If one were to go by the menus of most Turkish restaurants in America, it would be easy to conclude that folks in Turkey subsist on a diet of grilled meats, cheesy flatbreads, and baklava, with a few chopped salads and vegetable-based meze (hummus, baba ganoush) thrown in for good measure. Misconceptions of Turkish cuisine—that it is meat-based, lamb-heavy, and often chili-hot; that small plates of olive oil–stewed vegetables are the norm; and that syrupy sweets dominate its dessert canon—abound.
In truth, delineating "Turkish food" is as futile an endeavor as describing "Chinese cuisine." Stretching from Greece and the Aegean Sea east to borders with Georgia, Armenia, and Iran, and from the Black Sea south to Syria and Iraq, Turkey is geographically heterogeneous, and home to myriad cuisines that reflect regional topography and climate as well as local histories. While it's true that every Turkish city boasts a shop or several selling kebabs and lahmacun (both dishes from Turkey's southeast that were carried west by migrating populations), in kitchens around the country, cooks tend to stick to traditional regional fare.
So just how do you get into Turkish cooking beyond the kebab? The surest way is to buy a good cookbook, stock your pantry, and make it at home. Yes, rolling your own yufka (like phyllo sheets, but thicker) is probably a stretch for a first attempt at making Turkish food, but the country's lesser-known home-style dishes tend to be uncomplicated. And, thanks to a few recently published cookbooks—like the award-winning Anatolia, by Turkish-Australian chef-restaurateur Somer Sivrioglu, and Gaziantep-focused A Taste of Sun & Fire, edited by Turkish architectural and food historian and culinary columnist Aylin Öney Tan—its recipes are more accessible than ever.
Happily, everything you need to cook Turkish food at home can be purchased online; at your nearest Middle Eastern, Turkish, or Armenian grocery; and/or at many specialty food purveyors. Below, you'll find a shopping list that we've assembled with the help of Sivrioglu and Tan. To these items, consider adding a few others, not to cook with but to round out your meals: good olives (black and/or green) and pure honey to serve with Turkish breakfasts, and store-bought or homemade mixed pickles, a classic accompaniment to lunches and dinners across Turkey. Also handy to have on hand are fruit vinegar (apple cider or grape being most appropriate), used to dress leafy salads and white bean salad (piyaz); a quality bottle of buttery or fruity (but not peppery) olive oil for drizzling and cooking; and yogurt, to serve as a side and to cook with (see Turkey's famous, over-the-top iskender kebab).
Before we get started, a word on terminology. Sarma refers to a filling (rice or bulgur, with or without meat) enclosed in a wrapper, such as stuffed grape leaves (yaprak sarmasi). When the filling is encased in a hollowed-out vegetable —think eggplant, zucchini, or bell peppers spilling seasoned rice—the dish is called a dolma. Most, but not all, meats cooked on a skewer over a fire or coals are considered kebabs. And finally, while kofte is often translated as "meatball," the term describes a whole universe of grilled, baked, steamed, and boiled orbs and patties, both meaty and entirely vegetarian.
Dried Chilies (Kuru Biber)
Every Turkish pantry includes at least one form of dried chili, and often many. Chilies are most used in the cuisines of southeastern Turkey, but vendors also sell strings of them at markets on the Black Sea, where dishes are on the mild side, and in Istanbul—whose cuisine is one of balance, with no one flavor predominating—bowls of chili flakes grace dining tables alongside salt and pepper. Plan to purchase three types of dried chili for Turkish cooking: flaked chili (pul biber), powdered chili (kirmizi toz biber), and what Americans call Urfa biber or Urfa pepper, which is sold in Turkey as isot or Urfa biberi.
