“Do not dismiss the dish saying that it is just, simply food. The blessed thing is an entire civilization in itself!” Abdulhak Sinasi
Turkish Cuisine: Prologue
For those who travel engaged in culinary pursuits, the Turkish Cuisine is a very, curious one. The variety of dishes that make up the cuisine, the ways they all come together in feast-like meals, and the evident intricacy of each craft offer enough material for life-long study and enjoyment. It is not easy to discern a basic element or a single dominant feature, like the Italian pasta or the French sauce. Whether in a humble home, at a famous restaurant, or at a dinner in a Bey’s mansion, familiar patterns of this rich and diverse cuisine are always present. It is a rare art, which satisfies your senses while reconfirming the higher order of society; community and culture.
A practical-minded child watching Mother cook cabbage dolma on a lazy gray winter day is bound to wonder: Who on earth discovered this peculiar combination of sautéed rice, pine-nuts, currants, spices, herbs and all tightly wrapped in translucent leaves of cabbage all exactly half an inch thick and stacked upon an oval serving plate decorated with lemon wedges? How was it possible to transform this humble vegetable to such heights of fashion and delicacy with so few additional ingredients? And, how can such a yummy dish possibly also be good for one?
The modern mind, in a moment of contemplation, has similar thoughts upon entering modest sweets shop in Turkey where baklava is the generic cousin of a dozen or so sophisticated sweet pastries with names like the twisted turban, sultan, saray (palace), lady’s navel, nightingale’s nest… The same experience awaits you at a muhallebi (pudding shop) with a dozen different types of milk puddings.
One can only conclude that the evolution of this glorious Cuisine was not an accident. Similar to other Grand Cuisine of the world, it is a result of the combination of three key elements. A nurturing environment is irreplaceable. Turkey is known for an abundance and diversity of foodstuff due to its rich flora, fauna and regional differentiation. And the legacy of an Imperial Kitchen is inescapable. Hundreds of cooks specializing in different types of dishes, all eager to please the royal palate, no doubt had their influence in perfecting the Cuisine as we known it today The Palace Kitchen, supported by a complex social organization, a vibrant urban life, specialization of labor, trade, and total control of the Spice Road, reflected the culmination of wealth and the flourishing of culture in the capital of a mighty Empire. And the influence of the longevity of social organization should not be taken lightly either. The Turkish State of Anatolia is a millennium old and so, naturally, is the Cuisine. Time is of the essence; as Ibn-i Haldun wrote, The religion of the King, in time, becomes that of the People, which also holds for the King’s food. This, the reign of the Ottoman Dynasty during 600 years, and a seamless cultural transition into the present day of modern Turkey led to the evolution of a grand Cuisine through differentiation, refinement, and perfection of dishes, as well as their sequence and combination of the meals.
It is quite rare when all three of the above conditions are met, as they are in the French, the Chinese and the Turkish Cuisine. The Turkish Cuisine has the extra privilege of being at the crossroads of the Far-East and the Mediterranean, which mirrors a long and complex history of Turkish migration from the steppes of Central Asia (where they mingled with the Chinese) to Europe (where they exerted influence all the way to Vienna). All these unique characteristics and history have bestowed upon the cuisine a rich and varied number of dishes, which can be prepared and combined with other dishes in meals of almost infinite variety, but always in a non-arbitrary way This led to a cuisine that is open to improvisation through development of regional styles, while retaining its deep structure, as all great works of art do. The cuisine is also an integral aspect of culture. It is a part of the rituals of everyday life events. It reflects spirituality, in forms that are specific to it, through symbolism and practice.
Anyone who visits Turkey or has a meal in a Turkish home, regardless of the success of the particular cook, is sure to notice how unique the Cuisine is. Our intention here is to help the uninitiated to enjoy the food culture by achieving a higher level of understanding of the repertoire of dishes, related cultural practices, and their spiritual meaning.
Early historical documents show that the basic structure of the cuisine was already established during the Nomadic Period and in the first settled Turkish States of Asia. Culinary attitudes towards meat, dairy products, vegetables and grains that characterized this early period still make up the core of the kitchen. Turks cultivated wheat and used it liberally in several types of leavened and unleavened bread baked in clay ovens, on the griddle, or buried in embers. Mantı, ( dumpling), and buğra, (attributed to Bugra Khan of Turkestan, the ancestor of borek or dough with fillings) were already among the much-coveted dishes at this time. Stuffing the pasta, as well as all kinds of vegetables, was also common practice, and still is, as evidenced by dozens of different types of dolma. Skewering meat as well as other ways of grilling, later known to us as varieties of kebab and dairy products, such as cheeses and yogurt, were convenient and staple foods of the pastoral Turks. They introduced these attitudes and practices to Anatolia in the 11th century. In return, they were introduced to rice, the fruits, and the. vegetables native to the Region, and the hundreds of varieties of fish in the three seas surrounding the Anatolian Peninsula. These new and wonderful ingredients were assimilated into the basic Cuisine in the millennia that followed.
Anatolia is a region known as the “breadbasket of the world”. Turkey is one of the seven countries in the world which produces enough food to feed its own and then some to export. The Turkish landscape encompasses such a wide variety of geographic zones, that for every two to four hours of driving, you will find yourself in a different zone with all the accompanying changes in scenery, temperature, altitude, humidity, vegetation and weather conditions. The Turkish landscape has the combined characteristics of the three old continents of the world: Europe, Africa, and Asia, and an ecological diversity, surpassing any other place along the 40th latitude. Thus, the diversity of the Cuisine has come to reflect that of the landscape and its regional variations.
