One day, after having heard our neighbor’s son practicing his guitar almost daily, I went to her door and asked in piecemeal Turkish if her son might help me tune my newly purchased instrument. Seemingly delighted, she immediately ushered me in and sat me down in their immaculate living room. Everything from the beige, flowered carpet to the cream colored chairs was spotless. As she set down a glass of required tea, the table wobbled. A stray kick or misplaced hand and the tea would forever stain the pristine sitting room.
Then, to my despair, she set out a pear on plate with cutlery — not sliced, the whole fruit. Should I cut this dense fruit with dessert cutlery? And on porcelain? This would go one of two ways, I knew. The plate would crack and the pear tumble from my knee across the floor towards my horrified host. Two, the blunt knife would slip off the peel and sink into my thumb. Blood and gore to follow. Which shaming path should I take? All the while she smiled as we spoke in one or two words at a time, and eyed the untouched pear. Finally, I picked it up with my hands and took a bite, leaving the cutlery by the wayside. The result? Nothing happened, we continued to chat pleasantly for a few more minutes, and she invited me back again for dinner another time.
All that to say, Turkish hosts can be ever so understanding. Even so, it can make for easier going to prepare for your first taste of renowned Turkish hospitality.
1. Be careful what information you divulge to your hosts before the day of the meal
If they know you enjoy a particular Turkish treat or dish, they will prepare one or two especially for you and insist on more than one helping. Only say you enjoy a food if you really, really do. Vegetarians or others with serious dietary needs should feel free to tell their host beforehand. They want you to enjoy the food they prepare, so don’t hesitate.
2. Bring a sweet gift
The tradition in Turkey is to bring a dessert to your host, even though they will most likely prepare something. The most common gifts are a box of chocolates or fancier baklava available at most bakeries and cafes. Only bring alcohol if you know your hosts drink.
3. Greet the eldest first and, if you are comfortable, kiss the elders’ hands
If you are coming to a family dinner, there are likely to be different generations of the family present. Start with the grandparents and work your way down the age ranks in order to show respect to the elders. To really impress with your Turkish culture know-how, kiss the elders’ hands. There’s no need to make lip contact. Take the hand by the fingers, bend over bringing the top of the hand to your chin and then up to touch your forehead.
4. Expect an offer of house slippers or terlik
The belief is that if you walk on a cold floor without protection, you will catch a cold. Thus, protocol demands the offer of house slippers to all guests. Women with larger feet may find themselves wearing slippers two sizes too small. If this is the case or if you’re more comfortable, feel free to bring your own slippers. Especially in summer months, don’t forget to wear socks. Bare feet on the floor may be offensive to your host.
5. Learn these all important phrases: Ellerinize sağlık, afiyet olsun, çok güzel, çok lezzetli
Ellerinize sağlık is a phrase used to compliment the chef. It literally translates as “health to your hands” for preparing such a wonderful meal. This phrase can be used in combination with çok güzel and çok lezzetli, meaning “very beautiful” and “very delicious” respectively. These two phrases can be used frequently throughout the dinner, especially when you try each new dish. Afiyet olsun, translating to something like “have a good appetite,” is used for many different purposes. It is said when starting a meal, in response to compliments about food you have prepared, and, when leaving the table, to the others you’ve been digging in with. These few phrases are sure to impress your host.
6. Comment frequently on the quality of the meal
Much of the dinner conversation towards the beginning of the meal will focus on the beauty of each dish and balancing of the flavors. Compliment your cook frequently on the quality of the food.
7. Don’t eat beforehand and go slowly at the meal
An evening dinner at a Turkish home will likely include appetizers, soup, and a main dish followed by dessert with coffee or tea. Later you may further be offered dried fruits and nuts while relaxing in the sitting room. At the meal itself, enjoy each individual bite and take your time.
8. Prepare to say “no thank you” many times
This game of offering and refusing is considered polite in Turkish culture. Your host may believe that you really don’t mean no by saying it only once. In order to stop the offer of food, you will likely have to refuse politely many times and escalate to patting your stomach indicating you may explode with even one more bite.
9. At the end of the evening, return the invitation
The host has put a great deal of planning and work into the meal you’ve just enjoyed; offering to do the same for them is the best compliment you can give. Keep in mind that they will more than likely take you up on this invitation with expectations for a similar level of formality and food preparation. Think of it as a great way to introduce some of your Turkish friends to the cuisine from your region.
What other tips do you have to offer for first time guests of a Turkish home?