Culture, Discover Turkey, Foods

Turkish Cuisine (Part Five of Seven): The Mediterranean Region

by Mary Bloyd

This is Part Five of a seven-part series to explore, learn, and discover the cuisine of the seven regions of Türkiye. (Articles covering the first four parts of this series can be found on this site.) The culinary culture of Türkiye is renowned as one of the world’s best. Along with Chinese and French cuisine, it is considered one of the three main cuisines of the world because of the variety of its recipes and flavors. Fresh, local, and seasonal produce are at the heart of the Turkish cooking culture.

As a domestic chef and lover of all foods and cuisines, it has been an exciting adventure to discover the rich cuisine of this ancient, historic nation. While many of the foods and dishes carry the same name — for example, Kebabs and Türkiye’s legendary Lentil Çorbasi (soup) — the preparation and ingredients used in each dish can and do differ widely. These region-to-region variations are what prompted my initial interest in the food and cuisine of the seven regions.   

Visible on this map in the color orange is the Mediterranean Region (Akdeniz Bölgesi in Turkish). It is bordered by four of the seven regions of Türkiye: the Aegean Region to the west, the Central Anatolia Region to the north, the Eastern Anatolia Region to the northeast, and the Southeastern Anatolia Region to the southeast. The region is named for and bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the south, and by the country of Syria to the southeast. This region occupies approximately 46,330 square miles, or 15% of the total area of Türkiye.

This is a mountainous region with two major mountain ranges. The Toros (also called“Taurus”) Mountain range covers most of the region from east to west. The Amonos Mountain range runs north to south, in the extreme eastern part of the region. These two mountain ranges run parallel to and actually meet the Mediterranean Sea in several places. The coastal plains formed over time in the lower courses of the rivers. In the eastern part of the region is the most important coastal plain, Cukurova, known in antiquity as Cilicia. The main lakes of the region — Beysehir, Egridir and Burdur — are in the northwest and, together, they form a closed basin.

In seven of the eight provinces in the Mediterranean Region, the capital city bears the name of that province. The exception is the city of Antakya, which is the capital of the Hatay Province. The provinces are administrative units but, strangely enough, their borders do not exactly match those of the region. For example, the region includes the eastern part of the Mugla Province and the southern parts of neighboring provinces, like Konya, Karaman and Nigde.

At the coast, the climate is hot and dry in summer and mild to cool and wet in winter. The interior of the region with its semi-arid climate also has hot, dry summers but cold and snowy winters. Due to the heat and dryness of the summers across the region, droughts are not uncommon. Because the mountainous regions are very high and steep, the valleys formed between the sea and the mountain ranges are very narrow. In the spring when the winter snow melt flows down from the mountains, it causes the levels of several major rivers to rise.

Rich in agricultural resources with fertile soil and a warm climate, the plains are ideal for growing citrus fruits, grapes, wheat, barley and tobacco. Close to two-thirds of the land sown is in grain, with rice and cotton grown in those areas which are irrigated. The cotton produced in the region represents two-thirds of the total production in Türkiye. Other agricultural products are grown in hundreds of greenhouse “farms” (or “hothouses” as they are called in the United States). Seen from a road high above them, these white structures look like tent cities. Various industries also operate in the region, including the production of textiles, a petroleum refinery, and facilities for the production of aluminum, iron and steel.   

In the Mugla Province, 80% of Türkiye’s oranges and mandarins are grown, and bananas are only grown in this region. The plains around Adana are largely reclaimed flood lands. In the western part of the region, inland movement is restricted since the rivers have not cut valleys that go through to the sea. The backland is mainly karst (landscape underlain by limestone) and rises sharply from the coast to elevations of up to 9,200 feet.

There are very few major cities along the coast of the Mediterranean Region. Antalya is the largest city in the region. Other big cities are Adana, Mersin and Kahramanmaraş. Antalya is considered one of the fastest growing cities in Türkiye. Its port has become an important trading center as well as the most important tourist center in the region. With its beautiful beaches, holiday villages, modern hotels, and traditional Turkish culture, thousands of visitors and tourists from around the world are attracted to Antalya.  So, about the cuisine… let’s look at what are considered the ten most popular foods in the Mediterranean Region. (Source: An article published on www.tasteatlas.com.)

#1 Dondurma (Kahramanmaraş; Mersin Province)

This Turkish ice cream is enjoyed all across Türkiye. Made from only four ingredients – milk, sugar, salep, and mastic – it is set apart from other varieties due to its dense, chewy texture and its resistance to melting.

