Kebabs and kofte (meatballs), these are the two most common formats of meat and poultry in Turkish cuisine. Beef, chicken and lamb dominate, with spices plentiful. Today’s adventurous consumer welcomes these products pre-seasoned in ready-to-cook and heat-and-eat formats.

Sis kebab is grilled cubes of skewered meat, while doner kebab is made by stacking alternating layers of ground meat and sliced meat on a large upright skewer, which is slowly rotated in front of a vertical grill. As the outer layer gets roasted, thin slices are shaved off and served. Both formats may be flavored with marinades or topical seasonings.

Kofte come in all shapes – ball, cylinder or patty – and sizes and feature mixtures of ground beef, chicken and lamb, along with bread cubes or crumbs, eggs and spices. They can be broiled, grilled, pan fried or even stewed.

There’s even a meaty dessert: chicken breast pudding, tavuk göğüsü (tah-VOOK’ go-OOZ-oo’). While this sweet treat contains fine shreds of white meat chicken, the poultry flavor is usually not detectable. What dominates is the sweet, milky, full-bodied pudding with cinnamon. Its consistency is much stiffer than traditional pudding. In fact, it is usually cut and served like a cake. The fresher the chicken, the better the pudding. A critical step is repeated washing of the cooked chicken breast prior to shredding and incorporating into the recipe. 

2 Culinary Insight

The spices used in Turkish cuisine came to be as a result of the country’s location, which is in the crossroads of Europe, Asia and the Middle East, in the center of an important trade route. Spices have long been an essential part of the goods that traversed from east to west and this helped develop Turkey’s culinary culture, where spices are used carefully and in moderation, but often in unique combinations. Today many of these spices are grown and processed on Turkish soil.

Here are the most popular spices of Turkish cuisine.

Bay leaf: The bay leaf has a pleasant smell and distinct aroma. It is usually dried before use and is common in many meat marinades. It also adds zest to stews and boiled chicken and turkey. It’s the type of ingredient that should not be strong enough to be detectable by the palate, but when it’s not included, the dish is missing something.

Cinnamon: Obtained from the bark of the cinnamon tree and known for its strong and sweet flavor, this spice is used in sweet and savory dishes. It is common in chicken stews, lamb kebobs and all types of kofte.

Clove: Clove combines well with cinnamon. In many Turkish restaurants, especially meat and kebab restaurants, it is served after meals containing onions and garlic.

Cumin: This spice is obtained from the plant of the same name, which is a member of the parsley family. It is commonly used in stuffing, meatballs and various soups. It is an essential seasoning in meat sauces and widely consumed sprinkled on grilled meats, much like black pepper.

Mint: Obtained by drying fresh mint, this spice is widely used in soups and in manti, which are Turkish dumplings or very small pockets of dough filled with ground meat and boiled in water. It is also added to yogurt and used as a condiment on meat dishes or a dipping sauce for kebabs.

Red pepper flakes: The is the most common ingredient for adding heat to Turkish cuisine, which tends to be mild in the heat department. In many restaurants, it is readily available in small containers right next to salt and black pepper.

Rosemary: Rosemary is used fresh or dried in many dishes in Turkish cuisine, particularly those including red meat, poultry and stews. It may be added to omelets, soups and chicken dishes during cooking or may be added to the dough of breads and pastries prior to baking, in particular those baked goods used for hand-held street food.

Saffron: Cultivated in the Turkish town of Safranbolu, which was named after the plant, saffron is used extensively in Turkish cuisine. It is often dissolved in rose water or vinegar and added to pilafs and meat dishes. It is also used to make sauces for chicken and fish stews. Available in either thread or powder form, saffron offers an extraordinary flavor with its pungent aroma and hay-like taste and should be used in moderation.

Sumac: This popular spice provides a sour and piquant taste together with a pleasant aroma. The spice is obtained by drying the red part of the sumac plant before grinding it together with table salt. It is mixed with red onions or regular onions and parsley and used as a garnish on cooked meats, in particular, thinly sliced liver.

Thyme: Thyme is produced by drying and then crumbling the leaves collected from the same named plant. It is widely used in sauces and in meat and poultry marinades.