I remember being astounded the first time I ordered a meal at a restaurant in Turkey. From having eaten at plenty of Turkish restaurants in other countries, I had come to think that “Turkish food” meant unrecognizable lumps of mystery meat and rice, all drowned in a greasy brownish-red sauce and served with stale pitta bread. In my experience, it was heavy food, overly substantial, a heart attack on a plate. So when the waiter at the restaurant in Antalya presented me with a beautifully arranged plate of sliced lamb, delicately roasted vegetables, and fluffy rice with a side salad, my jaw dropped. My perception of Turkish food was about to be changed forever.
That’s not to say that you can’t find a heavy meal in Turkey if that’s what you really want. On the contrary, Turks do comfort food in a way that that can instantly fix all your money problems or breathe new life into your broken heart. But that’s kind of my point: Turkish food is magical in all sorts of ways. It is whatever you need it to be at the time you seek it out.
In the summer, cool meze platters and salads will help you deal with the otherwise debilitating heat. In the winter, hearty soups and roasted chestnuts take the chill out of your bones. Grilled fish and chicken are always available if you want to eat light; İskender kebap with clarified butter and yogurt is there for you when you feel like indulging yourself.
Six years into my Turkish cuisine adventure, I’m constantly reminded that I’ve barely scratched the surface of all the wonderful foods this country has to offer. Just last month I visited an unassuming family-owned café in a quiet side street of a small town on the Mediterranean coast. I asked to see their lunch menu, and was told by the son of the family that his mother only makes one dish per day – you either want it, or you don’t. I love the element of surprise in homemade food, so I stayed. Within moments, I was eating the most wonderful chicken casserole I’ve ever had in my life. It had a light cream sauce, spinach, and a blend of spices that made it undeniably Turkish. I asked the son what the name of the dish was, and he called his mother out to ask her. She shrugged and said that it was just some stuff she threw together because she wanted to use up the surplus spinach in the kitchen. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
I’ll admit, I’ve new become one of those insufferable people who grumbles a lot when I see the menus of Turkish restaurants in other countries. Though there are a few here and there that get close to hitting the mark, the great majority cop out by serving generic “Middle Eastern” or “Mediterranean” dishes that aren’t particularly from anywhere, and that often have a heavy European or American twist to make them more accessible to a wider range of people. What’s frustrating is that I don’t think it’s necessary to resort to fusion in order to make real Turkish food palatable in a Western context. I may be biased, but Turkish food is perfect the way it is, and maybe one day I’ll find a restaurant somewhere outside this country that serves the real deal. Until then… you’ll just have to come visit me in Turkey.