A Heritage Shared on the Plate: Eating in Greece and Turkey

With nearly 800 years of shared history (since the Ottomans invaded Greece in the 15th century), a shared climate, touching borders and seas, it’s really no surprise to find many similarities between the cultures of Greece and Turkey, at least on the surface. One thing that invariably comes up when talking about these neighbors is the undeniable resemblance of Turkish and Greek cuisine. These days, you could get into a lengthy debate about how similar the people actually are, and which nation invented what dish, but one thing we can all agree on is just how tasty the food is!

To oversimplify things, traditional “Greek food” is more rustic, with a focus on legumes, vegetables and olive oil. The identity of “Turkish food” really flourished during the Ottoman period, when chefs at the sultan’s imperial palace were influenced by the sprawling empire and the flavors and spices it imported. Many of the dishes and preparations that have infused both cuisines actually take cues from the Middle Eastern palate, and variations can also be found in the Balkans.

Whether you think of it as “food of the gods” or “food of the sultans”, both Turkish and Greek menus stand out for their tremendous use of the Mediterranean environment and products it supplies. Take the eggplant, which was a favored ingredient of Ottoman cooks, and can be seen in a popular traditional casserole-type recipe of both Turkey (patlıcan musakka) and Greece (moussaka). Now you’ve no doubt heard of moussaka, and maybe even ordered it at your local Greek restaurant or during your last trip to Greece. But did you know that it’s also part of the Turkish gastronomic repertoire?

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Maybe you’re used to thinking of that tangy, dreamy thick yogurt as “Greek”, or you have the common belief that stuffed grape leaves are purely Greek in origin. Well I’m not here to tell you otherwise, but American marketing does tend to label foods as Greek, not Turkish. Truth be told, before I moved to Istanbul, I had the same misconceptions, and I was even expecting to see more hummus around, until I realized I should really go a little further east for that delectable spread. The good news is that your favorite mainstream Mediterranean dishes are almost identical in Greece and Turkey, so that means double the fun when it comes to traveling and tasting everything! Here are some dishes that you may recognize, along with their counterparts and what makes them unique to each culture.


A Perfect Union of Eggplant, Tomato and Ground Meat

Greek: Moussaka
Turkish: Patlıcan musakka

Moussaka is the stuff of culinary legend, not just in Greece but Turkey too. The traditional elements of the dish pair juicy layers of minced meat cooked in a garlic tomato sauce with sliced, lightly fried eggplant and a luscious bechamel sauce, all baked together for one-pan perfection. Different regions of Turkey have differing variations of the recipe, often omitting the bechamel sauce. You may also see potato or zucchini added as well.

 

A Sweet Syrupy Pastry with Flaky Phyllo Dough Layers

Greek: Baklava
Turkish: Baklava

Baklava must be the national dessert of Greece, Turkey and other Eastern Mediterranean countries. It can be one of those polarizing treats – some people find its syrupy sweetness a heavenly delight, and for others it’s just too sweet. The Ottoman empire may be credited for the addition of flavors like pistachios and spices such as cinnamon and cardamom, but this beloved dessert truly belongs to both cuisines, with multiple variations coming from different regions. Many types of ground nuts can be used, and the syrup may be just a sugar/water combination or honey, with other possible additions like rosewater or lemon juice. In Turkey, I prefer to have Sutlu Nuriye, which is similar to baklava but with a milk-based syrup. And of course, you’ll need a cup of tea to cut through the sugar!

 

Stuffed Vegetables (Usually Peppers, Tomatoes, Zucchini or Eggplant)

Greek: Gemista
Turkish: Dolma

These stuffed little packages are rightfully adored by many cuisines around the world. In Turkey and Greece, stuffed veggie dishes predictably take their name from the respective language’s word for “stuffed”. These are the tastes usually associated with one’s childhood – you can bet that everyone has a mother or grandmother who makes the very best dolma or gemista. Filled with rice, spices and herbs, and often a minced meat, these flavorful veggie vessels are then baked in the oven and served warm. They can also be made from dried peppers and eggplant, that you can find hanging by the string in Turkish markets. In Turkey, you can eat stuffed veggies alongside a scoop of thick yogurt, or in Greece they may be accompanied by crumbly feta cheese.