Pul biber resides on the table for sprinkling over most any dish that wants a spicy kick. It's also commonly incorporated earlier, delivering heat and flavor to long-cooked dishes like guvec (oven-cooked stews), sautés such as Arnavut cigeri ("Albanian" liver) and cold dishes like the infamously rich stuffed eggplant dish imam bayildi. When speaking of dishes from Turkey, the Levant, Israel, and the Middle East, American cooks are used to equating "flaked chili" with Aleppo pepper. But, according to Tan, the term "Aleppo pepper" is never used in Turkey, since pul biber has historically been produced not only in Aleppo but also in several Turkish provinces that were part of the Aleppo administrative region under Ottoman rule. In addition, the ongoing civil war in Syria makes it increasingly unlikely that any "Aleppo pepper" you can buy today is from Aleppo; if it is, it's too old to reside in your cupboard. So when you're shopping for pul biber, think flavor, not provenance. Look for Maras pepper, or any flaked chili with citrusy brightness and moderate heat.
Similar rules apply when purchasing powdered dried chili—in Turkey, kirmizi toz biber sold in bulk is labeled less often by origin than by heat level (aci for hot, tatli for mild or sweet); most Turkish cooks stock both. Knead the chili into kofte, add it to five- and seven-spice mixes, and sauté it with onions and garlic to add flavor and color to sauces. Ground cayenne and Spanish or Hungarian sweet and hot (but not smoked) paprikas are fine substitutes.
You may already be familiar with isot biberi or Urfa pepper, lightly oily chili flakes that range in color from deep red to purple-black. Isot is a variety of pepper grown in Turkey's southeast; it's alternately sun-dried and sweated for days on end (longer drying results in a darker chili) before being ground with olive oil and a touch of salt for a bewitching sweet-hot flavor and hints of smoke. Turkish cooks add Urfa pepper to fresh dishes like salads and meze or meatless kofte, and it is often on the table alongside pul biber, salt, and pepper.
Dried Spices and Fresh Herbs (Baharat ve Otlar)
Cooks in Turkey use a whole host of seasonings beyond dried chili. I can't imagine a bowl of creamy red lentil soup without a generous dusting of kuru nane (dried mint, though not peppermint), which, along with kekik (a generic term used to refer to all of the many varieties of thyme and oregano that grow wild across Turkey, which can also be substituted with Lebanese za'atar) and tangy, lemony sumac (sumak), is not only often added to taste at the table but also seasons kofte and fillings for dolma and sarma, and is sprinkled over kebabs and added to salads. Sumac—the ground dried berry of a bush native to the Middle East—in particular shows up often in Kurdish dishes from Turkey's southeast; it's also rubbed with salt into onions, which are then mixed with chopped flat-leaf parsley for the ubiquitous fresh accompaniment to the grilled beef or lamb patties called izgara kofte.
For Tan, cinnamon (tarcin, used in milk-based puddings and kofte), warming sweet allspice (yenibahar), and ground cumin (kimyon) are also pantry musts. Don't forget tiny black teardrop-shaped nigella seeds (corek otu), whose mild flavor is reminiscent of thyme, oregano, and anise, for enlivening breads and spice mixes. To these spices, Sivrioglu adds slightly astringent, warming fenugreek (cemen), though, for most dishes, you can get by without it.
Turkish groceries often stock mixtures of five or seven dried spices, labeled bes turlu and yedi turlu baharat (roughly translated, "five kinds" and "seven kinds" spice mix), to add to kofte, vegetable sautés, guvec, and other dishes. To make your own five-spice blend, try Sivrioglu's recipe: Start with equal parts coriander, oregano, and sweet cayenne; then add a quarter to half as much black pepper and a pinch of cumin; and adjust proportions to taste. A good Turkish spice mix is a harmony of flavors, with no single spice standing out.
As for fresh herbs (otlar), flat-leaf or Italian parsley (maydonoz) is king. Add dill (dere otu) and mint and you have a trio of herbs whose role in the Turkish kitchen Tan equates with that of basil in the southern Italian kitchen. Fresh dill, Tan adds, is an essential accompaniment for foods like fresh fava beans or artichokes. Turkish cooks use fresh herbs with abandon, perhaps most exquisitely in salads that are composed of nothing but—try copious amounts of dill, mint, parsley, and a few lettuce leaves, tossed with lemon, olive oil, and pomegranate molasses.