In the Eastern Region, you will encounter the rugged, snow-capped mountains where the winters are long and cold and the highlands where the spring season with its rich wildflowers and rushing creeks extends into the long and cool summer. Livestock farming is prevalent. Butter, yogurt, cheeses, honey meat, and cereals are the local food. Long winters are best endured with the help of yogurt soup and meatballs flavored with aromatic herbs found in the mountains and endless servings of tea.
The Heartland is dry steppe with rolling hills, endless stretches of wheat fields and barren bedrock that takes on the most incredible shades of gold, violet, and cool and warm grays as the sun travels the sky Ancient cities were located on the trade routes with lush cultivated orchards and gardens. Among these, Konya, the capital of the Selcuk Empire (the first Turkish State in Anatolia), distinguished itself as the center of a culture that attracted scholars, mystics, and poets from throughout the world during the 13th century The lavish Cuisine that is enjoyed in Konya today, with its clay-oven (tandir or tandoori) kebabs, boreks, meat and vegetable dishes and halva desserts, dates back to the feasts given by Sultan Alaaddin Keykubad in 1237 AD.
Towards the west, one eventually reaches warm, fertile valleys between cultivated mountainsides, and the lace-like shores of the Aegean where nature is friendly and life have always been easy Fruits and vegetables of all kinds are abundant, including the best of all seafood! Here, olive oil becomes a staple and is used both in hot and cold dishes.
The temperate zone of the Black Sea Coast, well-protected by the high Caucasian Mountains, is abundant with hazelnuts, corn, and tea. The Black Sea people are fishermen and identify themselves with their ecological companion, the shimmering hamsi (anchovy) a small fish. Many poems, anecdotes, and folk dances are inspired by this delicious fish.
The southeastern part of Turkey is hot and desert-like and offers the greatest variety of kebabs and sweet pastries. Dishes here are spicier compared to all other regions, possibly to retard spoilage in hot weather, or as the natives say to equalize the heat inside the body to that of the outside!
The culinary center of the Turkey is the Marmara Region, which includes Thrace, with Istanbul as its Queen City. This temperate, fertile region boasts a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and the most delicately flavored lamb. The variety of fish that travel the Bosphorus surpasses those in other seas. Bolu, a city on the mountains, supplied the greatest cooks for the Sultan’s Palace, and even now the best chefs in the country come from Bolu. Istanbul, of course, has been the epicenter of the cuisine, and an understanding of Turkish Food will never be complete without a survey of the Sultan’s kitchen…
The Kitchen of the Imperial Palace
The importance of culinary art for the Ottoman Sultans is evident to every visitor of Topkapı Palace. The huge kitchens were housed in several buildings under ten domes. By the 17th century, some thirteen hundred kitchen staff were housed in the Palace. Hundreds of cooks, specializing in different categories of dishes such as soups, pilafs, kebabs, vegetables, fish, breads, pastries, candy and halva, syrup and jams and beverages, fed as many as ten thousand people a day and, in addition, sent trays of food to others in the city as a royal favor.
The importance of food has been also evident in the structure of the Ottoman military elite, the Janissaries. The commanders of the main divisions were known as the Soupman, other high ranking officers were the Chief Cook, Scullion, Baker, and Pancake Maker, though their function had little to do with these titles. The huge cauldron used to make pilaf had a special symbolic significance for the Janissaries, as the central focus of each division. The kitchen was also the center of politics, for whenever the Janissaries demanded a change in the Sultan’s Cabinet or the head of a grand vizier, they would overturn their pilaf cauldron. Overturning the cauldron is an expression still used today to indicate a rebellion in the ranks.
It was in this environment that hundreds of the Sultans’ chefs, who dedicated their lives to their profession, developed and perfected the dishes of the Turkish Food, which was then adopted by the kitchens of the provinces ranging from the Balkans to Southern Russia, and reached North Africa. Istanbul was the capital of the world and had all the prestige so that its ways were imitated. At the same time, it was supported by an enormous organization and infrastructure, which enabled all the treasures of the world to flow into it. The provinces of the vast Empire were integrated by a system of trade routes with refreshing caravanserais for the weary merchants and security forces. The Spice Road, the most important factor in culinary history was under the full control of the Sultan. Only the best ingredients were allowed to be traded under the strict standards established by the courts.
Guilds played an important role in development and sustenance of the Cuisine. These included hunters, fishermen, cooks, kebab cooks, bakers, butchers, cheese makers and yogurt merchants, pastry chefs, pickle makers, and sausage merchants. All of the principal trades were believed to be sacred and each guild traced its patronage to the Prophets and Saints. The guilds prevailed in pricing and quality control. They displayed their products and talents in spectacular floats driven through Istanbul streets during special occasions, such as the circumcision festivities for the Crown Prince or religious holidays.
Following the example of the Palace, all of the grand Ottoman houses boasted elaborate kitchens and competed in preparing feasts for each other as well as the general public. In fact, in each neighborhood, at least one household would open its doors to anyone who happened to stop by for dinner during the holy month of Ramadan, or during other festive occasions. This is how the traditional Cuisine evolved and spread, even to the most modest corners of the country.
A Rich Selection of Food at the Great-Good Places
A survey of types of dishes according to their ingredients may be helpful to explain the basic structure of the Turkish Food. Otherwise, it may appear to have an overwhelming variety of dishes, each with a unique combination of ingredients, way of preparation and presentation. All dishes can be conveniently categorized into grain-based, grilled meats, vegetables, fish and seafood, desserts and beverages.
