aboutWe are Akila and Patrick. Our minds (and waistlines) expand as we travel, cook, and eat our way around the world with our two dogs.
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grilled meats of turkey
in istanbul

Midye dolmasi vendor Fried mussels
Midye dolmasi vendor Midye Dolmasi

Midye dolmasi and midye tava on Istanbul streets

As travelers, we often don't get to celebrate holidays the way we would back at home in the States.  Last year's Thanksgiving was spent at a French hotel near the Eurotunnel rather than at home with my favorite apple pie.  This year's Christmas was in London where we made up our own British feast replete with a Christmas pudding for us and a Christmas pudding for the dogs.  And, today, on July 4th, we're in Italy where Patrick's going to make some improvisational sandwiches with sheep's milk ricotta and bufala mozzarella, instead of our usual hamburger and veggie burgers grilled on the barbeque.

But, for those of you who can't fathom the 4th (or any other day for that matter) without a hunk of beef, this post on the grilled meats of Turkey is for you.  (Veggie readers, don't worry: I'm following up this post with a Vegetarian Turkish cuisine post and there'll be lots of yummy goodness for you in that one.)

Kebab

Kofte kebab

Why meat?

Before we start talking about types of grilled meat found commonly in Turkey, let's delve a tiny bit into Turkey's food history.  Until around the 2nd century B.C., the region we know as Turkey was occupied by the ancient Greeks, who created powerful and important cities such as Ephesus, Smyrna (now Izmir), and Byzantium (later Constantinople and now Istanbul).  The ancient Greeks subsisted primarily on a vegetarian and seafood diet, eating meat only on feast days and for special occasions, and the ancient Romans had a similar diet.

As the Greek and Roman civilizations began to fall, the Turkmen from Turkmenistan/Central Asia came into modern-day Turkey.  Unlike the Greeks and Romans who settled and built huge cities with massive agricultural farms, the Turkmen were ancient herders and nomads.  They were masters at animal husbandry, at maintaining huge flocks of animals, and migrating those animals through mountains and plains every year.  Unsurprisingly, the Turkmen ate a whole lot of animal products such as meat, milk, yogurt, and cheese, because those products were readily available, unlike vegetables which required them to be settled in one place.  

When the Turkmen began settling in villages in Anatolia, social hierarchy was demonstrated by who got to eat certain portions of a roast sheep at feast days.  Each person had an ulus, or reserved share, of the roast sheep and that share was based upon the bravery and deeds of his/her forefather though a tribal member could increase their share by performing brave deeds on their own.  People punished for bad acts lost their share to the roast sheep and also lost their rights to grazing land and pasturage.   In other words, among the Turks, food was not just a means of sustenance but rather it was the means by which a person's importance was measured.  (source)

Cig kofte

Cig kofte

(Interestingly, even today, as it was thousands of years ago, meat plays an important role in family traditions.  Suzan with Context Istanbul mentioned that the men in her town in southeast Anatolia cannot marry until they can make cig kofte properly.  They must squish and knead raw meat between their fingers until it literally cooks and forms a thick paste.  Once "cooked," the men will take a mound of the cig kofte to the local hamam (Turkish bath) and throw the cig kofte up to the ceiling.  If the cig kofte sticks to the ceiling then the man has enough muscle to marry the woman but, if not, then he must try again.  Suzan said that her father passed this test as have all of her uncles in the town.)

BagranBagran

Beyran corbasi at Ehli

These nomadic Turkmen also cut chunks of meat into stews and soups, the perfect meal when on the move (much like the Hungarian herdsmen), and even today, soup is an integral part of Turkish cuisine.  The soup pictured above is beyran corbasi, a soup from the famed Gazantiep region of Turkey --- known across Turkey as the best place to get Turkish food (and, yes, we desperately want to go there).  Beyran is traditionally drunk for breakfast in that region but Patrick would have Ehli's beyran corbasi morning, noon, and night if it was up to him.  He says that this soup is the best soup he's ever had in the world.  The soup sounds simple: suet, white rice, slow-cooked lamb strands, broth made from a lamb's neck, a hefty spoonful of garlic and pepper.  But, the sum of its part is something exceptional: the depth of the soup goes beyond one single ingredient so that every spoonful yields a slightly different taste, flavor, and experience.  At first, the broth is rich and deep, and then the spice hits the tongue, and finally the tender meat and rice melt into a satisfying I-want-this-when-I-have-a-chest-cold comfort.  It's the sort of dish that we could easily imagine some millennia-old nomadic sheepherder creating over a fire after a long day's work on the Turkish hills.

