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The Mediterranean diet is consistently viewed as one of the healthiest eating patterns you can follow – and for good reason. Multiple studies back this up. Yet foods from Greece and Italy typically get all the credit.
Rich and delicious Turkish breakfast(Getty Images)
After all, those were among the countries Ancel Keys and his colleagues initially studied in the 1950s. This landmark Seven Countries Study was the first to compare diet and lifestyle in different countries with rates of cardiovascular disease. The results of this 50-year investigation became the framework for what we now know as the Mediterranean diet.
Yet, it’s important to remember that there are 22 countries that border the Mediterranean Sea. There’s no single ideal Mediterranean diet. Each country has its own cultural heritage and traditional foods, although they are all abundant in healthy fats, vegetables, whole grains and seafood from their coastal shores – the foundation of Mediterranean diets.
While non-European cuisines, including Middle Eastern and West African, are often overlooked as part of the Mediterranean diet, it’s not because they’re less nutritious. They simply weren’t included in the early research. But it’s time we shine the light on other Mediterranean countries to broaden the cultural diversity of the Mediterranean diet.
One Mediterranean country I’d love to get more recognition is Turkey, or what’s officially now known as Turkiye. I recently returned from a trip to the ancient city of Istanbul, which connects two continents, Europe and Asia. It is literally where East meets West. I was fortunate to experience firsthand the amazing cuisine that is widely recognized as one of the most diverse and delicious in the world.
The food in Turkey is a fusion and refinement of Middle Eastern, Central Asian, Greek and Eastern European foods. Due to the legacy of the Ottoman Empire, Turkish specialties have influenced the cuisines of neighboring countries, as well as regions across the globe. Today, Turkish cuisine is recognized as one of the “three great cuisines of the world,” along with French and Chinese.
Turkey has such a vibrant food culture that many elements have made it onto UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list — from the country’s famed Turkish coffee to the traditional flatbreads (lavash, katyrma, jupka and yufka) that are baked on a sac or round metal plate, stone oven or cauldron.
It’s worth a trip to Turkey just to experience the incredible food – from kebab joints, seaside fish sandwich boats and street food to Michelin starred restaurants. The world-famous Spice Bazaar that’s full of artfully designed displays of deeply hued spices, dried fruits, roasted nuts, colorful olives and Turkish delights was one of our favorite stops.
Here are some of the foods I enjoyed during my visit to Istanbul and how you can infuse some Turkish flavor and cultural foods into your Mediterranean style of eating.
Turkish cuisine is inherently healthy and highly seasonal, with many dishes built around fresh produce from the country’s rich fertile soil. You’ll find meals that are abundant in plants – either prepared alone or combined with small amounts of meat to extend the protein.
Eggplant is a staple, and I enjoyed it prepared in multiple ways: skewered for kebabs, stuffed with rice and meat, smoked and pureed in dips, and braised in olive oil for salads.
Grain dishes are also popular, including spicy bulgur salad with red pepper paste and tomatoes, rice pilaf with chickpeas and bulgur patties.
Salads and side dishes we enjoyed featured beets, cucumbers, purslane and celeriac, the earthy tasting root of the celery plant that we don’t eat nearly as often in the U.S. Zucchini fritters, artichokes, green beans and tomatoes braised in olive oil, and white bean salad with tahini dressing are other popular vegetable dishes.
Vegetables are also a favorite street food, including grilled corn on the cob (misir) and giant baked potatoes (kumpir) that are served with an array of toppings like grated carrots, red cabbage, mushrooms, olives and pickles. Warm roasted chestnuts and fresh almonds on ice are other popular street foods.
Turkey is famed for its breakfast, which is typically the largest meal of the day for Turks. In the city of Sapanca, we enjoyed a traditional Turkish breakfast inspired by the Silk Road, an ancient trade route linking the Western world with the Middle East and Asia that supplied a constant flow of travelers.
The meal starts with scrambled eggs, freshly baked bread and plates of raw vegetables. Next, a stunning array of local delicacies fill the table: sour cherry jam, local pine honey, tahini with mulberry molasses, churned butter, clotted cream, spicy cured beef sausage, cheeses, red pepper paste, fresh herbs and different types of olives. Freshly brewed tea in a tulip-shaped glass cup is served with the breakfast.
The Turks love their soup, which has played a significant role in Turkish food culture for hundreds of years. Soup is frequently served as a starter during meals, even breakfast.
Different soups, or corbas, are designated for festivals, holidays, weddings, illness and mourning. As with most foods in Turkish cuisine, soup is made in various ways in the different regions of Turkey. During my visit, I enjoyed red lentil soup, roasted eggplant soup and pumpkin soup.
Other popular soups, which are served hot and cold, are made with yogurt, chickpeas, beans, bulgur, tomatoes, wild nettles, mushrooms, almonds, black cabbage or collard greens and anchovies.
It’s a good reminder how nourishing, comforting and affordable homemade soup can be. It’s also a smart strategy to start your meal with a bowl of soup to help you slow down and manage your appetite, perhaps preventing you from overeating.