Before describing each of these categories, some general comments are necessary The foundation of the Cuisine is based on grains (rice and wheat) and vegetables. Each category of dishes contains only one or two types of main ingredients. Turks are purists in their culinary taste; the dishes are supposed to bring out the flavor of the main ingredient rather than hiding it behind sauces or spices. Thus, the eggplant should taste like eggplant, lamb like lamb, pumpkin-like pumpkin. Contrary to the prevalent Western impression of Turkish food, spices and herbs are used very sparingly and singularly. For example, either mint or dill weed are used with zucchini, parsley with eggplant, a few cloves of garlic has its place in some cold vegetable dishes, cumin is sprinkled over red lentil soup or mixed in ground meat when making kofte. Lemon and yogurt are used to complement both meat and vegetable dishes, to balance the taste of olive oil or meat. Most desserts and fruit dishes do not call for any spices. So their flavors are refined and subtle.
There are major classes of meatless dishes. When meat is used, it is used sparingly Even with the meat kebabs, the pide or the flatbread occupies the largest part of the portion along with vegetables or yogurt. The Turkish Cuisine also boasts a variety of authentic contributions in the desserts and beverage categories. For the Turks, the setting is as important as the food itself. Therefore, food-related places need to be surveyed, as well as the dishes and the eating protocol. Among the great good places where you can find the ingredients for the Cuisine, are the weekly neighborhood markets bazaar, and the permanent markets. The most famous one of the latter type is the Spice Market in Istanbul. This is a place where every conceivable type of food item can be found, as it has always been since pre-Ottoman times. This is a truly exotic place, with hundreds of scents rising from stalls located within an ancient domed building, which was the terminal for the Spice Road. More modest markets can be found in every city center, with permanent stalls of fish and vegetables.
The weekly markets are where sleepy neighborhoods come to life, with the villagers set up their stalls before dawn at a designated area, to sell their products. On these days, handicrafts, textiles, glassware and other household items are also among the displays at the most affordable prices. What makes these places unique is the cacophony of sights, smells, sounds, and activity, as well as the high quality of fresh food, which can only be obtained in the bazaar. There is a lot of haggling and jostling, as people make their way through the narrow aisles while the vendors compete for attention. One way to purify body and soul would be to rent an inexpensive flat by the seaside for a month every year and live on fresh fruit and vegetables from the bazaar. However, since the more likely scenario will be restaurant-hopping, here are some tips to learn the proper terminology so that you can navigate through both, the cuisine (just in case you get the urge to cook a la Turca), and the streets of Turkish cities, where it is just as important to locate the eating places as the museums and the archaeological wonders.
Grains: Bread to Borek
The foundation of Turkish food is, if anything, the dough made of wheat flour. Besides ekmek – the ordinary white bread, pide – flatbread, simit – sesame seed rings, and mantı – dumplings, a whole family of food, called borek, made up of thin sheets of pastry falls into this category The bakers of the Ottoman period believed that after his expulsion from the Garden of Eden Adam, the Patron Saint of Bakers, learned how to make bread from the Archangel Gabriel. Obviously, the secret is still held dearly by present-day Turkish bakers; no other bread tastes as good as everyday Turkish bread. One realizes the wonderful luxury of Turkish bread only upon leaving the country This blessed food is enjoyed in large quantities and is respected by all, rich and poor, simple and sophisticated. Every neighborhood has a bread bakery that produces the golden, crisp loaves twice a day morning and afternoon, filling the streets with their irresistible and wholesome aroma. People pick up a few loaves on their way home from work and end up eating the crisp ends by the time they get there. After a hard day’s work, holding the warm loaf is the best reward, convincing one that all is well.
Ekmek, pide and simit are meant to be eaten the same day they are baked, and they usually are. The leftover ekmek goes into a variety of dishes, becomes chicken feed, or is mixed with milk for the neighborhood cats.
Manti, dumplings of dough filled with a special meat mix, are eaten with generous servings of garlic yogurt and a dash of melted butter with paprika. This is a meal in itself as a Sunday lunch affair for the whole family to be followed by an afternoon nap.
Borek is a special-occasion food which requires great skill and patience unless you have thin sheets of dough already rolled out from your corner grocery store. Anyone who can accomplish this delicate task using the rolling pin becomes the most sought-out person in their circle of family and friends. The sheets are then layered or folded into various shapes before being filled with cheese or meat mixes and baked or fried. Every household enjoys at least five different varieties of borek as a regular part of its menu.
Along with bread, pilaf is another staple in the Turkish kitchen. The most common versions are the cracked wheat pilav and the rice pilaf. A well-cracked wheat pilaf made with whole onions, sliced tomatoes, green peppers sautéed in butter, and boiled in beef stock is a meal in itself. Many versions of the rice pilaf accompany vegetable and meat dishes. The distinguishing feature of the Turkish pilav is its soft buttery morsels of rice which readily roll out from your spoon, rather than sticking together in mushy clumps.
Kebab is another category of food which, like the borek, is typically Turkish dating back to the times when the nomadic Turks learned to grill and roast their meat over their campfires. Given the numerous types of kebabs, it helps to realize that you categorize them by the way the meat is cooked. The Western World knows the sis kebab and the doner introduced to them mostly by Greek entrepreneurs, who have a good nose for what will sell sis kebab is grilled cubes of skewered meat. Doner Kebab is made by stacking alternating layers of ground meat and sliced leg of lamb on a large upright skewer, which is slowly rotated in front of vertical grills. As the outer layer of the meat is roasted, thin slices are shaved to be served.
There are numerous other grilled kebabs beside those cooked in a clay oven. It should be noted that the unique taste of kebabs is due more to the breeds of sheep and cattle, which are raised in open pastures by loving shepherds, than to special marinades and a way of cooking. Therefore, you should stop at a kebab restaurant in Turkey to taste the authentic item. Kebabcı is by far the most common and the least expensive type of restaurant, ranging from a hole in the wall to large and lavish establishments. Kebab is the traditional Turkish response to fast food that is at the same time not especially bad for you. A generic kebabcı will have lahmacun (meat pide) and Adana (spicy skewered ground meat, named after the southern city where it was born), salad greens with red onions and baklava to top it all off. Beyond that, the menu will tell you the specialty of the kebabcı. The best plan is to seek out the well-known ones and to try the less spicy types if you are not used to kebab. Once you develop a taste for it, you can have inexpensive feasts by going to the neighborhood kebabci anywhere in Ankara or Istanbul.