So, unlike many other ancient food traditions such as the Romans, Greeks, and Dravidians, meat was an essential part of the daily diet of the ancient Turks, which is why it's impossible to talk about Turkish food without talking about its grilled meats.

Doner kebab

Slicing a doner kebab

On kebabs and grilling

In the 9th century, the Selcuks from Persia invaded the region and set up an empire in eastern Anatolia.  These people brought with them the tradition of kebabs.  Kebab literally means "small pieces."  The Selcuks cut pieces of meat from an animal and cooked that meat in pieces, either wrapped in a skin or on skewers over a flame.  The Selcuks also cleaned the interior of animals and hung the whole animal on spits to slowly cook them.  (source)

We heard many Turks complain that kebabs are not "actually Turkish" and that the modern fervor for kebab houses is ruining traditional Anatolian cuisine.  But, since the 9th century and up to today, kebabs have played an integral role in Turkish cuisine and might be what Turkish cuisine is best known for.  So, let's do a quick run down on a few types of kebabs (because you could spend a lifetime eating in Turkey and never eat all the different types of kebabs):

Doner kebab Doner kebab

Doner kebab

Doner kebab

The doner kebab, or literally "rotating kebab", consists of meat from beef or lamb interspersed with slices of fat that rotates on a spit.  The fat melts over the layers of meat as it cooks over a slow fire, which is why good doner kebab usually drips at the bottom.  Doner kebab is so popular that when the Ottomans took over present-day Greece, the Greeks adopted the doner kebab into their own gyro. 

When served in Turkey, doner kebab is never given with sauce because the meat itself has so much flavor.  A doner kebab is usually sold directly on the streets with a plate with vegetables, on bread to carry away, or on lavash (similar to pita.)  For lunch, it's typical to stop at a doner kebab stall and grab a sandwich but, at dinner, the doner kebab is usually served with vegetable mezes.

As with most things, finding "your" doner kebab stand can be tricky --- but is essential to eating well.  Patrick found one in Istanbul on the Asian side and one in Turgutreis (locations below), but doner kebab stands are a dime a dozen.  The easiest way to find a good one is to follow where the locals go to eat lunch.

Patlican kebab Patlican kebab
Patlican kebab Patlican kebab

Patlican kebab at Urfali Haci Usta

Patlican kebab (and sis kebab, in general)

Sis kebab is probably what most Americans think about when they think of kebabs, because sis kebabs are what we normally put on the grill.  Essentially, a sis kebab combines pieces of meat with vegetables over a very high open flame. 

A patlican kebab is eggplant cut into chunks and wedged between chunks of meat until the eggplant is cooked through.  To eat it, you mash the eggplant with a fork onto the lavash bread and pile the meat on top.

Adana kebab

Adana kebab

Adana kebab

The adana kebab is hand-minced beef or lamb wrapped around a wide metal skewer and cooked over a charcoal flame.  The adana kebab from the fifth largest city of Adana.

Testi kebab testi kebab

Testi kebab

In this variety of kebab, popularly found in the central Anatolia region, pieces of meat and vegetables are stewed together in a ceramic pot over a slow charcoal fire.  Unfortunately, we found this version to be a bit bland because the ceramic pot sucks out the flavor of the meat and vegetables.

Tavuk gogsu

Ottoman cuisine

Tovuk gogsu and zire-ba

On Ottoman cuisine and sweets with meat

When the Ottoman emperors took over in the 13th century, Turkish food changed faces again, becoming more refined and with greater usage of vegetables, grains, and fruits.  But, meat was always at the center of the Ottoman table.   The Ottoman cooks were particularly known for their propensity to mix sweet flavors with hearty meats. 

Tovuk gogsu, which is a chicken milk pudding, made with shredded chicken breast, milk, and lots of sugar, tastes like a sweet pudding and its hard to even recognize the meat in it.  The zire-ba Patrick tried at an Ottoman cuisine restaurant similarly was lamb baked with apricots, raisins, honey, and almonds.

