Turkish cuisine is one of the most diverse and distinctive cuisines in the culinary world. However, few have ever heard anyone say they are craving Turkish food. While Turkish cuisine has never had its moment in the spotlight as the world's "it" food like Chinese or Indian, those who have sampled it are forever singing its praises. No matter whether visitors are heading to Turkey for business or pleasure, there are at least five dishes that can't be missed.
This dessert dish is actually one of the few Turkish foods that managed to find a fond home in the west. What's crazy about baklava is that it only has three ingredients, but for unwitting chefs that have tried to make it, they know it can go horribly wrong. Baklava is made by carefully layering paper thin phyllo dough with layers of nuts and syrup in between. Nuts like walnuts, hazelnuts and pistachios are all common in Turkey and it is not uncommon to find all three within a traditional baklava. The city of Gaziantep in southeast Turkey is famous for pistachio baklava or visitors can head to the Köşkeroğlu or Güllüoğlu cafes, both equally famous for their quality baklavas. Regardless of where diners in Turkey try it, there are signs that signal it is a good one. It should crackle when touched and smell buttery opposed to sweet or nutty. If it leaves behind heartburn, then the proportions of dough, nuts and syrup was wrong. That indigestion is the surest sign of poor quality baklava.
Lahmacun is to Turkey as pizza is to the rest of the world. While many pictures feature it looking an awful lot like a pizza, the finished product is actually more akin to a burrito. Lahmacun is a soft oval of chewy dough that has been painted with a spicy sauce and minced meat. Most incarnations are served with different vegetables, greens and lemon slices.
Once all the desired ingredients are piled on the lahmacun is rolled up like a big burrito. Although gravity occasionally has its way and causes the spicy sauce to wind up on many shirts, the lahmacun is primarily a street food found throughout the Middle East and the Caucus region. As a street food, visitors can find it cheaply and in plenty in Turkey's big city's like Istanbul, Adana, Ankara and Karakose.
While manti may be deceptive in looking like creamy macaroni and cheese, diners are going to be sorely disappointed if that is what they go in expecting. Manti is actually not a pasta dish at all. It is comprised of miniature dumplings, with some variations also containing meat or potatoes folded up into the dumpling dough before it's steamed.
The dumplings are then blanketed with - not cheese - but yogurt, melted butter and garlic after which they are topped with spicy peppers and paprika. Manti is one of Turkey's oldest meals, it originally in central Asia in the original homeland of the Turks near Mongolia. Manti was created so the nomadic tribes could carry it dried or frozen and swiftly boil it up for dinner. Essentially, manti was the original TV dinner for the nomads that would later settle in Turkey.
If there is one dish that any Istanbullu can't live without, its hamsi, or Black Sea anchovies. These tiny fish are served fried up on a heaping platter with a side of rice. Unlike canned sardines, hamsi come saltier and less fishy in flavour because they are fried up fresh. Universally, the tiny fish are best in the autumn when the arrival of colder and rainier weather makes the fish fatter and gives them a buttery texture. Visitors on the hunt for hamsi need only to head to the coast along the Black Sea, the closer a restaurant is to the docks or the local fishmonger, the better the seafood - which almost always will include hamsi in great mass. During the autumn harvest, Turkey is in such a tizzy for these little fishes that little street food shacks start popping up to serve up the fish grilled with spicy dipping sauce. Foodies will never look at fish sticks the same way.
When it comes to breakfast time, visitors will find more options in Turkey that in most countries in the world. They have a wide array of breakfast type dishes, and all of them are hearty enough to last diners through most of the day. A traditional breakfast favourite is menemen. Menemen is essentially an omelet that is turned up to the max in terms of seasoning and flavour. Roasted onions, peppers and tomatoes are mixed thoroughly with eggs, herbs, parsley, and spicy peppers. This delicious deluge is then cooked up until the eggs are slightly runny and served with fresh baked bread to scoop the mixture up. As it is a popular traditional breakfast dish throughout Turkey, visitors are likely to find a few different variations, but restaurants like Lades Muhallebi, Bebek Kahve and Mehtap Cafe in Istanbul are renowned for their addictive menemen.
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