Izgara – mixed grilled meat, it is how main course meat dishes are prepared at a meat restaurant. Mixed grills are likely to include lamb chops, kofte, or shish (select cubes of meat). The way of preparing ground meat will be the kofte. These are grilled, fried, oven-cooked or boiled, after being mixed with special spices, eggs, and grated onions and carefully shaped into balls, oblongs, round or long patties. Another popular dish, inspired by the nomadic Turks who carried spiced, raw meat in their saddles, and known to Europeans as steak Tartar, is the raw kofte. Here, it is made of raw double ground meat, by kneading it with thin bulgur and hot spices vigorously for a few hours. Then bite-sized patties are made and served with cilantro, known for its stomach-protecting qualities. Some restaurants specialize only in grilled meats, in which case they are called meat restaurants. The fare will be a constant stream of grilled meats served hot in portions of the grill, until you tell the waiter that you are full. The best one is Beyti in Florya, Istanbul, and the best way to get there is to take the commuter train from Sirkeci, the main train station on the European side, rather than negotiating the highway traffic. This way you can also see the local folk, especially the kids who seem to use the train to the fullest, carrying out their summer holiday adventures involving fishing and possibly a variety of other mischiefs.
Along with grains, vegetables are also consumed in large quantities in the Turkish diet. The simplest and most basic type of vegetable dish is prepared by slicing a main vegetable such as zucchini or eggplant, combining it with tomatoes, green peppers and onions, and cooking it slowly in butter and its own juices. Since the vegetables that are cultivated in Turkey are truly delicious, a simple dish like this, eaten with a sizeable chunk of fresh bread, is a satisfying meal for many people.
A whole class of vegetables is cooked in olive oil. These dishes would be third in a five-course meal, following the soup and the main course such as rice or borek and vegetable/meat, and before dessert and fruit. Practically all vegetables, such as fresh string beans, artichokes, root celery eggplants, pinto beans, or zucchini can be cooked in olive oil, and are typically eaten at room-temperature. So they are a staple part of the menu with variations depending on the season. Then there are the fried vegetables, such as eggplant, peppers or zucchinis, that are eaten with a tomato or a yogurt sauce.
Dolma is the generic term for stuffed vegetables, being a derivative of the verb “doldurmak” or to fill, it actually means stuffed in Turkish. There are two categories of dolmas: those filled with a meat mix or with a rice mix. The latter are cooked in olive oil and eaten at room temperature. The meat dolma is a main-course dish eaten with a yogurt sauce and a very frequent one in the average household. Any vegetable which can be filled with or wrapped around these mixes can be used in a dolma, including zucchini, eggplants, tomatoes, cabbage, and grapevine leaves. However, the green pepper dolma with the rice stuffing has to be the queen of all dolmas. A royal feast to the eye and the palate…
In addition to these general categories, there are numerous meat and vegetable dishes which feature unique recipes. When talking vegetables, it is important to know that the eggplant (aubergine) has a special place in the cuisine. This handsome vegetable with its brown-green cap, velvety purple, firm and slim body has a richer flavor than that of its relatives found elsewhere. At a party, a frustrating question to ask a Turk would be How do you usually cook your eggplant? A proper answer to this question would require hours!
Here, too, it will have to suffice to mention two eggplant dishes that are a must to taste. In one, the eggplant is split lengthwise and filled with a meat mix. This is a common summer dish, eaten with white rice pilaf. The other one is Her Majesty’s Favorite, a delicate formal dish that is not easy to make but well worth trying. The name refers to Empress Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon III, who fell in love with it on her visit to Sultan Abdulaziz. To taste these dishes, look for a Lokanta. Borrowed from the Italian Locanda, the type of establishment where traditional cooking is prepared most usually for those who work nearby The best examples are the Borsa, Haci Salih, and Konyali in Istanbul and Liman and Ciftlik in Ankara. The tables are covered with white linen, and the menu comprises soups, traditional main dishes, and desserts, including fresh fruit. Businessmen and politicians frequently visit these places for lunch.
Meze Dishes to Accompany the Spirits
In Turkey, despite the Islamic prohibition against wine and anything alcoholic, there is a rich tradition associated with liquor. Drinking alcoholic beverages in the company of family and friends both at home and in taverns and restaurants is a part of special occasions. Similar to the Spanish tapas, meze is the general category of dishes that are brought in small quantities to start the meal off. These are eaten, along with wine or more likely with rakı, the anise-flavored national drink of Turks sometimes referred to as lion’s milk, for a few hours until the main course is served.
The bare minimum meze for Raki are slices of honeydew melons and creamy feta cheese with freshly baked bread. Beyond these, a typical meze menu includes dried and marinated mackerel, fresh salad greens in thick yogurt sauce with garlic, plates of cold vegetable dishes cooked or fried in olive oil, fried crispy savory pastry deep fried mussels and calamari served in sauce, tomato and cucumber salad, and fish eggs in the sauce. The main course that follows such a meze spread will be fish or grilled meat.
When the main course is kebab, then the meze spread is different. In this case, several plates of different types of minced salad greens and tomatoes in spicy olive oil, mixed with yogurt or cheese, humus chickpeas mashed in tahini, bulgur and red lentil balls, raw kofte, marinated stuffed eggplant, peppers with spices and nuts, and pickles, are likely to be served.