Though chewy, nutty bulgur wheat remains the most-eaten grain in Turkey's heartland, rice (pirinc), which arrived in Turkey via trade with China, is broadly considered a more prestigious foodstuff, and remains a symbol of wealth. Both grains are commonly used to make the pilafs that accompany almost every Turkish meal, and are added to soups and mixed with meat (or not) and spices to fill dolma and sarma.
Bulgur, which has been hulled, parboiled, and then dried, is a particularly fast-cooking grain, requiring little more time to prepare than rice. In Turkey, you'll find it ground to varying degrees of coarseness and packaged according to the name of the dish in which it is most used. It's a good idea to wash your bulgur (put it in a deep bowl, cover by an inch or two with cold water, swish with your fingers, and drain, then repeat until the water is clear), and some recipes recommend a quick soak before you can use it. Do be sure to avoid packages of highly processed, polished pilavlik bulgur, which is yellow-brown and smooth as rice. Though it cooks up nicely, it lacks bulgur's characteristic nuttiness. For the tabbouleh-like Mediterranean Turkish dish kisir, fine bulgur is kneaded with tomato and red pepper pastes, moistened with a bit of olive oil and fruity-sour pomegranate molasses, and tossed with heaps of fresh mint and parsley. An earthy-flavored central Anatolian variation on Greek-style stuffed grape leaves swaps out rice for medium-grind bulgur and dried fava beans mixed with lamb. And, especially in central and eastern Anatolia, pilafs, ranging from plain (made with butter and onions) to fancier (containing eggplant, tomato and/or pepper pastes, and pul biber, for instance), are part of the daily diet.
Osmancik, a cross of two short-grain Italian varieties developed in Turkey, is the country's most commonly used rice, says Tan. Other short-grain rices—including baldo, but not Arborio—work well in Turkish preparations, and medium-grain rices will do just fine for pilafs (just don't use jasmine or other fragrant rice). Choose a variety that will retain its integrity when cooked and not go mushy or sticky, Tan advises, and wash your rice (as described for bulgur, above) only if you're making a pilaf. To satisfy your sweet tooth, try rice pudding (sutlac), a popular dessert that's served either burnt-topped or dusted with ground nuts in Istanbul and beyond.
Tomato and Pepper Pastes (Domates Salcasi/Biber Salcasi)
We're used to thinking of tomato paste as a flavoring, but in Turkey (and other countries in the region), it's a way to preserve autumn's bounty, used to provide shots of summery brightness to dishes throughout winter. Both tomato paste (domates salcasi) and pepper paste (biber salcasi, which is available in sweet (tatli) and spicy (aci, made from mildly hot peppers) versions, have a texture identical to the Italian-style tomato paste you're probably used to buying in small cans or tubes, and they taste, as you might expect, like super-concentrated versions of the vegetables. Note that Turkish tomato and pepper pastes contain no seasonings other than salt (and some can be quite salty, so taste before adding to a dish), so harissa and other similarly seasoned pastes are not a substitute.
These workhorses of the Turkish kitchen show up all over the country, in almost every kind of dish you can imagine. They flavor guvec and soups, are added to sautés and kneaded into kofte, and lend extra flavor to dolma and sarma fillings. They're even spread on Turkish grilled cheese and other sandwiches. But you don't really need all three types; tomato paste and sweet red pepper paste are enough.
Italian-style tomato paste is a fine substitute for Turkish tomato paste—though the latter, sold in big jars, is more economical. There is, however, no sub for Turkish pepper paste. I've found that tomato and pepper pastes develop mold quickly, so once you've opened a jar, pour a thin layer of oil over—or stick a piece of cling wrap to—its surface before storing it in the fridge. Both types of paste also freeze well for longer-term storage.
Fruit Molasses (Pekmez ve nar eksisi)
Another traditional Turkish means of preservation is to cook various fruits, or their juices, down to thick, sticky syrup or molasses. Pure pomegranate molasses (nar eksisi) is a beguiling cross of sweet and sour that adds a multidimensional fruity tartness to savory dishes, including salads, soups, dolma, meat and vegetable stews and sautés, and meze. Many pomegranate-molasses first-timers are so entranced with its flavor that they find themselves using it on everything. Guilty: I like the sticky glaze it lends roast potatoes, fish, and meat, and it's great in a cocktail. Tan uses it like balsamic vinegar: in salads, drizzled over cheese, or, she says, just about "anywhere I need a sweet-sour kick."
