**In Time Out originally with a much weaker heading as I am crap at titles: I’m not eating that! Someone suggested this title afterwards.**
Part of any travelling experience is exploring the local food and every visitor to Turkey steps off the plane into the welcoming arms of the kebab stand, confident that this is the Real Deal. Which it is, of course. But the real adventure of Turkish cuisine is in venturing off the beaten track and eating the things that haven’t, and probably will never be, exported. Fancy a meal with a name sounding like ‘cockroach’? Anyone for sheep’s face?
N: Raw meat, yes, as in uncooked but if you think of it like the Turkish version of steak tartare, your inner food snob means you have to at least try it. The spiciest thing on the menu, eaten rolled up in lettuce leaves with a squeeze of lemon juice it takes hours of kneading to make and seconds to eat. In the summer most places make it with very little meat, which means a bit less flavor.
R: I mean it’s nice and all to eat something in this country with a little heat but the discernible imprint of a human hand freaks me out a little. I wonder how much of that unique flavor comes from palm grease.
J: Though every other kid’s nightmare, I’ve always loved liver. The most popular form in Turkey is arnavut çiğer (Albanian liver) which is chopped lamb’s liver and potatoes over rice. Done well with more meat and less rice, it’s an excellent hangover food. It’s also great in a durum with a healthy dose of salsa, lemon and peppers. Goes great with beer.
N: Liver from force fed ducks, whizzed up into smooth creamy pate: edible orgasm. Plated lumps of the organ: too much of a reminder of liver’s bodily function.
R: Some meat braziers are vertical and some horizontal. If you’re out for a quick sandwich DON’T get them mixed up. The vertical skewer serves up chicken or lamb. If you’re looking for something a little different and have a non-discerning palate you might be interested in trying kokoreç, the mystery meat on the horizontal skewer. Kokoreç is lamb intestine cleaned and roasted on a skewer, then chopped and served with tomatoes, scallions, salt and oregano.
R: If you wander down the Balik Pazar after a long night on Nevizade and you’ve had a minimum of three drinks, kokoreç can really hit the spot. It’s sort of like Swiss steak with a hint of liver. The spices and veggies go a long way. If you eat quickly without thinking about it too much and wash it down with either coke or ayran, then you might just find yourself liking kokoreç.
R: Don’t breathe through your nose. Whatever you imagine the smell of intestines frying on a greasy skillet to be like, kokoreç is worse.
J: A soup made from tripe, onion, lemon, flour and garlic. Served with garlic and vinegar, it is creamy and the meat surprisingly tender. Turks will love you for loving it.
N: Pointing no fingers, but the morning after eating a spoonful of the işkembe, something had violently disagreed with me. Maybe eating another organism’s intestines severely interferes with your own.
J: A creamy soup made from head and hoof meat. It will either frighten or impress urban Turkish friends. One of mine swore it would have eyes floating in it. (It didn’t). Best when sprinkled with sumac, hot pepper, and oregano. The Ottoman travel writer Evliya Çelebi advises travelers, “Never break the rites of salt and bread.” Eating with people is a social contract. How else to show your Turkish hosts how willing you are to be friends than by joining them in eating a head?
J: Have you seen the grinning skulls in the butcher shops?
J: A whipped mixture of salt, yoghurt, and water, it is the accompaniment to lamb and spice (the dairy kills the heat). And it’s historical–a staple of nomad kings in the ancient Turkish epic, Dede Korkut. When I drink it I imagine I’m charging over the steppes with the khans. Yayık or köpük ayran comes with a cloud of foam on top. Açık ayran means the restaurant whips the stuff up fresh themselves
N: İf the cost of food keeps rising to the point where wheelbarrow’s full of cash are needed to buy the day’s groceries, I’ll start watering down my yoghurt to eke it out for another day. But I still won’t put salt in it.
R: Sometimes you see it in little plastic bottles and from a distance it looks like pomegranate juice (if you order it thinking that it is pomegranate juice you’ll be sorely disappointed). Şalgam is actually the juice of pickled carrots, heavily salted and accented with turnip and paprika.
R: Like Ayran, you can’t properly judge unless you have good şalgam and you drink it ice cold. It comes in spicy (which isn’t very) and spice free. Personally I love it and if you like drinking pickle juice you’ll love it too.
R: Even if you like şalgam you probably will only be able to tolerate it once every two weeks and don’t expect it to cure a thirst with your meal – it’s a sipping beverage. Also, şalgam drunken to excess leads to bed farts, which may affect your sex life.
N: Pumpkin bathed in sugar syrup and accessorized with walnuts is almost healthy enough to pretend you’re not having dessert. Although the façade slips a bit when you load it with kaymak (Turkish clotted cream).
N: OK, for Americans this one isn’t weird but in the land of your forefathers, pumpkin is a vegetable and as such is good for soup and roasting. The only exception to this sacred edict should be carrot cake.
N: Possibly the oldest dessert in history it goes back to the flood when, with 150 days to kill stuck on top of Mt Ararat, Noah passed the time in the kitchen. In a George’s Marvellous Medicine inspired cooking frenzy, he threw everything in the storecupboard together and Aşure was born. Traditionally made with 40 ingredients, including dried fruits, spices and nuts, it is often given to pregnant women to satisfy cravings.
N: Did I mention rice and chick peas form the base of the dish? It’s not a dessert, it’s a whole meal. And it tastes of Christmas.
N: Did I mention the rice and chickpeas? Just eat the pretty top part and leave the rest for the dog.
That’s right. Chicken breast in your dessert.
R: When its done right it tastes like a really rich vanilla custard…with just a hint of chicken soup. Much like the bizarrely delicious tomato soup cake, somehow it works.
N: If the chewing gum consistency of the ectoplasm base of the dessert hasn’t already put you off, the chicken doesn’t make it any worse. Why bother unless you’re body building training and taking every opportunity to cram in the protein?
The Turk’s eye view
Ciğ Köfte: It’s too spicy! It upsets my stomach.
Ciğer: It’s almost my favourite but, then, I haven’t tried akciğer yet (lungs).
Kokoreç: I’m gonna’ eat it even if we join the EU.
Işkembe: They clean it, so I just don’t think about what it is.
Kelle paca: All meat is good so why wouldn’t I eat it?
Ayran: I drink it after döner, after lahmacun, after Rakı…
Şalgam: I like drinking pickle juice so I like it.
Kabak Tatlısı: My mum makes the best one.
Aşure: My mum makes the best one. Objectively, I mean this.
Tavuk goğsu: Even I thought it was a joke at first but it’s good.
Written with Rich Carriero and Jeff Gibbs
To read the story behind this article, go here.