Four seas (the Black Sea, Marmara Sea, the Aegean, and the Mediterranean) surround the Turkish landscape, and residents of the coastal cities are experts in preparing their fish. However, the best of the day’s catch is also immediately transported to Ankara, where some of the finest fish restaurants are located. Winter is the premium season for eating fish. That is the time when many species of fish migrate from the Black Sea to the warmer waters and when most fish reach their mature sizes. So, the lack of summer vegetables is compensated by the abundance of fish at this time. Every month has its own preferred fish, along with certain vegetables which complement the taste. For example, the best Bonito is eaten with arugula and red onions, blue fish with lettuce, turbot with cos lettuce. Large Bonito may be poached with celery root. Mackerel is stuffed with chopped onion before grilling, and summer fish, which are younger and drier, will be poached with tomatoes and green peppers or fried. Bay leaves always accompany both poached and grilled fish. Grilling fish over charcoal, where the fish juices hit the embers and envelope the fish with the smoke, is perhaps the most delicious way of eating mature fish since this method brings out the delicate flavor. This is also why the grilled fish and bread sold by vendors right on their boats are so tasty. Hamsi is the prince of all fish known to Turks: the Black Sea people know forty-one ways of making hamsi including hamsi borek, hamsi pilav and hamsi dessert!
Another common seafood is the mussel is eaten deep-fried, poached, or as a mussel dolma and mussel pilaf. Along the Aegean, octopus and calamari are added to the meze spread. The places to taste fish are fish restaurants and taverns. Not all taverns are fish restaurants, but most fish restaurants are taverns and these are usually found on the harbors overlooking the sea. The Bosphorus is famous for its fishermen’s taverns, large and small, from Rumeli Kavagi to Kumkapi. The modest ones are small with wooden tables and rickety wooden chairs, nevertheless, they offer delicious grilled fish. Then there are elaborate, fashionable ones in Tarabya and Bebek. The fish restaurants always have an open-air section taking up space right by the sea; the waiters run back and forth between the kitchen, perhaps located within the restaurant across the street, and the tables on the seaside. After being seated, it is customary to visit the kitchen or the display to pick your fish and discuss the way you want it to be prepared. The price of the fish is also disclosed at this time. Then you swing by the mezze display and order the ones you want. So the evening begins, sipping Raki in between samplings of meze, watching the sunset, and slowly setting the pace for conversation that will continue hours into the night. Drinking is never a hurried, loud, boisterous, or a lonely affair. It is a communal, gently festive and cultured way of entertainment. In these fish restaurants, a couple of families may spend an evening with their children running around the restaurant after they are fed, while the teenagers sit at the table patiently listening to the conversation and occasionally participating, when the topic is soccer or rock music.
The Real Story of Sweets: Beyond Baklava
The most well-known sweets associated with the cuisine are Turkish Delight, and baklava, giving the impression that these may be the typical desserts eaten after meals. This, of course, is not true. Firstly the family of desserts is much richer than these two. Secondly, these are not typical desserts as part of the main meal. For example, baklava and its relatives are usually eaten with coffee, as a snack or after a kebab dish. Let us now look at the main categories of sweets in the Turkish Cuisine.
By far, the most common dessert after a meal is fresh seasonal fruit that acquires their unique taste from an abundance of sun and old-fashioned ways of cultivation and transportation. Spring will start with strawberries, followed by cherries and apricots. Summer is marked by peaches, watermelons, and melons; then, all kinds of grapes ripen in late summer, followed by green and purple figs, plums, apples, pears, and quince. Oranges, mandarin oranges, and bananas are among the winter fruits. For most of the spring and summer, fruit is eaten fresh. Later, it may be used fresh or dried, in compotes, or made into jams and preserves. Among the preserves, the unique ones to taste are the quince marmalade, the sour cherry preserve, and the rose preserve (made of rose petals, which is not a fruit! ).
The most wonderful contribution to Turkish Food to the family of desserts, that can easily be missed by casual explorers, are the milk desserts – the muhallebi family These are among the rare types of guilt-free puddings made with starch and rice flour, and, originally without any eggs or butter. When the occasion calls for even a lighter dessert, the milk can also be omitted; instead, the pudding may be flavored with citrus fruits, such as lemon or orange. The milk desserts include a variety of puddings, ranging from the very light and subtle pudding with rose water to the milk pudding with strands of chicken breast.
Grain-based desserts include baked pastries, fried yeast dough pastries, and the pan-sautéed desserts. The baked pastries can also be referred to as the baklava family. These are paper-thin pastry sheets that are brushed with butter and folded, layered, or, rolled after being filled with ground pistachios, walnuts or heavy cream, and then baked. Then a syrup is poured over the baked pastries. The various types, such as the Sultan, the nightingale’s nest, or the twisted turban differ according to the amount and placement of nuts, size and shape of the individual pieces, and the dryness of the final product.
The lokma family is made by frying soft pieces of yeast dough in oil and dipping them in a syrup. Lady’s lips, lady’s navel, and vizier’s finger are fine examples.
Halva is made by pan-sautéing flour or semolina and pine nuts in butter before adding sugar, and milk or water, and briefly cooking until these are absorbed. The preparation of halva is conducive to communal cooking. People are invited for halva conversations to pass the long winter nights. The more familiar tahini halva is sold in blocks at a corner grocery shop.
Another dessert that should be mentioned is a piece of special bread cooked in syrup, topped with lots of walnuts and heavy cream. This is possibly the queen of all desserts, so plan to taste it at the Ikmal Restaurant on the Ankara-Izmir highway at Afyon.
