If you’re hesitant to try Turkish food, answer these questions. Do you like hummus? How about grilled meat that’s so succulent it’s literally dripping with flavor? Are you a fan of dumplings, pizza, and anything fried? What about cool, refreshing salads to make your meal feel healthy? If you answered yes to any or all, we promise you’ll be kicking yourself for not venturing into the world of Turkish cuisine sooner. It encompasses familiar Middle Eastern flavors and distinct notes all its own, so we asked chefs from top Middle Eastern restaurants to pinpoint dishes that are must-trys for all Turkish beginners—it’s best enjoyed with a large group (you’ll see why below) and after tasting (or just reading!) we doubt you’ll be a newbie for long.
Splurge for the meze
Meze translates to appetizer, and when it comes to Turkish food, you definitely want these in plentiful supply. Consider ordering a combo platter so you can taste a variety of cold dips like hummus; a smoked eggplant dip similar to baba ganoush; ezme, a spicy onion and chopped tomato medley; cacik, a cucumber yogurt dip reminiscent of tzatziki; and so much more. Don’t be afraid to experiment—anything you can pile on top of pita or dip a chunk of traditional Turkish bread into (authentically baked on rocks or clay to produce a crisp base but chewy inside, and sprinkled with nigella or sesame seeds) is bound to satisfy.
There’s hot meze, too, and they should not be skipped. You must try Turkish cigars (sometimes called borek or boregi), a cousin to the Chinese egg roll—think crispy, flaky, phyllo-type dough commonly wrapped around minced meat, cheese, or spinach, and served piping hot. Then there’s kibbeh. “The best way to describe it is like a croquette, and it’s served with a mint yogurt sauce,” says Tarik Fallous, head chef and owner of Au Za’atar in New York City. It’s frequently a mixture of ground meat (usually beef), spices, and pine nuts that’s wrapped in a bulgur coating and fried until crispy. “You can’t compare it to much, so it’s great for trying a very cultural dish,” he adds.
Get the manti
Do not—we repeat, do not—walk away without trying manti. If Chinese dim sum and Italian ravioli had a baby, manti would be it. A light, silky dough is stuffed with minced lamb and boiled, then the pillowy pockets are doused in a garlicky yogurt sauce and topped off with a hearty drizzle of chili oil. There’s nothing else like it, and we challenge you not to eat the entire plate.
Be ready for some meat
Like other Middle Eastern cuisines, Turkish is heavy on the meat, and we aren’t complaining. “Kebab is a great gateway food. It’s simply skewered meat and vegetables that is roasted or grilled. It’s not foreign to many palates but you’ll be surprised by the flavor,” says Fallous. Whether you like chicken, beef, or lamb, there’s a kebab for them all. Then there’s shawarma—layers of marinated chicken or a beef/lamb combo that’s slow-roasted on a spinning spit until tender enough to shave off for sandwiches or to pile atop rice. “It’s the world’s most popular street food and is absolutely a must-try,” Fallous says. “Every bite will be better than the next.”
And don’t be fooled by the simplicity of kofte—it’s not your ordinary meatball or patty. “It’s essentially a cross between a meatball and meatloaf, with a savory and sweet spiced flavor, as well as herbal notes,” says Julien Laconelli, executive chef and consultant at Panorama Middle Eastern Grill in New York City. It’s often served as stubby torpedo-shaped patties or roughly chopped; we recommend building a forkful of kofte and purple pickled turnips or sweetly tangy pickles that are often served on the side.
Pair your meat with one of the tomato- and cucumber-forward salads and your meal is complete.
Try the flatbreads
If you’re a lahmacun (sometimes spelled lahmajoun) virgin, you shouldn’t be for long. It’s a thin yet chewy flatbread smeared with an addictive minced lamb mixture. If you’re craving cheese, pide is for you. Think of it like the Turkish version of pizza, except layers of cheese, spinach, or meat is piled into dough boats and baked until gooey. If you’re lucky, you might also find fresh-baked pita rubbed with za’atar (an iconic spice blend of thyme, sumac, and sesame seeds) or muhammara, a red pepper spread, that are definitely worth your time.
Finish it off with one sweet bite
For something new, try kunefe. “It’s made from cheese, baked pastry dough, and topped with pistachios. It’s generally served hot and is delicious and indulgent,” says Laconelli. Or, stick with a tried-and-true favorite: “I always get baklava when I go to Turkey. It’s a popular filo dough pastry held together with syrup or honey, and it’s great,” says Fallous.
Related Video: How to Make the Best Homemade Hummus