When you think about Turkish food, do meat and kebabs come to mind? Believe it or not, fresh fish is also an important part of Turkish gastronomy. There are traditional fish restaurants in most regions where you can enjoy seasonal fresh fish with a fresh local salad. The meal will start with fish mezes and seafood, of course!
Fish and seafood specialty dishes include grilled seabass, grilled sea bream, grilled grouper, seabass cooked in salt, stuffed mussels, fried mussels, grilled octopus, grilled calamari, fried calamari, stuffed squid, scorpion fish soup, smoked fish, and kipper.
Lüfer, or bluefish in English, is one of the most common fish in Turkish cuisine. Bluefish has a heavy fat content, so it’s best when grilled or broiled. A brush of olive oil and some salt and pepper are all that’s needed to achieve a golden crust and wonderful flavor.
You’ll find bluefish cooked the same way almost everywhere in Turkey. The fresher the fish, the better. The best season for bluefish is August through to December. The tastiest bluefish are said to come from the Bosphorus Strait which runs through İstanbul, Turkey’s largest city, and connects the Black Sea with the Marmara Sea and Aegean Sea further south.
The Bosphorus is also a good fishing destination for bonito, or in Turkish, palamut. Similar to bluefish, bonito is best during the fall and winter months.
Bonito has a rich, dark color and firm texture. It’s known by the locals as the “quintessential Bosphorus fish.” Bonito is more economical than bluefish, so it’s often a better option for larger families or those who choose to eat fish more often.
Bonito also has a high-fat content and only requires a light brush of olive oil and some seasoning before placing it on the grill. If you can’t wait until September for fresh bonito, the same fish is also caught further north in the Black Sea as early as July when it is younger and smaller – this is known in Turkey as çingene palamudu.
Red mullet is highly prized in Turkish cuisine. As it thrives in colder, deeper waters, the best red mullet is caught in the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas. They are a lovely reddish color similar to red snapper and have an earthy, ever-so-slightly bitter taste.
Some people prefer red mullet fried but the most popular way to serve it in Turkey is pilaki style. Pilaki refers to a method of cooking common in Turkish cuisine characterized by the use of garlic, fresh herbs, carrots, spices, and tomato.
If you're eating out, ask for barbunya pilaki, and you'll get a wonderful, fragrant platter of red mullet cooked in its own juices with all of the above seasoning.
See bass is perhaps the most coveted of all Turkish fish. So much so that massive hatcheries raising domestic sea bass now dot the Turkish Aegean coastline to meet the ever-growing demand.
The best season for farm-raised sea bass is the summer months, from late May through to early August. Sea bass is best when grilled with a little olive oil and light seasoning.
Several restaurants in İstanbul are famous for roasting a whole sea bass encrusted in a thick shell of hardened sea salt that is set aflame with alcohol before serving. Imagine a 14-kilo sea bass wheeled out to your table on a special serving cart and set ablaze!
Turbot is common during the winter in the sandy, muddy harbors of the Black Sea. When you choose fresh turbot at your local restaurant or fish market, the hardest decision will be how to cook it.
Turbot is popular served grilled, but it can also be cut into thick strips, coated with flour and fried. Both ways are delicious, so it’s up to you!
Or you can cover the top of the fish with foil, seal the edges, and bake in the oven. Preheated at 210 degrees Celsius, it should take about an hour and a half.
Sardines are popular in Aegean regional cuisine, especially during the early fall when they’re in season. Some of the best Turkish sardines are harvested near Gallipoli, where the Aegean and Marmara Seas meet.
The locals in this region insist that the best way to prepare sardines is marinated or salt-cured one may think. They have a wonderful way of wrapping fresh sardines in vine leaves and grilling them to perfection.
It's said that this tasty species was once abundant in the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, but due to overfishing and pollution, populations are dwindling. Today, fishing for mackerel is only permitted in limited areas near Gallipoli and Saros, just south of İstanbul.
Mackerel is cooked in white wine and capers.
The Black Sea region in the north of Turkey is famous for its anchovies. Anchovies are a staple in this region, and are used in everything from soups and salads, appetizers and main courses, to breads and even pickles and sweets.
In the Black Sea, the best anchovies arrive in the thick of winter, between December and February. If you go a bit further south to the Sea of Marmara, the anchovies are larger and meatier but are said to have much less flavor.
The most popular way to prepare anchovies is to debone them with your fingers, coat them with a light dusting of cornmeal and fry them. A large platter of crunchy, fried anchovies makes a great appetizer. When in season, you can find fried anchovies everywhere from the fanciest fish restaurants to your neighbor’s kitchen.
Hot Seafood Starters
Kalamar tava is a traditional Turkish dish that's usually served as a meze. The dish consists of cleaned squid that's cut into thick rings, soaked in milk, then dipped in a batter of flour, baking soda, and salt before it's fried in hot oil. The squid rings can be flavored with herbs or pepper flakes, if desired.
Once fried, the rings are typically served with a Turkish tartar-like sauce on the side for dipping, along with a few lemon wedges.
Midye tava is a delightfully tasty Turkish street food that is also served as an appetizer or a snack, consisting of fried mussels on a stick. Crispy and flavorful, the mussels are first battered, then deep-fried in a big metal cauldron. Hot oil is placed in the center of the cauldron, which has quite a wide rim in order for the mussel sticks to be arranged on it and to drain all of the excess oil.
The wide rim has another important function – it keeps the mussels warm, since the dish is usually sold by street vendors, especially in seaside neighborhoods scattered throughout İstanbul. When served, the mussels need only a dash of salt and a side of tangy tarator sauce for dipping.
Karides güveç is a shrimp casserole dish. It contains tomato, tomato paste, garlic, onion, chili pepper, and optionally mushrooms. It's usually cooked and served in croks or relatively smaller-sized güveç pots (casseroles), by adding melted kaşar cheese on top.
Whether you call these delicious Turkish fish fritters by other names such as Turkish fish köfte, fish fritters, or fish cakes or any other similar translation, they are incredibly tasteful and delicious.