There are shops where baklava, borek, or muhallebi are sold, exclusively or in combination. People come to these places for takeaway or to sit down at one of the few tables tucked in a corner of the store. The baklava stores also usually feature water borek, an especially difficult borek to make. Most borek shops also make milk puddings. These are excellent places to eat breakfast or lunch at any time of the day since the regular restaurants may stop serving at two o’clock in the afternoon. Many pudding shops also serve chicken soup. In any event, it is possible to feast on borek and milk pudding for an entire holiday if on a tight budget. Perhaps the most well-known shop of this type is Saray on Istiklal Street in Beyoglu-Istanbul in addition to the entire village of Sariyer on the Bosphorus.
You have to be in Turkey to get the real and the best taste of the above desserts. However, in addition to the variety of Turkish Delights, there is a lesser-known type of dessert that can be taken back home in a sweet box. These are nut pastes – marzipan made of almonds and pistachios. The best marzipan is sold at a tiny unassuming shop in Bebek in Istanbul. A few boxes usually will last for a month or so and bring delight after dinners. Finally, candied chestnuts, a specialty of Bursa, are among the most wonderful nutty desserts.
Beverages: Beyond Turkish Coffee and Ayran
Volumes have been written about the Turkish coffee; its historical significance in social life, and the ambiance of the ubiquitous coffee houses. Without some understanding of this background, it is easy to be disappointed by the tiny brew with the annoying grounds, which an uninitiated traveler (like Mark Twain) may accidentally end up chewing. A few words of caution will have to suffice for the purposes of this brief primer. First, the grounds are not to be swallowed; so, sip the coffee gingerly. Secondly, don’t expect a caffeine surge with one shot of Turkish Coffee, it is not strong, just thick. Third, remember that it is the setting and the company that matters – the coffee is just an excuse for the occasion…
Tea, on the other hand, is the main source of caffeine for the Turks. It is prepared in a special way, by brewing it over boiling water and served in delicate, small, clear glasses to show the deep red color and to keep it hot. Drinking tea is such an essential part of a working day that any disruption of the constant supply of fresh tea is a sure way to sacrifice productivity Once upon a time, so the story goes, a lion escaped from the Ankara Zoo and took up residence in the basement of an office building. It began devouring public servants and executives. It even ate up a few ministers of state and nobody took notice. It is said that a posse was immediately formed when the lion caught and ate the tea-man, the person responsible for the supply of fresh tea!
A park without tea and coffee is inconceivable in Turkey. Thus, every spot with a view has a tea-house or a tea-garden. These places may be under a simple tree looking into the village or town square, on top of hills with majestic views of a valley or the sea, by the harbor, in the market, on a roadside with a scenic overview by a waterfall or in the woods. Among the typical tea-gardens in Istanbul is the Emirgan on the European side, Camlica on the Anatolian side of the Bosphorus, the famous Pierre Loti cafe, and the tea-garden in Uskudar. But the traditional tea-houses are beginning to disappear from the more tourist-oriented seaside locations, in favor of pubs and Biergarten…
Among the beverages worth mentioning are excellent bottled fruit juices. But, perhaps the most interesting drink is boza – traditionally sold in neighborhood streets by mobile vendors on a winter night. This is a thick, fermented drink made of wheat berries, to be enjoyed with a dash of cinnamon and a handful of roasted chickpeas. Boza can also be found year-round at certain cafes or dessert shops. Finally, salep is a hot drink made with milk and salep powder. It is a good remedy for sore throats and colds, in addition to being delicious.
Food Protocol for the Culturally Correct
Eating is taken very seriously in Turkey It is inconceivable for the household members to eat alone, raid the refrigerator, or eat on the “go”, while others are at home. It is custom to have three “sit-down meals” a day. Breakfast or kahvaltı (literally ‘Foundation for coffee’), typically consists of bread, feta cheese, black olives, and tea. Many workplaces have lunch served as a contractual fringe benefit. Dinner starts when all the family members get together and share the events of the day at the table. The menu consists of three or more types of dishes that are eaten sequentially accompanied by salad. In summer, dinner is served at about eight. Close relatives, best friends or neighbors may join meals on a “walk-in” basis. Others are invited ahead of time as elaborate preparations are expected. The menu depends on whether alcoholic drinks will be served or not. In the latter case, the guests will find the meze spread readily on the table, frequently set up either in the garden or on the balcony. The main course is served several hours later. Otherwise, the dinner starts with soup, followed by the meat and vegetable main course, accompanied by the salad. Then the olive oil dishes such as the dolmas are served, followed by dessert and fruit. While the table is cleared, the guests retire to the living room to have a tea and Turkish Coffee.
Women get together for afternoon tea at regular intervals (referred to as the “7-17 days”) with their school friends and neighbors. These are very elaborate occasions with at least a dozen types of cakes, pastries, finger foods and boreks prepared by the hostess. The main social purpose of these gatherings is to share information and experience about all aspects of life, public and private. Naturally, one very important function is the propagation of recipes. Diligent exchanges occur while women consult each other on their innovations and solutions to culinary challenges.
By now, it should be clear that the concept of having a “pot-luck” at someone’s house is entirely foreign to the Turks. The responsibility of supplying all the food squarely belongs to the host who expects to be treated in the same way in return. There are two occasions where the notion of “host” does not apply. One such situation is when neighbors collaborate in making large quantities of food for the winter such as tarhana (a perfect soup for winter diseases) – dried yogurt/tomato soup, or noodles. Another is when families get together to go on a day’s excursion into the countryside. Arrangements are made ahead of time as to who will make the kofte, dolma, salads, pilafs and who will supply the meat, the beverages, and the fruits. The mangal – the copper charcoal burner, kilims, hammocks, pillows, musical instruments such as saz, ud, or violin, and samovars are loaded up for a day trip.
