What the Turks Know About Breakfast That Americans Don't
"Salad for breakfast?" was my initial reaction to seeing a kind of deconstructed Greek salad on the table at 8 a.m. After moving to Istanbul in 2005, I was surprised to see sliced tomato, cucumber, crumbly white peynir cheese, yellow kaşar cheese, pungent tulum goat's cheese, honey from my boyfriend’s hometown, butter hand-churned by his mother in her East Turkish village, black olives, and boiled eggs, all in separate dishes across the table.
I’d lived in a few different countries, but my taste in breakfast was the one constant that traveled with me. Happy to experiment at dinner and lunch and with any and every opportunity for street snacking and sweet treats, breakfast for me was yoghurt and cereal and nothing could top it. But it was only after I started dating a Turkish man that I really learned how to do breakfast justice.
Initially, it wasn't too much of a stretch for me to incorporate the fresh bread, still warm from the bakery round the corner, and vişne jam made from sour cherries, but I mostly stuck to my cereal and yoghurt while he dipped into each dish over the morning paper. All this was accompanied by black tea, the staple of the Turkish breakfast, brewed in a two-story tea kettle called a çaydanlık and served with enough sugar to rival the jam. The Turkish word for breakfast, kahvaltı, literally means “before coffee” though I never saw anyone drink anything but tea in the morning.
That was just the beginning—a basic workaday breakfast. The weekend meant adding any number of extras. Eggs fried with sucuk, a spicy cured sausage, were familiar enough to my idea of breakfast and, quite frankly smelled too good to ignore in favor of my five minute meal. Then there were the various kinds of poğaca. Made one way they're similar to American biscuits, with a thumb-sized dent in the middle stuffed with parsley and white cheese. Another variety is breadier, a cross between brioche and croissant, and comes plain or with yellow cheese. But it was after tasting börek, buttered flaky pastry sheets layered between salty cheese and baked in the oven in huge trays that I stopped buying cereal completely.
The Turkish table, my boyfriend told me, should always have bread and always be full. With the array of fresh and baked goods on the doorstep, both requirements were easy to meet. Doing the neighborhood loop of greengrocer, bakery and börekçi every morning was as much part of the meal as eating it. On Wednesdays, I'd walk a little further to the outdoor pazar market, picking up double-yolked eggs with feathers still stuck to the shells, plaits of salty white örgü cheese, and strings of mozzarella-like dil peyniri.
My breakfast had gone from two items to anywhere up to ten, but then I went traveling and found that no-one does it like the East Turkish city of Van where there’s a whole street dedicated to all-day breakfast restaurants. If I thought we’d been preparing a full table before, Van doubled the number of dishes on offer. There was a new cheese, otlu peyniri, a hard white salty cheese threaded through with grassy looking herbs and kaymak, the Turkish version of clotted cream that I associated with dessert, served on the side of honey and honeycomb. Van was also the first place I tried menemen, a dish that’s just scrambled eggs to the cynic but is so satisfying it’s almost a meal in itself. Cooked various ways, my favorite caramelizes chopped peppers, onions and tomatoes in the bottom of a special copper pan and then adds the eggs on top until they’re cooked but still runny.
The vital ingredient, served with every Turkish breakfast I ever ate while living there, is hospitality. Turks love to feed people and are rightfully proud of their national cuisine so being invited for breakfast is something it would be both rude and foolish to turn down. On my last Turkey trip, a woman in Mardin invited my friend and me into her home as we were wandering the streets marveling at the stone houses the city’s famous for. We were just excited to be able to see inside one, but super happy when she also invited us to stay for breakfast. We ate village style, sitting on the floor around a mat specially laid out at mealtimes, with her children and grandchildren, passing around dishes and enjoying the enthusiastic, if limited, conversation.
Today, I rarely buy the granola and yogurt I thought of as the ultimate breakfast. It wasn’t until I learned that breakfast is actually a meal and not a morning snack that I expected it to fuel the entire first half of the day. I don’t go all out Van-style but I still have tomatoes, cheese, eggs and cucumber, though now I tend to toast the bread that goes with the sour cherry jam. And I’ve never invited anyone in off the street for breakfast, but maybe I should.