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İzmir Cuisine

A.Nedim Atilla

There a few important reasons why İzmir cuisine is one of the richest cuisines of Anatolia. First of all, İzmir is the most important capital of the region where civilizations rooted from. As the father of history, Heredotus mentioned in a saying, “A land that is built right under the most beautiful sky” was not said in vain. Why is this region so different than any others? Well to start with, the nonpareil climate, that enabled mankind to lead a comfortable life since the ancient times. It has also been a symbol of change and development.

On the other hand, migration and trade routes that have passed through İzmir throughout history, and its protected harbor, caused İzmir to be a multi-lingual, multi-religious, and colorful city with a very rich and liberal culture.

The fundamental factor that caused İzmir cuisine to be very rich is the combination of a mild climate, its soil structure, migration and trade routes that passed from İzmir.  It is also important to mention that this city is the cradle of civilization and this has shown its effects on the lives of the people that occupied the land throughout the history. The first Turkish recipe book to be written was during Umurbey’s time in Aydınoğlu principality that lived in the İzmir area before the Ottomans. Otto, the first king of Greece also compiled recipes from İzmir and its vicinity.  

The most indispensible ingredient in İzmir cuisine is actually the juice of a fruit...olive oil. Metaphorically speaking, İzmir residents drink this juice every day. When most oils are obtained from the seeds, olive oil is extracted from the olive fruit. Olive oil is known to be the source of health, beauty and part of a nutritious diet. Another important ingredient is the wild herbs and greens.  Some of the greens have been growing on this land and some have been brought over from far away lands and produced here.  These herbs and greens are an important factor that distinguishes İzmir cuisine from others. To name a few are nettle, fennel, chicory, black byrony, and wild asparagus. They can be boiled or sauteed or boiled first then sauteed. However in either case, the most important thing is to dress them in extra virgin olive oil. Also a savoury phyllo pastry made with these greens and soft fresh cheese is the cherry on top.  

It was the Cretans who brought over these wild greens with them when they emmigrated to İzmir. It was an important part of their culture. In fact there is even a famous joke about them. A Cretan and a cow enters a field from different directions. When the farmer’s son informs his father about this intrusion, he replies; “Don’t bother the cow but kick the Cretan out.”

The reflection of the ethnic minorities of İzmir can be seen in the fish and seafood dishes of İzmir cuisine.  Aside from a variety of fish dishes there are mezes made out of shrimp, crab, scallops, and squid. Especially there is one tavern that is famed for its sun dried octopus appetizer. When eating all these wonderful seafood without a doubt the two most important condiments, are olive oil and garlic.

Another beauty of İzmir cuisine is that there is a flower for every season. The well received flower of the spring is the artichoke. You may know that if artichokes are not picked, they bloom into a beautiful purple flower.  Although seasonally it is very difficult, most professional establishments desire to include artichokes in their New Year’s eve menus. However with the arrival of spring, artichokes are used in delicisious dishes and hels cleansing the liver.

The summer months’ flower is indeed a flower, the zucchini blossoms. You cannot find a household in İzmir that does not cook stuffed zucchini blossoms at least once every summer. Consumption of zucchini blossoms in İzmir is an indication that they were actually the first ones, when it comes to the edible flower craze that started as “Japanese miracle” and spread to the world.  Another popular dish made with zucchini blossoms is the fried zucchini blossoms. They are also used as a garnish on top of boiled black nightshade, the only wild green available in the summer months.

When seasons are changing from summer to fall, we are greeted with another type of flower, in fact it is the bud of a flower, the fig. Especially the “bardacık” variety that is unique to İzmir is unfortunately lessening day by day. Regardless of the type, figs are traditionally consumed during breakfast, and after August 15th, the figs are baked with walnuts to make a favored fall dessert.

The artichoke of spring, zucchini blossom of summer and fig of fall can be summaried as; “in İzmir there are only three seasons, and no winter”. Although in the recent years İzmir has had some rather rough winter seasons, İzmir residents just view that as a long fall followed by the spring. Starting with October until February, the variety of wild greens consumed are the ones with flowers. The most widely eaten winter flowers are; “tarhana” plant that is also used to make the famous “tarhana” soup (a yoghurt based soup), wild garlic blossom, flowers of water cress that grows on the banks of the Küçükmenderes river, and wild orchids. The wild artichokes that has blossomed can be boiled and eaten with extra virgin olive oil. Finally the foxtail liliy that has appeared in a popular local poem is consumed after being sauteed or cooked with chickpeas. 


“Her mevsiminde bir çiçek, her gün bir meyvenin suyu...İşte İzmir Mutfağı...” A.Nedim Atilla, İzmir, Governor’s Office İzmir, May 2004. pp. 78-80

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