A ‘picnic’ would be a pale comparison to these occasions, often referred to as “stealing a day from fate”. Kucuksu, Kalamis, and Heybeli in old Istanbul used to be typical locations for such outings, as many songs tell us. Other memorable locations include the Meram vineyards in Konya, Hazer Lake in Elazig, and Bozcaada – off the shores of Canakkale. Commemorating two Saints: Hizir and Ilyas (representing immortality and abundance) – the May 5th Spring Festival Hidirellez – would mark the beginning of the pleasure-season (safa), with romantic affairs, lots of poetry songs and, naturally, good food.
A similar safa used to be the weekly trip to the Turkish Bath. Food prepared the day before, would be packed on horse-drawn carriages along with fresh clothing and scented soaps. After spending the morning at the marble wash basins and the steam hall, people would retire to the wooden settles to rest, eat and dry off before returning home.
These days, such leisurely affairs are all but gone, spoiled by modern life. Yet, families still attempt to steal at least one day from a fate every year, even though fate often triumphs. Packing food for trips is so traditional that even now it is common for mothers to pack some kofte, dolma, and borek to go on an airplane, especially on long trips, much to the bemusement of other passengers and the irritation of flight attendants. But seriously given the quality of airline food, who can blame them?
Weddings, circumcision ceremonies, and holidays are celebrated with feasts. At a wedding feast in Konya, a seven-course meal is served to the guests. The “sit-down meal” starts with a soup, followed by pilaf and roast meat, meat dolma, and saffron rice – a traditional wedding dessert. Borek is served before the second dessert, which is typically the semolina helva. The meal ends with okra cooked with tomatoes, onions, and butter with lots of lemon juice. This wedding feast is typical of Anatolia, with slight regional variations. The morning after the wedding the groom’s family sends trays of baklava to the bride’s family.
During the holidays, people are expected to pay short visits to each and every friend within the city visits which are immediately reciprocated. Three or four days are spent going from house to house, so enough food needs to be prepared and put aside to last the duration of the visits. During the holidays, kitchens and pantries burst at the seams with boreks, rice dolmas, puddings and desserts that can be put on the table without much preparation. Deaths are also occasions for cooking and sharing food. In this case, neighbors prepare and send dishes to the bereaved household for three days after the death. The only dish prepared by the household of the deceased is the halva which is sent to the neighbors, who will remember and pray for the departed. In some areas, it is a custom for a good friend of the deceased to begin preparing the halva, while recounting fond memories and events. Then the spoon would be passed to the next person who would take up stirring of the halva and continue reminiscing. Usually, the halva will be done by the time everyone in the room has had a chance to speak and stir the helva. This wonderful simple ceremony by making people left behind talk about happier times lightens up their grief momentarily and strengthens the bond between them.
Food and Spirituality
Food and dietary practices have always played an important part in all religions. Among them, Islam is perhaps known to impose the most elaborate and strict rules in this respect. In practice, these rules have been reinterpreted in regional adaptations, particularly in Turkey where it is harder to find strict Muslims. In Anatolia, where a variety of Sufi orders flourished, food gained a spiritual dimension above dry religious requirements, as can be seen in their poetry music, and practices.
Paradoxically, the month of Ramadan, when all Muslims are expected to fast from dawn to dusk, is also a month of fasting and charitable feeding of all those who are in need. Fasting is to purify the body and the soul and at the same time, to develop a reverence for all blessings bestowed by nature and cooked by a skillful chef. The days are spent preparing food for the breaking of the fast at sunset. It is customary to break the fast by eating a bite of “heavenly” food such as olives or dates and nibbling lightly on a variety of cheeses, slices of sausage, jams, and pide. This would be followed by the evening prayers and then the main meal. In the old days, the rest of the night would be occupied by games and conversations or going into town to attend the various musicals and theaters, until it was time to eat again just before firing of the cannon or beating of the drums marking the beginning of the next day’s fasting. People would rest until noon when shops and workplaces opened and food preparation began…
The other major religious holiday is the Sacrifice Holiday commemorating Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice his son Ishmael in the name of God. But God sent him a ram instead, sparing his son’s life. The act of sacrificing an animal, in Turkey most likely a sheep, represents repentance and a solemn promise to do good on earth. The meat is sent to neighbors and to the needy. The sheep is revered as the creature of God that gives its life for a higher purpose. The henna coloring on the sheep is a symbolic way of showing this respect and so are the strict instructions for slaughtering. In fact, it is believed that one of these rams will take the believer across the “hair-thin and razor-sharp bridge” to heaven on Judgement Day.
Several other occasions commemorating Prophets also involve food. The six holy nights marking events in Prophet Mohammed’s life are celebrated by baking special pastries, bread, and lokma. The month of Muharrem occurred when the flood waters receded, and Noah and his family were able to land. It is believed that then they cooked a meal using whatever remained in their supplies. This event is celebrated by cooking the same dish – Ashure or Noah’s pudding made of wheat berries, dried legumes, rice, raisins, currants, dried figs, dates, and nuts. You can also taste this most nourishing pudding at certain muhallebi shops any time.
The feast of the Prophet Zechariah is prepared upon being granted one’s wish. This feast consists of a spread of forty-one different types of dried fruits and nuts served to guests. Prayers are read and everyone tastes all forty-one foods. A guest can then burn a candle and make a wish. If the wish comes true, one is obligated to prepare a similar “Zechariah Table” for others.