Quality pomegranate molasses is dark brown to black and made from nothing but fruit juice; Cortis brand, from Lebanon, is dependably pure. Avoid "pomegranate sos," which is flavored with citric acid and thickened with cornstarch or glucose, and so lacks the complex, sour-sweet-fruity flavor of true pomegranate molasses in the same way that lemon juice does. Can't find pomegranate molasses? Make your own, says Sivrioglu, by boiling down unsweetened pomegranate juice, or substitute lemon juice mixed with grape molasses (see below) to make it sweet and sour.
Pekmez (molasses), Turkey's original sweetener, describes thick syrups made from a single variety of fruit, including grapes, apples, mulberries, pears, and cactus fruit; sugar beets and carob are also made into molasses. You're most likely to find grape molasses (uzum pekmezi) here in the US. A good grape molasses is more than just sweet; it should taste very much like, well, grapes (Sivrioglu recommends Koska brand). Once you have it, try it swirled into tahini for Turkey's answer to peanut butter and jelly, usually served at breakfast as a bread dip. In central Anatolia, where much of Turkey's grapes are grown, the syrup adds sweetness to savory meat stews, often containing fruit like quince; flavors bean stews; makes a delicious base for dried-fruit compotes; and is cooked with butter and flour for a rustic helva. It's grape molasses that burnishes simit, also known as Turkish bagels.
It's hard to overestimate the primacy of pulses (dried seeds from pods produced by plants in the legume family) in the Turkish diet. No matter where you are in the country, you're not far from creamy red lentil soup (mercimek corbasi), often eaten for breakfast, or kuru fasulye, a nationally beloved buttery soup-stew of white beans (fasulye) and tomato that might or might not be flavored with meat. Green lentils (yesil mercimek), with their beet-like earthiness, complement full-flavored, wheaty bulgur in salads and pilafs, and stand up well to ground lamb or beef in a popular and comforting lokanta dish called simply mercimek yemegi ("lentil food"). And then there's the nutty chickpea (nohut), which is often cooked as white beans are, with tomato and butter, sometimes with lamb or beef; mashed into hummus; added to yogurt soups; and soaked and dry-roasted to become the char-flecked crunchy snack and popular beer accompaniment leblebi .
The closest equivalent to Turkey's white beans is borlotti or cannellini beans, but gigante beans and even pinto beans work very well in kuru fasulye and other saucy dishes. With green lentils, choose the larger, camouflage-green flat lentils for stews or soupy dishes (they lose structure and partially dissolve with cooking), and Puy or other French-style green lentils for pilafs and salads. Look for larger, light-yellow-hued chickpeas.
Of course, the most important question when it comes to pulses is whether to use canned or dried. Dried chickpeas may require advance planning (like other legumes, soak overnight or boil for one minute and leave to soak in the boiling water for at least an hour), but they are tastier in their own right, soak up more flavor in a dish, and hold their structure better during cooking than canned. Boiling a batch of chickpeas gives you liquid that can be used as a soup base and to stabilize hummus, points out Sivrioglu. Chickpeas also freeze well, which means that if you cook a large batch, you'll have leftovers ready to use for other dishes. (Canned chickpeas will do in a pinch—drain and rinse thoroughly—but canned white beans tend to be on the mushy side; avoid them.)
