Istanbul, Turkey: a history of its food and menu decoder

From chargilled kebaps to spicy pide bread and köfte,Turkey’s rich culinary heritage makes a visit to Istanbul a treat. Here, learn about the history of Turkish food and pick up some menu tips for when ordering Turkish food either abroad or at home.

With a big smile, Turkish cooks are likely to tell you that theirs is the first great cuisine of the world: ‘The French got their creamy sauces from our yogurt and the Chinese based their dumplings on our manti, which also gave the Italians their ravioli’.


Pushing their tongues further into their cheeks, the Turks might go on to claim that the Americans picked up their obsession with barbecues from Turkey’s chargrilled kebaps, the Italians developed their pizza from pide, the Greeks stole baklava from the Ottomans, Hungarians’ goulash came from the beef stew called kul asi, New Yorkers’ pastrami is a rip-off of the meat-drying process called pastirma and the Indians’ tandoori ovens are a copy of the ancient Anatolian custom of baking in a hole in the ground, called a tandir.

It is true that most Turkish dishes have ancient origins. About 8,000 years ago, the Hittites of south-eastern Anatolia were the first humans to cultivate figs, apricots, cherries, almonds, pistachios, sheep (for cheese and meat), and grapes for wine.

Later the Greeks, Romans, crusaders, Ottomans and 20th-century modernisers each added their own tastes, techniques and mythology to the regional repertoire. All of these influences can be found in Istanbul’s eating places, though each tends to specialise in one or two types of cooking. Go to a kebap house if you want chargrilled meat (with soups and tomato salads), or a köfte house to sample spicy meatballs (served with white bean salad), or a börek house to try savoury pastries, then to a baklava house or a rice pudding house (look for the sign ‘muhallebi’) for dessert. If you’re after a variety of meze dishes after 6pm, go to a meyhane.

menu decoder

What to order whether you’re in Ipswich or Istanbul…


The most popular cold drink in Turkey, made with yoghurt, salt and water.


A savoury pastry that has been rolled, stuffed or layered, usually with feta, spinach and/or lam mince.


Usually translated as ‘meatball’ but comes from a Persian word that simply means ‘mashed’. Köfte is minced meat kneaded into various shapes, often with added bulgar wheat.


A sweet made with filo pastry layered with pistachios (sometimes walnuts) and soaked in sugar syrup.


A type of bread usually served warm with dips (or stuffed with meat and cheese) at lunchtime. In restaurants you’re likely to get ‘balloon bread’ – a form of pide that swells with hot air when the fire flares up.


Anything stuffed, most often peppers, aubergine and courgette, but occasionally lamb ribs, intestines and melons. 

This feature was published in June 2015

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