Where to eat meat in Istanbul

This is, of course, just a small sampling of the many insanely wonderful places to eat meat in Istanbul but here's a few spots that we particularly liked:

  • Sahan is a kebab chain with branches in various spots primarily on the Asian side of Istanbul.  They're a bit more upscale but serve excellent adana kebabs and a good variety of vegetarian mezes.
  • Matbah Restaurant is one of the most popular spots to enjoy the imperial Ottoman cuisine.  We found the food to be good though it is a bit overpriced.
  • Sampiyon Kokorec, a chain found all over the city, serves up good kokorec (meat stuffed into intestines and served like a sausage) and the midye dolmasi (or mussels stuffed with rice) pictured at the very top of this post.
  • Istanbul Eats is the best resource out there for food-obsessed travelers to Istanbul and, while I was munching happily at Umbria this last April, Patrick went on one of their Kebab Krawls.  The walk was very reasonably priced at around 120 lira (or something like that --- I can't seem to find the receipt for this one) (about $60 USD) and included all of the food as they walked for about four hours through little Urfa, a small off-the-beaten path neighborhood in Istanbul.  Verdict: definitely worth it.  E-mail them and book it.  Don't wait.  Make this a priority on an Istanbul trip if you like meat (not so good for veggie eaters).

Where to eat meat in the Bodrum peninsula

We didn't order much *meat* per se on the Aegean Sea because seafood is the name of the game (more on seafood later).  But, Patrick has one great recommendation for doner kebab which is in Turgutreis town, the white and blue restaurant that is in the middle of the town, right next to the hairdresser that likes to use Twilight models on her window.  We don't know the name but it's hard to miss at lunch time because everyone in the city (including our landlord) comes to this kebab stand.  They style themselves as a borek shop and baklavaki but the baklava was awful and the borek merely passable.  The doner kebab is the reason to come here.

07/05/2012 04:47
I much prefer to eat fresh fish in the coastal restaurants however do like Adana kebab the most, out of all the varieties.
07/05/2012 06:52
Necdet, Yes, you're right. On the coast, the seafood is definitely the best.
Akila's recent blog post: grilled meats of turkey
07/05/2012 07:15
Wow, what a mouth watering post! I love how you included the "history behind" the dishes featured. It's always great to see a "Once upon a Time" story behind every post. Gives more meat to the article (pun very much intended ;))
07/05/2012 10:17
Thanks Jenn! And pun appreciated. :)
Akila's recent blog post: grilled meats of turkey
07/05/2012 08:05
Loved the history section in this post! Never been anywhere close to Turkey, but will have this to look forward to when I eventually go there!
Ryan at Travel and Graphs's recent blog post: Picture and a Story: The Wire-New Orleans
07/05/2012 10:04
Ryan, thanks! The food is exceptional in Turkey - amongst the best we've tried in the world - and I've got so much to say about it!
Akila's recent blog post: grilled meats of turkey
07/05/2012 08:27
I agree with Ryan re: the culinary history background. Do you have any culinary history books you've enjoyed lately? It also makes sense why there is so much yogurt. I can safely say that I loved the meat and veggie and pretty much any dish in Turkey.! I did really enjoy mucuh of the Ottoman food that I ate especially the meat. I found out from friends who are from Azerbijan that there is also a tradition there of mixing sweets (died fruits) and meats. For Thanksgiving, their turkey is actually stuffed with dried fruits and other good fixins.
07/05/2012 10:15
Terri, How interesting that they add dried fruits to Turkey for Thanksgiving. That's actually a great idea. I don't read a ton of food history (often because these books aren't available on the Kindle) but I know that I am going to read The Omnivore's Dilemma and Salt: A World History, soon. If you have any suggestions, let me know, because I'm always looking for new books to read.
Akila's recent blog post: grilled meats of turkey
07/05/2012 08:44
Fantastic post and excellent information on all the different forms of meat. We ate quite a bit of meat in Turkey, and oddly, not much seafood, though I suppose if we went south to the coast that would have been featured more.

