for Turkish wine, the wines are as good as the local grape varieties. Kalecik Karası from Ankara, Karasakız from Bozcaada, Öküzgözü from Elmalı, Boğazkere from Diyarbakır are some of the most well-known varieties. The biggest winemakers are Kavaklıdere, Doluca, Sevilen, and Kayra with many good local vineyards especially in the Western part of the country. In addition liquory fruit wines of Şirince near Izmir are well worth tasting. One specific sweet red wine to try while you're there is Talay Kuntra.
There are two major Turkish breweries. Efes and Tekel Birası are two widely known lagers. In addition, you can find locally brewed Tuborg, Miller, Heineken, and Carlsberg too.
All cigarettes are sold freely and are still relatively cheap by western standards.
Although many, if not most, Turkish people do smoke, there is a growing health awareness about smoking and the number of smokers is slowly but steadily declining, and the rigid smoking ban that was introduced is suprisingly enforced.
Smoking in the presence of someone who does not smoke in a public place requires their permission. If someone does not like the smoke, they will ask you not to smoke or they will cough, then just stop and apologize. This is what the locals do.
If you are invited to someone's home, do not smoke unless the host does first, and after he/she does, then you can ask for his/her permission to smoke.
If you are in a place where people smoke, you can smoke, but if you are in place where no one is smoking, ask them first for their permission.
Smoking is banned in public places (e.g. airports, metro stations and indoor train stations, schools, universities, government administration buildings, in all workplaces, concert halls, theatres and cinemas) and on public transport (airplanes, ferries, trains, suburban trains, subways, trams, buses, minibuses, and taxis). Smoking is banned in sports stadiums, the only outdoor areas where this ban is extended. It is a finable offence of 69 liras (~ €32, $45, £28). Separately smoking is also banned, in restaurants, bars, cafes, traditional teahouses, the remaining air-conditioned public places including department stores and shopping mall restaurants; and there are no exceptions as indoor non-smoking sections are also banned. Apart from a fine of 69 liras (~ €32, $45, £28) for smokers, there is a heavy fine of 5,000 liras (~€2,318, $3,260, £2,028) for owners, for failing to enforce the ban properly and that is why it is strictly enforced by these establishments.
In Istanbul, especially in non-tourist areas, some bars/restaurants/music venues and even work places will bring you an ashtray as there will be many people smoking inside, even though there is a sign on the wall forbidding it, many people consider it to be up to the discretion of the owners/workers of the building. However, bars/restaurants/music venues in tourist areas (eg. Beyoğlu, Sişli etc...) are relentlessy "raided" (and in case of any violations – not just for flouting the smoking ban – fined heavily) by the zabıta (municipal official), so these establishments will much less likely dare to violate the bans. Although such "raids" will be disconcerting for tourists, customers will not be affected as the zabıta does not issue fines to customers – at most will be asked to leave the place, in case of serious violations.
However the smoking ban is openly flouted in government administration buildings, where the civil servants seem to think that they are somehow above the law.
Outside the cities and tourist resorts, the smoking ban is less rigidly enforced in small towns and in the villages hardly at all, because the municipal police (zabıta) rarely comes to these places to enforce it and issue fines, leading to some establishments and its customers to ignore this, but even there it is nevertheless best to follow the less enforced smoking ban.
While smoking is strictly prohibited on public transport, you will see some taxi drivers smoking in their taxis, which are also included in the smoking ban, but is the only form of public transport where this ban is openly flouted. When entering the taxi just request the taxi driver not to smoke, and he will politely oblige - in fact most of them will put out their cigarettes immediately once they see a customer hailing them or approaching them.
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