The three most diverse and sophisticated cuisines in the world are said to be the Turkish, French and Chinese. All three are characterized by a fusion of their own strong culinary traditions with influences and borrowings from other cultures with which they have come in contact over the centuries. At the same time, like all cuisines, they are shaped equally by the tastes of society and by the available variety of foodstuffs. Chinese cuisine simultaneously brings together a mixture of flavors – peppery, sweet, sour and savory – which delight the palate. Almost everything is cooked and placed on the table at the same time. French cuisine, on the other hand, is ceremonious, and preparation of some main dishes is measured not by the clock but by the calendar, requiring days of work. But for sheer diversity, in my view, the Turkish cuisine takes first place.
Do not dismiss this claim as cheap chauvinism. Let us consider the aubergine, which takes pride of place in many widely different forms: hot and cold, with meat and without, as a salad, fried, pickled, and even as jam. Then there are the innumerable rice dishes, puddings, soups and stuffed dishes; far too many to even touch upon here. What I am leading up to is the subject of kofta or meatballs, which illustrate just what I mean by culinary diversity. The word is derived from the Persian word kufte meaning ‘ground’. Although it is made of ground meat are the first which come to mind, they can be made without any meat at all, as in the case of lentil or potato ones.
It is an unpretentious and economical dish, yet always delicious. Grilled meatballs cooked on a barbecue are a mainstay of picnics and outdoor meals cooked in the garden or on the balcony, and by restaurants and street vendors.
At the mention of a barbecue, the first thought is to prepare kofta. When traveling and in need of a light but satisfying lunch, we head first for a meatball restaurant. Many places in Turkey have a nationwide reputation for their meatballs, such as Edirne, Inegol, Tekirdag, Sultanahmet in Istanbul, Adapazari, Sanliurfa, Akcaabat and Adana (hope other places I have not enumerated will forgive me for the omission), and you are sure to find a meatball shop at every step. That marvelous appetizing flavor draws you in the right direction like a magnet. Fried ones are also unforgettable. As the plates of kofta with golden fried potatoes arrive at the table, every eye, nose and fork is turned in their direction. Cold one cooked the previous day are associated with school outings, excursions with friends, and family picnics, with the classic accompaniments of hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, cucumbers, stuffed vine leaves, savory boreks and fruit.
If lightly fried, arranged in a baking dish with sliced potatoes and aubergines, a sauce of grated tomato cooked briefly in butter poured over, and baked in the oven, you have “sahan” one. If you mix your minced meat with rice instead of breadcrumbs, form the mixture into small balls, stew them in tomato sauce, and finally thicken the sauce with a liaison of a little flour and perhaps some lemon juice, you have eksili, sulu or Izmir kofte. For sis kofte; Gaziantep, Adana, Urfa or Aleppo style, threaded onto flat or angular skewers and grilled, the meat is not ground in a mincing machine but very finely chopped with a special knife, and then mixed with the particular combination of onion and seasoning used in each region. Whether mild or peppery, they go perfectly with a glass of tangy turnip juice.
In southern and southeastern Turkey, bulgur wheat is an essential ingredient of many varieties of meatball, above all the stuffed meatballs known as icli kofte with an outer shell of bulgur and minced meat and a filling of walnuts and spicy minced meat.
Raw one, called cigkofte, is a specialty that requires top-quality meat without a trace of fat. This is then minced and kneaded with bulgur and the purplish hot pepper of the region, a task that requires skill, strength, and patience to achieve the perfect result.
After eating four or five of this exquisitely flavored one, you will be smoldering internally from the pepper, and the heat of the sun will seem mild in comparison! A quite different type of meatball has a name that is as memorable as its taste. Kadinbudu, or ladies’ thighs kofta are prepared from a mixture of fried and raw minced meat with boiled rice, dipped in beaten egg and fried.
The subject of this legendary taste could fill books and still leave corners unexplored. There is a multitude of local variations as well as those known all over the country. But the most important aspect of it is simply that everyone enjoys eating them, as proved beyond doubt by the ubiquitous hamburger, cousin of the kofte, sold by our plant’sg best-known fast food chain in a bun with sliced onions, tomato ketchup, and fried potatoes. Not for gourmets, perhaps, but they can find plenty of alternatives in any Turkish cookbook.