Why breakfast is Turkey's most important meal of the new year

While New Year's celebrations have become a contentious issue in Turkey, everyone joins in on the festivity of the country's first-day breakfasts in fancy restaurants and hotels.

al-monitor People stand in front of the Golden Horn waterway on New Year's Eve at Karakoy in Istanbul, Dec. 31, 2012. Photo by BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images.
Pinar Tremblay

Pinar Tremblay


Topics covered

turkish food, turkish culture, tradition, secularists, restaurants, islamists, holiday, celebrations

Dec 30, 2016

Whether Islamist, nationalist, liberal or secularist, people in Turkey have one joy in common for their New Year's celebration: the legendary Turkish breakfast. On the first day of the year, all restaurants and cafes in main cities will be booked for breakfast. If you are in Istanbul and wish to get an ocean view table, you may have to wait awhile.

For the past decade in Turkey, the end of December has brought debates over whether to protest Santa Claus or how to avoid celebrating the new year. Those who still aspire to welcome the upcoming year with decorations, gifts or end-of-the-year parties take care not to cross paths with the growing number of Islamists in the country.

Conservative Turks make it a point to avoid going out at all on New Year’s Eve to express their disapproval of any celebrations, including the popular New Year’s national lottery. Although most claim they treat the night just like any other, they diligently eschew even having guests at home or watching live television.

Even in cosmopolitan cities such as Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara, the latest trend has been to shun traveling far away to mega-nightclubs. Instead, they get together in neighborhood hangouts or at house parties.

But the first day of the new year is an official holiday in Turkey, and no one seems to be bothered with that, so far. So the first gathering of the day is the one that most Turks still unite to celebrate. The breakfast or brunch has become a trendy outing for Turks from all walks of life. Indeed, over the weekends and holidays you can spot the favorite breakfast places because they have a line out front. This is otherwise rare in Turkey for lunch or breakfast.

Turks take their breakfast quite seriously. The first way to prepare for a Turkish breakfast is to enlist the main essentials. Then, depending on the amount of time and money you can spare, breakfast can expand. Indeed, that is pretty much what the most popular Turkish breakfast is called nowadays: “serpme,” or spreading breakfast. In many places you may also see the sign “Koy kahvaltisi” (village breakfast), signaling the healthy trend toward organic produce and homemade food.

For the bare minimum, most Turkish households have the basic breakfast setup ready in their refrigerators: little bowls filled with different kinds of cheese and olives, butter, jam, honey and other spreads, depending on the season and family favorites, for example, muhammara, a walnut and red pepper spread. Next to these always-ready items, add fresh bread and tea, and you are set. It is the small touches that turn the basic breakfast into a delectable feast: extra virgin olive oil with dried thyme and crushed Aleppo peppers drizzled over the olive platter, with a touch of lemon juice.

Turks are also expanding breakfasts with personal touches. For carbs, for example, delicious options are available: gozleme (a thin-rolled dough filled with cheese, veggies or meat, freshly cooked) or borek (layers of dough again filled with similar options), savory pie like spanakopita, plus cookies and different types of bread are brought to the table. Simit, a ring of bread rolled in sesame seeds, is another favorite option for breakfast all around the country.

For protein, eggs, cold or smoked meat slices, or sausages can be served. Turkish breakfast options for eggs are numerous, but the most popular on the menu is menemen, a dish with peppers, tomatoes and onions. It is served in sahan — thin single-serving copper pans with two handles — because the scrambled eggs with vegetables are not cooked all the way over the heat and will continue cooking while served in the pan. You can sprinkle feta cheese on top and keep it under the broiler for additional flavor. Crowd-pleasers include eggs cooked sunny side up with spicy Turkish sausage (sucuk) or pastirma, a cured, prosciutto-like meat.

Depending on the season, you can have fresh fruit or homemade jams. If there are no fresh tomatoes or peppers, one can always use sun-dried versions. Another specialty that is difficult to find outside Turkey is clotted buffalo cream (kaymak), served with honey in the comb. It is usually spread on warm bread, replacing butter. In fancier restaurants, these spreads and dried fruit and veggies are enriched with an assortment of nuts. For example, dried apricots filled with clotted cream and roasted walnuts or almonds are mouthwatering offerings of a rich breakfast table. Similarly, dried figs filled with chocolate-covered hazelnuts or marzipan have become popular at open buffet brunch menus at five-star hotels.

For more traditional settings, there is tahini mixed with grape molasses, known as tahin-pekmez. Usually, it is spread on flat bread, but fans sometimes just eat spoonfuls of this sweet and savory treat. Also made of tahini, halva is commonly served on cold winter mornings. Also for winter, some households and restaurants offer traditional soups as a warm start to the day.

In the past decade, local delicacies have become available in all well-stocked markets. For example, an eastern Black Sea coast favorite, muhlama — unsweetened fresh cheese cooked with cornmeal and butter — has become another favorite in Istanbul and Ankara.

Indeed, Turkish village breakfasts have caught the attention and love of foodies all around the world. For instance, world-renowned chef Somer Sivrioglu serves an incredible menu for Turkish breakfasts at his restaurant in Sydney, Australia. In Los Angeles, San Diego and New York City, there are cafes famous for their Turkish breakfasts.

Most restaurants and hotels serve mimosas as well as coffee and fruit juices, but the quintessential Turkish breakfast features black tea. The first thing you do to prepare the Turkish breakfast is to start boiling water for the tea, and the pot is the last addition to the table. In Turkish restaurants when you order breakfast, tea is almost always included. Usually served in tiny tea glasses, proper tea is brewed fresh from loose leaves. Most Turkish households and cafes have their own blend of tea, called harman, which is made by mixing two or more different brands according to aroma and intensity.

Coffee is also popular. Indeed, the word for breakfast in Turkish, kahvalti, is derived from the understanding of a quick bite before coffee. Yes, coffee in Turkey is traditionally served after breakfast.

Breakfast makes Turks happy because there are so many options. You can please vegetarians, paleo-diet followers and lovers of meat or bread all at the same table. Each plate is custom-made, in a sense, by the consumer. It is a great way to start a new year, and one that the Turkish public devours together. It is not just good; it is good for your health and spirits.

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