One of the biggest joys of traveling for me is experiencing traditional cuisines and getting to know locals through food and traditions. You can tell a lot about a culture and their values purely based on their food, the way it’s eaten and shared. Traditional meals really open your eyes and your taste buds to a whole new range of flavor possibilities, food combinations, and texture integrations that you otherwise wouldn’t experience.
I’ve been going to Turkey for about 10 years now almost every year. My husband is from that beautiful side of the world, so I am lucky to get more of insider’s look into this culture.
My absolute favorite Turkish meal is breakfast or ‘kahvaltı’.
I’d say it’s an American equivalent of a brunch. It isn’t your typical 5-minute toast or oat breakfast, but rather a satisfying and delicious affair that is almost never enjoyed alone. On weekends it’s even more decadent and can last for hours slowly transitioning into dinner.
Each morning the tea is brewed with a lot of care and attention. Fresh ‘simit’ is bought from the local bakery and table is set with dainty plates for bite-size portions of certain breakfast items. Tea is served. We would often go through several pots of this delicious brew before somebody reached for the last piece of bread. And yes, I ate it too and enjoyed every bite (more on that at the end of the post).
On Sundays many Turkish families share an actual newspaper. Remember those? They are usually read after breakfast and accompanied by a teeny cup of bitter Turkish coffee. Turks don’t rush off right after breakfast to jump on the next big thing. It’s valuable family time used to talk, connect, and… do a little harmless gossiping about all the neighbors. In summer breakfast is usually eaten on the balcony or outside, which also makes the gossiping that much more irresistible.
Morning person or not, this ‘kahvaltı’ is worth waking up for! Most of the time, however, it doesn’t start until later in the morning, around 10-11am. As an early bird myself, it took some adjusting and getting used to. A light snack before the big “B” does the trick.
The basic components of almost any Turkish breakfast are: white bread, white cheese, olives, eggs, fresh veggies (cucumber, tomato, peppers), jam, honey, and butter. Drinks: tea (during breakfast), Turkish coffee (after breakfast).
The bread is always freshly baked, from a local bakery. One of the most popular choices is ‘simit’ - a sesame-covered bread ring sold in bakeries and street corners all over the country. Another Turkish favorite is ‘pide’ - warm squares of layered dough coated in seeds.
There are a few different cheese varieties at breakfast but typical ones are white cheese ‘beyaz peynir’, which is much like mild Feta. There is crumbly “sweet” cheese called ‘lör’ that is typically eaten with jams or honey. And there is ‘tulum’ cheese traditionally made with sheep milk with quite unique taste. Just to name a few.
Eggs are generally fried and served in individual copper skillets. ‘Menemen’ is another staple, which is a Turkish version of scrambled eggs only with peppers, onions, and tomatoes. Often eggs are mixed with Turkish ‘sucuk’. It’s a very dry and spicy Turkish sausage with high fat content made out of ground beef. If you are in Turkey try to get ‘sucuk’ from a villager if you can and not from mass production brands.
There are so many different breakfast items I haven't touched on like ‘gözleme’, ‘pide’, ‘pastırma, ‘kızartma’, ‘börek’, ‘poğaça’, and many more. If I did, this post would never end so I want to highlight a few elements instead: ‘kaymak’ and Turkish tea.
Boy oh boy, this is worth breaking the rules for! It’s similar to clotted cream (although richer) and traditionally made with buffalo milk. It’s hard to describe but once you taste it, I guarantee that you’ll never forget it.
‘Kaymak’ is served in a pool of fresh local honey, proudly taking the center “stage” on the plate. All you do is scoop both with a butter knife and layer generously over crispy ‘simit’. My mouth is watering. It is also a very popular addition to desserts, fruit, and many dishes.
So what makes it so special? Although it’s made all over the country, the “real” ‘kaymak’ comes from the Afyon region and is universally acknowledged to be the finest there is. Secret? Unlike it’s less tasty look-alike, Afyon ‘kaymak’ is made from milk of water buffalos instead of cows. This is a region where the water buffalo are fed from the residue of poppy seeds pressed for oil. This residue is very nutritious and is put into the water as feed for buffalo, cows, goats and chickens. It’s the absolute best and the proof is... well... in the pudding!
It’s so much more than just a morning drink in Turkey - it’s a way of life. From sunrise to sunset, hot or cold days, business dinners to fancy celebrations, rivers of tea will flow. Walk down any street and you’ll see someone with a massive silver tray serving teeny tiny tulip shaped classes with black tea.
Traditional Turkish Tea is black, not drank with lemon or milk and loved by everyone in Turkey. Fun fact: this country has the highest consumption of tea in the world, with a yearly average of 7 pounds per person!
Traditionally, Turkish tea is prepared in a double teapot, called ‘çaydanlık’. There are 2 pots stacked on top of each other; water is boiled in the lower (larger) pot and the loose-leaf tea is steeped in the top (smaller) pot.
When the tealeaves have opened up and released it’s aromatic oils, it’s time to serve it in tiny tulip-shaped glasses. People usually pour the tea mixture either third of half of the way up and then add hot water from the lower pot to dilute. I love this method because each person can control how strong or weak they want it to be. Tea is usually served with a few pieces of cubed sugar for optional sweetness.
FINAL THOUGHTS: BREAD AND DAIRY?
In all the years of traveling I tried so hard to stick to my personal dietary guidelines. I don’t call myself anything and try to steer clear of labels like vegan, paleo, vegetarian, raw, etc. I only use them to describe certain dishes but never to identify myself. I have a total respect for people that do choose to eat a certain way for life, but it doesn’t work for me. My needs are always changing and evolving based on my age, time of the year, moon cycle, my geographic location, and millions of other things.
The only guideline I use these days is a phrase by brilliant Michael Pollan:
“Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants.”
You can’t say it better. Don’t limit your experiences with food based on a food trend or because somebody you deeply respect is eating a certain way. I am a big believer in rules and healthy routines, but I also believe that food should be a joyful and sensuous experience. I don’t think it’s healthy to constantly worry about your food choices but it’s good to be an informed consumer. Just because you are traveling doesn’t mean it's ok to eat processed, inflammatory food or products from tortured animals (hopefully that's never the case). But, you can still enjoy yourself as long as you stick to this simple guideline and ask people the right questions about where your food is coming from. That is, of course, if it doesn’t go against your core beliefs.
I still remember on one of the many trips to Turkey I was frustrated because I couldn’t find raw apple cider vinegar “with the Mother” at any store (eyebrow lifts). I get how ridiculous this sounds now but back then – it was a problem. Let’s all take a closer look at our dietary principles and evaluate if they are working for us or against us. Traditions and cultures are deeply rooted in food, so why travel if you miss out on this experience?