When you say pickles, you may think of cucumbers. But they pickle everything in Turkey, and I couldn’t love it more. Istanbul is famous for its pickle shops that are nestled on small side streets in the city. The shop walls are stacked high with vibrantly colored jars of pickled carrots, beets, cabbage, cauliflower, turnips, peppers, okra, garlic, melon, apples, plums, watermelon rinds and more.
They even sell pickle juice, which is a revered refreshment – especially during the warm summer months. Plastic cups are filled with mild or spicy pickle juice and stuffed with your choice of pickles.
While it’s hard to find the same array of pickles here in U.S. grocery stores, it’s not difficult to make homemade pickles with virtually any type of vegetable. Quick pickled onions are a good place to start. It’s a tasty way to add a tangy pop of flavor to dishes, along with potential gut health benefits.
It was glorious to enjoy all of the different dried fruits in Turkey – dried figs, apricots, sultana raisins, dates, prunes, sour cherries and mulberries. I especially loved the large, bright orange Turkish apricots. Turkey ranks first in the world in terms of dried fruit production and export. In fact, over 95% of dried apricots imported to the U.S. are from Turkey.
Dried fruits were featured at every breakfast during our trip and were a central part of the meze, or appetizer course, served along with nuts and cheese. Some fruits are dried for the purpose of stewing in the winter, such as plums, sour cherries, apples and pears. These are commonly used in jams, another mainstay at breakfast. The popular jams in Turkey are typically made without added sugar and contain a wide range of ingredients, such as rose petal, quince, pumpkin, green walnut and even pine cones.
We often overlook dried fruit in the U.S., or some people avoid dried fruit because they think it contains too much sugar. Although not all dried fruit makers add sugar. It’s true that removing the water in fruit makes the natural sugar more concentrated, but dried fruit is also more concentrated in fiber, nutrients and polyphenol compounds. You just need to keep an eye on portions since it’s easy to eat more calories than you intended.
Pair dried fruit with nuts for a snack, toss into salads and grain bowls and top hot oatmeal or overnight oats with dried fruit.
Olive oil is a flagship of the Mediterranean diet, but don’t forget about olives. Turkey is one of the world’s top producers of olives, which grow along the coast – from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea.
Turkey grows an estimated 50 to 80 varieties of olives, some intended for the table and others for use in olive oil. Olives were served at every meal, including breakfast, and were incorporated as an ingredient in multiple dishes. We enjoyed green olives sliced thin in a leafy green salad, olive tapenade on bread and a warm spicy olive salad with pumpkin puree, za’atar and fresh herbs at Araka, one of the five Michelin starred restaurants in Istanbul.
Don’t overlook olives as a filling, healthy-fats snack. Explore different types of olives and add to salads, roasted vegetables, pizzas and cheese platters.
Nuts and seeds are also deeply embedded in Turkish food culture. In fact, you’ll find shops called kuruyemis that are devoted to nuts and seeds, especially pistachios, almonds, hazelnuts, cashews, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds.
Turkey is one of the world’s main producers of pistachios, which are frequently used in Turkish pastries. Perhaps the most famous is baklava made with bright green raw pistachios, giving the pastry its signature color and flavor. It’s different from Greek and Middle Eastern baklava – crispier and less sweet.
Sesame seeds coat the Turkish bagel simit, the flagship street food sold in wheeled carts throughout Istanbul, and sesame seeds are pureed to make tahini and havla, a Turkish dessert.
The way I saw tahini used during my visit, I was reminded how good this healthy-fats ingredient is beyond hummus – used in dressings, sauces, dips and baked goods.
Perhaps the most distinguishing part of Turkish cuisine is the emphasis on spices and herbs. The famed Spice Bazaar in Istanbul is a visual reminder of just how much this country loves its seasonings – from sumac and za’atar to pul biber and urfa biber (Turkish red pepper flakes). It’s one of the reasons why Turkish cuisine is loved all over the world.
While American restaurants typically offer just salt and pepper on the table, I spotted multiple bowls of spices and herbs at our hotel’s food buffet for customizing the flavor of our selections – dried chili flakes, thyme, oregano and fresh dill, mint and parsley. At restaurants, plates were frequently garnished with fresh herbs, offering a delightful freshness to kebabs and other meals. Even Turkish pizza, called pide, was piled high with fresh herbs.
During our visit to the restaurant Murver we discovered mesir, a paste of honey and 41 spices and herbs that was invented during the Ottoman era (1299-1922). Chef Mevlut Ozkaya used mesir as a glaze on slow-roasted lamb and told us about the festival that is held each year in Manisa, Turkey, to celebrate this revered paste that was believed to have medicinal properties. That was one of the truly enchanting things about Turkey. There’s a tremendous appreciation of traditions and a beautiful blending of old and new.
I found several brands of Turkish mesir online, many described as Ottoman mesir macunu. Other ways to add some Turkish flavor to your cooking is with pomegranate molasses, a thick tangy syrup. Bottles are also available online and in well-stocked supermarkets.
Brush it on meat as a glaze, whisk into salad dressings and use in dips like muhammara – a delicious Turkish dip made with roasted red pepper, walnuts and pomegranate molasses.