I recently read an article about how much meat people of various countries consume and the US is #2 in the world with an average of 270 lbs per person per year (beef, pork and poultry combined). I was surprised that Turkey's average was only about 53 lbs per year but my understanding is that outside of the cities, consumption drops off dramatically.
Kristina's recent blog post: Istanbul At Night
07/05/2012 09:41
Kristina, Thanks! Who was #1 if you don't mind me asking? Australia would be my guess. I think you're right --- even when we were in Cappadocia, we didn't find as much meat in dishes and, on the coast, it's almost always seafood. The kebab stands were there on the coast but less prominent and most restaurants were seafood restaurants. Even in the grocery stores, it was difficult to find fresh beef or lamb and Patrick mostly ended up buying fish or frozen meat to thaw and cook.
Akila's recent blog post: grilled meats of turkey
07/05/2012 10:25
Luxembourg was the highest. Australia is tied with the US. Here's the link to the article; http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2012/06/27/155527365/visualizing-a-nation-of-meat-eaters?ft=1&f=1053
Kristina's recent blog post: Istanbul At Night
07/05/2012 10:31
Wooh.. I should've known to not read food posts in the office. It's going to be hard to concentrate for the rest of the day now.

Awesome writing! I'm not a fan of history, but you have always managed to tell them with such an interesting flair that I become engrossed in your stories/posts. Tis wonderful!
Pauline's recent blog post: An Evening in Lisbon
07/05/2012 12:00
Thank you so much Pauline! I am completely fascinated by food history (if you can't tell) so I'm glad that I'm getting other folks interested in it, as well.
Akila's recent blog post: grilled meats of turkey
07/06/2012 17:29
Lakshmi Sankar
Akila, Great post! I loved the way you combined history with food. Love, Mom
07/07/2012 14:33
I NEED to get myself to that part of the world and just prepare to eat all day long. All of this looks so good!
Emily in Chile's recent blog post: Review: Fierro Hotel, Buenos Aires
07/07/2012 17:40
I want to go to Turkey and eat all these types of meat. I know I can survive on a doner kebab diet only (in Greece I ate gyros everyday, that is how much I like them). I guess the variety on Turkey wil push me to try new dishes and flavors.
07/08/2012 04:41
Ruth, AND, Turkish street food is so cheap! It's not like in Greece where you don't have such a large selection of street food - in Turkey, there's street food everywhere and lots of different varieties.
07/08/2012 19:16
Great post explaining the different types of kebab!
07/15/2012 08:55
I have just recently been in Bosnia, where the cuisine is a mix of both the Balkan style (pizza, gelato, cakes) and the Turkish style (kebabs, Burek, Turkish coffee). Needless to say, it was a great mix and I'm so excited to get to Turkey soon and eat even more grilled meat!
Julia's recent blog post: Bosnian Food: An Education
07/17/2012 14:42
Julia, Well, if it's meat you're looking for, then Turkey's definitely the right country!
07/21/2012 01:30
Mouthwatering post packed with very interesting information and delicious photos. I especially loved reading the bit about cig kofte and having to throw some on the ceiling of the hamam to show strength - I want to try that!
07/22/2012 04:06
Thanks so much Mark! Well . . . you might just have to find a girl to marry in southeastern Turkey and you'll have to throw the cig kofte up in the air to prove that you're marriageable material!
07/21/2012 12:53
I admit it, I couldn't read the vegetarian foods post without at least checking out the one on grilled meats =) Thanks for including all of the historical tidbits in this post. Though I suspected the practicality of eating animal products, I had no idea that so much personal value was placed on the foods one consumed. You learn something new every day--thanks for the interesting new information!
07/22/2012 03:59
Thanks so much Ruth! :)
08/14/2012 10:49
Mussel Sish Kebap with mayo souce! Surely it is the best to eat in this country!
08/29/2012 04:26
I was amazed at just how wonderful the food in Turkey is. The grilled meats and kebabs are fantastic. I also really enjoyed the bread.
11/22/2012 12:38
Ohhh Great. I liked.

Thanks

Murat
12/15/2012 01:45
Great article!!! How long were you in Turkey for? Did you try much lamb. We recently did a post about lamb in Turkey! Check it out if your interested! http://theistanbulletin.com/2012/12/15/eat-an-ode-to-lamb/
05/17/2013 17:49
Thanks for this writeup. I can't wait to try it all out in Turkey this November!
05/22/2013 12:43
You will love it!

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