Beyond these practices, examples of a spiritual tradition imbued with food metaphors are found in Sufism generally and in the poetry of Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi in particular, as well in the verses of classical Turkish poetry and music. In fact, to understand the full meaning of this spiritual tradition would be impossible without deciphering the references to food and wine, cooking, eating, and intoxication. Mevlana, who lived in Konya in the 13th century AD, represents an approach to Sufism that follows the way of love to divine reality, rather than knowledge, or gnosis. As mentioned earlier, the food-related guilds and the Janissaries also followed the Sufi Order. A clash of philosophies on food is told in a story about Empress Eugenie’s French chef, who was sent to the Sultan’s kitchen to learn how to cook an eggplant dish. He soon begged to be excused from this impossible task, saying that when he took his book and scales with him, the Turkish chef threw all of them out the window because an Imperial chef must learn to cook with his feelings, his eyes and his nose – in other words, with love!
Asceticism, rather than hedonistic gluttony is associated with Sufism, and yet food occupies an important place. Followers of the Order began with the simplest menial duties in dervish lodges which always included huge kitchens. After a thousand and one days of service, the novice would become “cooked” and become a full member of the Brotherhood. In other words, being “cooked” refers to spiritual maturation. One wonders if the Turkish tradition of cooking everything until soft and well-done had anything to do with this association (cooking al dente has no meaning to Turks).
The story of the chick-pea told by Mevlana in his Mathnawi is a superb example of this idea. When the tough legume is cooked in boiling water, it complains to the woman cooking it. She explains to it that this is necessary so that it can be eaten by human beings, become part of human life and thus be elevated to a higher form of life. The fable of the chick-pea describes the suffering of the soul before its arrival at Divine Love. The peasant eating halva for the first time symbolizes the discovery of Divine Love by the dervish. There is also the image of God himself preparing the halva for the true dervishes. In this particular verse, the whole universe, as it were, is pictured as a huge pan with the stars as cooks! In other verses, the beloved (God) is described as being as tasty as salt, or the friend (God) has sugar lips. Wine also represents the maturation of the human soul, similar to the ordeal the sour grape endures. So many mystical meanings are attributed to wine that the name “tavern” stands for the Sufi hospice and experiencing divine love is described by the metaphor of “intoxication”.
These spiritual ideas are still very much alive in present-day Turkey, where food and liquor are enjoyed with recitations of mystical poetry and dignified conversation. Often these gatherings provide an occasion for people to distance themselves from earthly matters and transcend into spirituality and promises of a better life hereafter.
Contemporary Concerns: Diet and Health
As modernity takes hold, traditions are falling to one side. Spirituality as a guide for conduct in everyday life is something of the past; now we turn to Science for answers. Ironically as Mac Donald’s and Pizza Huts are popping up everywhere, the traditional way of eating is also making a comeback. What our grandmothers knew all the time is now being confirmed by modern science: a diet which is fundamentally based on grains, vegetables, and fruits with meat and dairy products used sparingly and as a flavoring, is a healthy one. Furthermore, some combinations are better than others, because they complement each other for perfect nutrition. The Turkish Cuisine sets an example in these respects. The recent “food-pyramid” endorsed by the United States Department of Agriculture resembles age-old practices in ordinary households. Even the well-known menus of boarding schools or army kitchens, hardly known for their gourmet characteristics, provide excellent nutrition that can be justified with the best of today’s scientific knowledge. One such combination jokingly referred to as “our national food”, is beans and pilaf, accompanied by pickles and quince compote – a perfectly nourishing combination which provides the essential proteins, carbohydrates and minerals. Another curious practice is combining spinach with yogurt. Now we know that the body needs calcium found in the yogurt to assimilate the iron found in the spinach.
Yogurt, a contribution from the Turks to the world, has also become a popular health food. A staple in the Turkish diet, it has been known all along for its detoxifying properties. Other such beliefs, not yet supported by modern science, including the role of onion, used liberally in all dishes in strengthening the immune system; garlic for high blood pressure and olive oil as a remedy for forty-one ailments. The complicated debate concerning mono-and polyunsaturated fats and the good and bad cholesterol is ridiculously inadequate to evaluate olive oil. Given what we know about health food today one could even envy the typical lunch fare of the proverbial construction worker who, like all his kind, shouts “endearing” words to the passing-by females, while eating bread, feta cheese and fresh grapes in the summer and bread and tahini halva in the winter.
The variety of pastry turnovers with cheese or ground meat, meat pide or kebabs are the fast food for millions of working people. These are all prepared entirely on the premises using age-old practices.
One of the main culprits in the modern-day diet is the snack, that horrible junk food designed to give a quick sugar-high to keep one going for the rest of the day. Again, modern science has come to the rescue, and healthy snacks are now being discovered. Some of these are amazingly familiar to the Turks! Take, for example, the “fruit roll-ups”. Visit any dried food store that sells nuts and fruits, and you will see the authentic version, such as the sheets of mashed and dried apricots and grapes. In these stores, there are many other items that await discovery by some pioneering entrepreneur to the Western markets. Another wholesome snack, known as “trail mix” or gorp, is well-known to all Turkish mothers, who traditionally stuff a handful of mixed nuts and raisins in the pockets of their children’s school uniform to snack on before exams. This practice can be traced to ancient fables, where the hero goes on a diet of hazelnuts and raisins before fighting with the giants and dragons, or before weaving the king a golden smock. The Prince always loads onto the mythological bird, the Zumrut Anka, forty sacks of nuts and raisins for himself, and water and meat for the bird that takes him over the high Caucasus Mountains…
As far as food goes, it is reassuring to know that we are re-discovering what is good for our bodies. Nevertheless, one is left with the nagging feeling that such knowledge will always be incomplete as long as it is divorced from its cultural context and spiritual traditions. The challenge facing modern Turkey is to achieve such continuity in a time of genetic engineering, high-tech mass production and a growing number of convenience-oriented households. But for now the markets are vibrant and the dishes are tastier than ever. So, enjoy!