Grape Leaves (uzum yapragi)
Like their neighbors in Greece and the Balkan states, cooks in Turkey use grape leaves primarily as wraps for meaty and meatless fillings made with rice and bulgur. Turkey's most prized grape leaves come from the inland Black Sea province of Tokat; in spring, vendors at markets in Istanbul display piles of fresh leaves next to signs reading "Tokat leaves have arrived!" With their pleasantly tart, vegetal flavor, grape leaves lend themselves to other uses, accompanying tabbouleh and other bulgur salads, adding a flavorful protective wrapping for sardines and other fish before they go on the grill, and forming the base of savory cheese pies (see the recipe in Classic Turkish Cooking by Ghillie Basan). If you're able to find fresh grape leaves, wash and blanch them for two to three minutes before using in a recipe, or freeze unblanched leaves in zipper-lock bags (defrosted, they may be supple enough to not require blanching). Leaves packed in brine, however, should be rinsed well to remove excess salt, blanched for one to three minutes, then shocked in ice water until they're tender but not falling apart.
The international love of baklava has made pistachios (fistik) the best-known nut in the Turkish pantry, but Tan says it's walnuts (ceviz) that are most used in the nation's cuisine. You'll want them on hand to make Circassian chicken (a cold dish of poached and shredded chicken cloaked in opulently rich walnut sauce) and muhammara, a spicy sweet pepper and walnut dip from Hatay Province, and to stuff into split dried figs to serve with tea. Even baklava, when made in homes outside the epicenter of pistachio production in the country's southeast, features a walnut filling. If you're cooking from Tan's cookbook, which focuses on pistachio-centric Gaziantep, you'll also want shelled, untoasted pistachios for sweet and savory dishes. A complete Turkish pantry also includes peeled, untoasted, and unsalted hazelnuts (findik , also the generic term for nuts) to crush and sprinkle over milk-based puddings, and almonds (badem) to add to buttery, richly spiced rice pilafs.
If you know helva or hummus, you know tahini, or tahin, as it's called in Turkey, an oily paste made from lightly toasted and ground white sesame seeds. Quality tahini has a smooth, silky texture and rich nuttiness that is balanced by a barely-there bitter backnote. In Turkey's southeast, where most of the country's tahini is made, it is drizzled over piyaz and is a key ingredient in meze like hummus, abaganouj (what we know as baba ganoush), and bakla ezmesi, a garlicky dried-fava-bean dip seasoned with lemon juice and cumin. Mixed with sugar, tahini fills oversize sesame seed–dusted bread coils called tahinli corek.
When buying tahini, peruse the ingredients list—you should read nothing but "sesame" seeds, preferably white Humera seeds from Ethiopia, acknowledged by cooks in Turkey and the Middle East as the most flavorful. Avoid tahini sold in jars, unless a production date tells you it's not more than a few months old. When you get your tahini home, check to see that it's fairly homogeneous in texture—stir as much oil into the paste as you can, if necessary—then store it in a cool, dark cupboard (or the refrigerator, if you live in a hot climate). To keep oil and paste from separating, turn the container upside down once every week or so. Turkish cooks seek out small-batch tahini of the sort that's rarely exported; US-based Soom Foods' organic single-origin tahini is just as delicious. Darker Chinese sesame paste, zhi ma jiang, has a noticeable toasty flavor that makes it a poor substitute in Turkish preparations.
Yufka are circular pastry sheets made of nothing more than salt, flour, and water, thinner than lavash but thicker and sturdier than Greek phyllo dough. Like phyllo, yufka becomes crispy when baked, making it the ideal base for all sorts of sweet and savory baked pastries. With a package of yufka on hand, you can make Turkish-style baklava with pistachios or walnuts, or dive into the world of borek, savory or sweet Turkish pastries that are layered with or rolled around whatever filling the cook desires. Those fillings may include feta-like white cheese mixed with blanched nettles, Swiss chard, or parsley and mint; lamb or beef sautéed with onions, seasoned with ground coriander, cinnamon, and allspice, and mixed with pine nuts and raisins; or chopped nuts and dried fruit tossed with a bit of sugar. With a few practice runs, you can make yufka at home, or you can find it in the refrigerator or freezer section of Turkish and Armenian groceries. I don't recommend substituting super-delicate phyllo dough for yufka, but if you must, sub two phyllo sheets for one yufka: Lay a sheet of phyllo on a work surface, sprinkle water over, lay another sheet on top, and fuse by applying pressure with a rolling pin.