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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Turkey

Culinary Influences

Turkish Food - Turkish delights
Turkish delights

Turkish food has evolved with the Turkish people, who emigrated from Central Asia thousands of years ago. Central Asian food is heavily biased towards simplicity and basic, but strong-flavored ingredients like meats, particularly lamb plus animal byproducts like dairy, with less emphasis on vegetables and fruits.

After moving to Anatolia, the Turks allowed surrounding influences to change their diets. Most significantly, they integrated multiple Middle Eastern spices and cooking techniques and incorporated Mediterranean ingredients, including many vegetables. This food developed and became more complex over time as the Ottoman Empire grew and improved communication with outsiders.

Staple Foods

There are no real staple foods in Turkey, although nearly all meals contain a meat, such as lamb, or fish and a few vegetables, particularly eggplant and tomato. Other common ingredients include various nuts and spices.

Regional Variations & Specialties

Black Sea Coast: uses a lot of seafood
South Turkey: integrates a lot of Lebanese and Mediterranean food along with kebabs and meze
Central Turkey: integrates a lot of wheat

Dining Etiquette

Turkish Food - Doner kebab
Doner kebab

Turkey is a social country and dining is one of the most social parts of the day for most Turks. Meals are meant to be enjoyed, both the food and the company so meals may take hours to finish. Even business dinners are intended for socialization and discussing business is taboo; the intention of these meals is to build relationships, not to close a deal.

Dining in homes requires you arrive on time and remove your shoes, plus in more conservative homes men and women dine separately, however, as a very liberal Muslim country, this trend is growing more uncommon each year and today it is extremely rare to be asked to dine with only company of the same sex (this is more common in the eastern part of the country and even there it is uncommon). If you are a guest in a house, bring some sweets and have a gift for the family's children if they have any. If you're dining in a restaurant, you may find yourself dining with strangers, politely ignore them as the locals do.

As the food is served, the greatest compliment you can offer is to insist that the older men and more senior diners are served before you. They will insist that you are their guest and you be served first, but your insistence that the older men are served first will be greatly appreciated.

Different foods in Turkey have different customs, while most foods are eaten with utensils (cutlery), some, like chicken are traditionally eaten with your hands. Others, like pork are rarely served since Turkey is primarily a Muslim country. The best route is to follow the lead of your hosts, but if eating with your hands, only bring food to your mouth with your right hand.

Turkish Food - Baklava
Baklava

If the meal is being accompanied by a beverage, never fill your own glass. Your neighbor will fill your glass and you are expected to return the favor. As you finish your plate (and finish everything on your plate), feel free to ask for more food, this is a compliment to the host. Before dessert there tends to be a break, which is often times used as a smoking break.

As the meal comes to an end the host takes the bill and everyone takes either coffee or Turkish tea, which is similar to hot apple cider. Even if you invited your guests, many Turks may consider you their guest since you're in their country; if you initiated the dinner you will have to insist on paying and may have to tell your server that you are paying or your guests will try to pay the bill. As you argue over who will pay, be careful to stop drinking your coffee or tea before reaching the bottom; these are unfiltered and have leaves or grounds on the bottom.

If dining without any locals, summon the waiter or waitress by making eye contact; waving or calling a server over can be considered rude. Tipping in Turkey is similar to much of Europe, about 10% for sit down restaurants.

Drinks

Turkish Food - Turkish tea
Turkish tea

The most common drink foreigners will encounter in Turkey is Turkish tea, which is similar to hot apple cider and it is offered at nearly every coffee shop. Coffee is also popular; it tends to be very strong and unfiltered though so be warned. For a more traditional drink, try ayran, which is a watered-down yogurt with salt. In addition to these, all the popular international drinks are available, including soft drinks, juices, and milk.

As a primarily Muslim country many people in Turkey don't drink alcohol, however Turkey is very liberal in this regard and most young Turks do drink alcohol, particularly in large cities along the west coast. The most popular alcoholic beverages are beer and raki, an anise-flavored alcohol. There are a number of locally produced beers with the most popular being "Efes." At many tourist locations other drinks are also widely available, including wines, hard liquors, and international beers.

There is no consensus on the cleanliness of the tap water in Turkey. Generally speaking, the tap water is safe to drink, but is heavily chlorinated, giving it a bad taste. In other areas the water quality is poor, and perhaps unsafe, so should be avoided. The best course of action is to check with locals for the cleanliness of the local water or be extra cautious and avoid the tap water entirely. If you do decide to drink the tap water, remember that many people may have troubles adjusting to the local water, as it will most certainly be different from what your system is used to.

This page was last updated: March, 2013