These qualities are achieved with two thickening agents added to the basic milk and sugar mixture: Arab gum, also known as mastic resin; and salep. Located in the southern province of Mersin, the town of Kahramanmaraş lies on the slopes of the Ahir Mountain and provides two of the four ingredients: milk and salep.

The milk for dondurma comes from Ahir Mountain goats whose nutrition consists of aromatic herbs, giving the milk a distinctive taste. Bulbs from a special type of purple orchid grown on the mountain slopes are dried and ground into a fine powder to make the salep. The ice cream in this area typically contains more salep than the norm. For this reason, it is sometimes called kesme dondurma, from the Turkish kesmek meaning “to cut”. It can be flavored with vanilla, chocolate, fruit, nuts, and spices.

Since dondurma is resistant to melting, street vendors often display it hanging on meat hooks and serve it in waffle cones, jokingly making it a dramatic show by pulling the ice cream straight out of the customers’ cones. A more upscale way is to cut the dondurma into slices and serve it on plates where it can be eaten with a knife and a fork with traditional garnishes of cinnamon and crushed pistachios.

Being an American, the idea of eating a non-melting ice cream with a knife and fork would be a very unusual experience. However, in hindsight which is always 20/20, I would have made visiting a dondurma street vendor a “must-do” list when visiting Türkiye a few years ago. A fun fact: Turks sometimes consume hot tea with the dondurma. They believe this will protect them from getting a cold or a sore throat.

#2 – Adana Kebap (Adana; Adana Province):

Adana Kebap is a popular, skewered meat dish named after Adana, one of the most famous kebab cities in Türkiye. The dish is made with ground lamb and tail fat kneaded together with garlic, onion, paprika, and hot red pepper flakes, giving it a deep red color and a very spicy flavor. The mixture is typically molded around large, flat metal skewers then grilled. After cooking, the grilled kebap is traditionally served on a platter over flatbreads, peppers and tomatoes.

The kebap can also be served stuffed into pita bread with a salad of parsley and red onions. Before the pita is rolled up, the meat is usually topped with roasted chilies, salt, cumin, and sumac. It pairs well with ayran, a slightly salty, yogurt-based beverage; or salgam, a non-alcoholic, fermented beverage made from vegetables and red carrots.

#3 – Kisir (Mersin, Türkiye):

Kisir is a classic Turkish salad made with thin bulgur wheat, tomatoes, mint, garlic, parsley, and either lemon juice or sour pomegranate molasses. Red pepper flakes are often added to the salad to make it more spicy. Lemon juice is typically used in northwestern Türkiye. Pomegranate molasses is more commonly used in the southeastern part of the country.

This salad is ideal for buffets and meze (appetizers). It is also very often used as a side dish for a variety of barbecued meat dishes. Traditionally, it is served either cold or at room temperature.

#4 – Tantuni (Mersin, Türkiye):

Tantuni is a traditional street food from southern Türkiye. It is made with thinly-sliced beef seasoned with Turkish spices and herbs, and is usually cooked with onions and tomatoes. The ingredients are cooked together in a specially designed tantuni pan. This dish is traditionally served with the ingredients rolled inside of a durum wheat wrap, with ground sumac and a lemon wedge on the side. Every chef has their own method and secret technique for preparing this dish. It is said that the flavors of tantuni are never the same.

Tantuni was originally created as a poor man’s dish. It is very nutritious with meat with a lot of fat stuffed into bread. Some believe the name of the dish refers to the sound the meat and spices make when brought from the rim of the pan to the center as it cooks. Tantuni reminds me of a Greek gyro or a Mexican burrito and looks delicious!

#5 – Cezerye (Mersin, Türkiye):

Cezerye is a Turkish dessert which originated in Mersin. Its name is derived from the word cezer, meaning carrot. It is made with caramelized grated carrots, sugar, and nuts like walnuts, hazelnuts, or pistachios. Hazelnuts are the most traditional option. Once the concoction is prepared, it is either rolled into balls or shaped into flat, rectangular disks.

Regardless of the shape chosen, cezerye is typically covered with shredded coconut before being consumed. In Türkiye, this sweet confection is often thought of as an aphrodisiac. It is especially popular on special occasions.

#6 – Piyaz (Antalya Province, Türkiye):

Piyaz is a traditional Turkish salad. In most of the country, the general term piyaz is used to describe this dish of dried beans, parsley, onions, and sumac. However, in Antalya, preparation of piyaz also contains a rich and smooth sauce consisting of tahini, lemon juice, and vinegar.