 

Stuffed Grape Vine Leaves

Greek: Dolmades
Turkish: Yaprak sarması

Another fantastic stuffed creation is the family of traditional wrapped leaf dishes found in the Mediterranean diet. Known in Turkish as sarma, yaprak sarması, or yalancı dolma, and in Greek as dolmades or Ntolmadakia yalantzi, they are very similar. Vine leaves are the most widely known, but Turkish cooks will also use leaves of chard or cabbage for different variations. What all of these have in common is the use of an aromatic rice stuffing. The traditional Turkish recipe includes cherries, dried currants, cinnamon, herbs, allspice, long-grain rice, lemon juice and olive oil. The typical Greek recipe calls for short-grain rice, fennel, mint, onions, lemon juice and olive oil.


Turkish Delight

Greek: Loukoumi
Turkish: Lokum

As the name we know it by would suggest, this little powder-covered pillow of sweet gelatin (a mixture of water, sugar and starch), originated in Turkey. Whether developed by the palace confectioners or Haci Beker (which is still the most famous place to buy the sweet in Istanbul), the invention of lokum was itself influenced by a Persian sweet. The recipe later moved to Greece, and the island of Syros became especially well-known for its production of loukoumi. If you pick some up in Greece or Turkey, be sure to enjoy it as an accompaniment to strong shot of coffee.

In addition to the cubes of lokum, there’s also a variety known in both cultures as a “sausage” of Turkish delight. Traditionally, a core of walnuts is covered in a gelatin of grape must and shaped like a sausage log – known in Turky as cevizli sucuk, and in Greece as soutzouk loukoum.

 

Yogurt Dip with Cucumber and Dill

Greek: Tzatziki
Turkish: Cacık

This versatile and refreshing dip is the perfect accompaniment to grilled meat, pita wraps, as part of a starter spread, or even enjoyed alone, as I often do. It’s so easy to make, but important that you have good yogurt for a start. It combines yogurt, garlic and cucumber, and mint or dill, or both according to your preference. I have generally found the Turkish version to be more soupy than the Greek-style condiment, but that just means it’s easier to drink up with a spoon as the Turks do.

 

Stewed White Beans

Greek: Fasolada
Turkish: Kuru fasulye

This tasty and comforting bean dish could be regarded as the national dish of Greece and Turkey alike. Both versions are similar, made with a foundation of stewed hearty white beans, olive oil, onions, tomato sauce, and perhaps some included meat or different seasonings.

 

Greek Salad

Greek: Horiatiki salata
Turkish: Çoban salatası

Who isn’t familiar with the classic image of a refreshing Greek salad – chopped tomato, cucumber, bell pepper and red onion, topped with Greek olives and a slice of salty feta cheese? Well of course you can find almost the same salad in Turkey, minus the olives and feta, with a smaller dice on the veggies and possibly topped with a tangy pomegranate molasses as well as olive oil. It’s also interesting that the names of these two salads have similar origins, with Horiatiki coming from a Greek word for peasant, and Çoban meaning shepherd in Turkish. In the Balkans, you can find the popular Shopska salata, a similar veggie base topped with a heap of melt-in-your-mouth shaved white feta.

 

Split and Stuffed Eggplant

Greek: Melitzanes papoutsakia
Turkish: Karnıyarık

Another inspired use of eggplant, the dish known as karnıyarık (split belly) in Turkey is a gift from the kitchens of the Ottoman palace. Take plump eggplants, halved and split down the middle – then brown them in oil and fill them with staples of the Turkish pantry: onion, garlic, tomato paste, red pepper flakes and ground lamb. Bake in the oven until all these flavors melt into the soft bed of eggplant. Similar to moussaka, the Greek version of this dish calls for a topping of rich bechamel sauce, and also a variation of spices.

 

Lemon Chicken Soup

Greek: Kotosoupa Avgolemono
Turkish: Tavuk çorbası

One example of how Turks use more yogurt in their cooking is the difference in preparation of chicken soup seen between the two countries. Both cuisines have a chicken soup that features egg and lemon, but the main difference in the Turkish version is the addition of yogurt. That yogurt, by the way, features heavily in Turkish cooking, and was in fact invented by Anatolian goat herdsmen as far back as the 6th century BC.

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