I’m on an exciting journey traveling the globe looking at food, wine and cultural travel experiences. As a food-industry professional I was really excited to explore Turkish cuisine on a recent trip to Turkey. The food style is a blend of many Asian cultures with European traditions to create something distinctly Turkish.
To be quite honest, I was not sure what to expect as I’ve never been to the country before. I have to say, my visit exceeded my expectations. My Turkish food experience started immediately upon boarding the plane, when I hopped on board with Turkish Airlines. The airline has a unique Chef on Board program, offering world class in-flight dining experiences. In business class a Chef plates all meals, with special attention to detail. From the use of seasonal and fresh ingredients to food presentation along with a wide selection of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, anyone flying business class will leave as an impressed traveler. Their globally recognized CIP Lounge in Istanbul also offers some amazing Turkish food items like Manti, a traditional Turkish dumpling typically served with yogurt, garlic, red pepper ground sumac and dried mint (so delicious). Another favorite of mine was the baklava station which offers a variety of scrumptious types of baklava, from walnut to pistachio. This paper-thin pastry is widely considered as the most popular Turkish dessert.
Turkish cuisine is rich in history, different flavors and textures that go back to the Ottoman Empire-founded by Turkish tribal leader Osman at the end of the thirteenth century in Anatolia, Turkey. One of the longest reigning and most powerful empires, the cuisine was influenced by elements from Circassian, Central Asian, Caucasian, Middle Eastern, Balkan and Greek cuisines, resulting in a unique food celebration that stands on its own.
The culinary center of Turkish cuisine lies in Istanbul, in the region of Marmara where the Bosphorus strait divides the city. It is the only city in the world that lies both in Asia and Europe. This strait also connects the Sea of Maramara to the Black Sea. What better way to start my Turkish food journey than by dining at the Ciragan Palace, the only Ottoman Imperial Palace and hotel right on the Bosphorus. The hotel and restaurant on site gives you a glimpse of the genuine ultimate luxury of an Ottoman palace. I dined at the Tugra Restaurant where they served Ottoman and Turkish inspired dishes. Executive Chef Sezai Erdogan has taken his inspiration from recipes recorded in the archives of historic sites. From the elaborate food presentation to the variety of dishes experienced, I really felt like I was taken back in time and given a glimpse into how the people dined at the Ottaman palace so many years ago. This dinner was one of my most unforgettable experiences during this trip. I enjoyed learning about Mezze, which are small plates of hot and cold appetizers that are meant to be shared. These unique plates, served hot and cold, are a big part of the Turkish food culture whether you are in a casual or formal setting. Mezzes often include white cheese, yogurt with cucumbers, stuffed peppers, eggplant puree and more. The food did not stop all night at Tugra Restaurant and I was most impressed when a table consisting of a massive, fresh caught salted seabass was served tableside and cracked open from its casing by one of the chefs. Not only was I captivated with the food, I was also blown away with the spectacular service we received. The attention to detail, service quality and genuine hospitality from the staff; the overall dining experience was truly unforgettable. This first dinner in Turkey really gave me a birds-eye view of what was to come for the rest of my journey in regards to experiencing Turkish food and hospitality.
Turkey’s cuisine is multi-faceted and influences vary from region to region, says expat and Istanbul food scene expert Antony Doucet. He is a contributor to Louis Vuitton City Guide for Istanbul and also the Brand Director of House Hotel Group, a chain of chic hotels in Turkey. Antony is based in Istanbul and notes that the city has become even more popular in recent years as a destination for travelers as the food scene continues to thrive. He says their business in particular is thriving, and they are opening a new location in Miami Beach, Florida where he plans to continue to bring the warm Mediterranean hospitality and Turkish food traditions.
After Istanbul, our crew traveled to Alacati, a small quaint town in south Turkey. Located on the western coast of Izmir Province on the Aegean sea, this area is considered the Hamptons of the region. It’s all about sophistication and elegance in this town, particularly with the food offerings. Turkey tourism expert Haldun Dinccetin is the Vice President of Finn & Partners, a group responsible for promoting Turkey tourism, and is considered one of the greatest ambassadors of the country. His goal is to always help attract tourists to his homeland. He knows that food is a big part of why tourists enjoy visiting Turkey from all parts of the world. Haldun says while simplicity is the hallmark of Turkish cooking, the cuisine provides a density of flavor and texture as well as extraordinary variety (eggplant can be cooked 40 different ways). This is the result of centuries-long focus on food as an important ritual of everyday life with the influence of the imperial palace. From the central Asian origins, Haldun says that Turkey’s cuisine has evolved into cosmopolitan fare based on the diverse agrarian tradition that makes Turkey self-sufficient in the production of food. The country’s multicultural heritage has generated a diverse cuisine notable for grilled meats, seafood, local fruits and vegetables and fine wines. This was exactly what I experienced in Alacati at the popular modern Turkish restaurant Kapha. Executive Chef Sedat Arslan brings earth and sea to table concept and only uses the finest ingredients produced from the regions water and soil. During our dinner, what stood out for me was the tuna tartare dish made from a 550 pound Orkinos (tuna) from the western coast of Turkey. The tuna was caught fresh out of the water the day before, butchered on-site and served right on our table. Chef Arslan adds a modern twist, creating a fusion of Turkish traditional cuisine combined with modern styles of Mediterranean cuisine.
Cittur is a destination management company in Izmir that has been around close to 30 years, designing tours around the Aegean region’s culinary traditions. They took us to one of the regions most popular wineries called Urla Winery. The winery aims to rescue indigenous grapes that have long vanished in the region. After six years of extensive research, they were able to locate the vine of the true Urla Karasi. The winery hosted us with a welcome feast before the tour with an abundance of popular mezze items and homemade breads, a staple in Turkish food traditions, accompanied by their famous olive oil.
Our last stop was beautiful Cappadocia in central Turkey known for it’s historic fairy chimneys and rock formations and of course, also known for it’s authentic traditional Turkish cuisine. We met with Cappadocia’s expert travel service, Travel Atelier, considered the most popular tour operator in the region. Owner Murat Ozguc says that the food culture in Cappadocia attracts a lot of travelers, and we could quickly see why. We filmed bread making and cooking in a traditional and ancient style tandir oven. The sight, smell and taste of the food tickled all of the senses; an experience sure to leave travelers in awe because of it’s authenticity. This experience was probably one of the biggest highlights of my Cappadocia adventure.
Turkey has now become one of my favorite places and now I understand why its one of the most enduring and popular tourism destinations in the world. From not knowing anything about the country to getting educated on the rich history, fascinating culture and experiencing some of the best food and wines in the world, this is a place that has left an impact on me and I will definitely be back to explore even more.
Cristina Carpio is a television personality, brand and restaurant strategist as well as a passionate food and beverage expert. Travel and living life to the fullest is in her DNA. In addition to hosting Going Global, Cristina is a country ambassador for a global immersive dining platform and has a column for a noted North American food and beverage industry magazine. She has also been recognized for her work and involvement in charitable and community projects and has hosted several prestigious festivals, fashion and cultural events.