The beans are topped with the sauce, and the dish is usually dressed with chopped tomatoes, sliced onions, hard-boiled eggs, olive oil, and parsley. Piyaz is often eaten as an accompaniment to köfte and similar grilled meats, but is also included in a meze selection.

#7 – Kebab in Parchment Paper (Kağit Kebabi) (Antakya, Türkiye):

Kağıt Kebabı is a traditional type of Turkish kebab originating in Antakya. As is expected, there are some variations. It is usually made with a combination of ground meat (usually beef or lamb), olive oil, salt, pepper, and vegetables – such as tomatoes, peas, carrots, bell peppers, potatoes, and shallots.

After the ingredients are mixed together, they are wrapped in parchment paper so all of the flavorful juices can be trapped inside. A puncture is made on the top of the paper, and the parcels are brushed with water before being baked in an oven. After cooking, this kebab variety is typically served with rice and a salad on the side.

#8 – Yuvarlama Çorbasi (Kahramanmaraş Province, Türkiye):

Arguably the most laborious Turkish soup and one of the favorites in Gaziantep. Yuvarlama çorbası is made with spiced meatballs, chickpeas, yogurt broth, olive oil, and other optional ingredients which vary from chef to chef. This soup is traditionally prepared for the three-day celebration of breaking the fast at Ramazan Bayramı. It is served in virtually every Anatolian home.

The preparation of this festive soup is a time-consuming process. Everyone gets involved and often both family members and neighbors gather to share the work and the joy of rolling hundreds of tiny yuvarlama köfte. These spiced meatballs are typically made with lean beef mince and rice or bulgur flour. They can also be made without meat. The köfte are then steamed and with pre-cooked chickpeas, added to the warm süzme (strained yogurt broth drizzled with minty olive oil). Yuvarlama çorbasi can include stewed chunks of beef, lamb, or chicken. It is generally accompanied by rice pilaf. This amazing combination of different flavors and textures makes for a very nutritious meal.

#9 – Karsambaç (Çamliyayla, Türkiye):

Karsambaç is a traditional Turkish dessert originating from the highlands of Mersin. This unique dessert is made with a combination of clean mountain snow and a sweet syrup. This might be honey, sugar syrup, or molasses.

Blocks of snow are taken from the mountains with a pickaxe. Once brought into the city, the snow is grated with a knife before being mixed with the sweet syrup. This dessert is often sold on street corners as a refreshing summer treat. It is considered a natural ancestor to granitas and snow cones.

#10 – Tuzda Tavuk (Hatay Province, Türkiye):

Tuzda tavuk is a traditional Turkish dish which originated in the Hatay Province. A whole chicken is stuffed with a combination of rice, selected spices, and other seasonings. Totally dependent upon the whim of the cook! Once stuffed, the whole bird is covered with wet salt which forms a crust.

The Tuzda tavuk is placed into a wood-fired oven or furnace. It bakes for up to two hours or until fully cooked and tender. Once taken out of the oven, the salt crust is cracked with a hammer in front of family guests or the patrons of a restaurant. This is a visually attractive dish which is prepared in restaurants across the Mediterranean Region as well as across Türkiye.

Culture of Turkish Cuisine:

It is said that three major kinds of cuisine exist in the world: French, Chinese and Turkish. Fully justifying its reputation, Turkish cuisine is always a pleasant surprise for the new visitor to Türkiye. Turkish cuisine is world renowned for its diversity and flavor, drawing influences from all corners of the former Ottoman Empire. Turkish people are passionate about food with each region taking pride and boasting about their own specialties.  Generally, the further south and east you travel, the food is spicier and richer. In the western regions, the use of olive oil, and seafood and vegetable dishes are more prevalent.

First and foremost, food in Türkiye is always a special occasion and always to be enjoyed with great gusto. From home-cooked meals shared by family and friends, symbolic religious or celebratory feasts, or from the street theatrics of roadside sellers, food is closely intertwined with the fabric of society in Türkiye.

Coming soon: Cuisine of The Black Sea Region.


Copyright (c) by North America TEN and Mary Bloyd.

All pictures and video clips belong to their original owners, where applicable. No copyright infringement intended. Please ask for permission before reprints.

A retired corporate manager, Mary lives in Centerville, Ohio. She loves cooking for family and friends. Taught by a professional chef how to use spices and herbs, makes stocks and mother sauces, she developed a curiosity about different foods and cuisines. After discovering the wonderful storytelling in Turkish dizis and films, Mary became interested in and has written numerous articles about Turkish cuisine, culture, and traditions. She loves to travel, is a creative writer and poet, editor of books and articles, and is currently working on her first book, a personal memoir.

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