THE STORY OF TURKISH FOOD: A PROLOGUE
A practical-minded child watching Mother cook "stuffed grape leaves" 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 grape leaves all exactly half an inch thick and stacked-up on 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?
One can only conclude that the evolution of this glorious Cuisine was not an accident. Similar to other grand Cuisines 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 know 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.
The Turkish Cuisine has the privilege of being at the cross-roads 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 Turkish 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 had a meal in a Turkish home, regardless of the success of the particular cook, is sure to notice how unique the Cuisine is.
A Nurturing Environment
Early historical documents show that the basic structure of the Turkish Cuisine was already established during the Nomadic Period and in the first settled Turkish States of Asia. Culinary attitudes towards meat, dairy, vegetables and grains that characterized this early period still make up the core of Turkish Cuisine . Turks cultivated wheat and used it liberally in several types of leavened and unleavened breads baked in clay ovens, on the griddle, or buried in ember. "Manti" (dumpling), and "bugra" (attributed to Bugra Khan of Turkestan, the ancestor of "börek" 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 "kebap" 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 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.
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.
Kitchen of the Imperial Palace
The importance of culinary art for the Ottoman Sultans is evident to every visitor of Topkapi 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, kebaps, vegetables, fish, breads, pastries, candy and helva, syrup and jams and beverages, fed as much as ten thousand people a day, and in addition, sent trays of food to others in the City as a royal favor.
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 neighbourhood, 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. And this is how the traditional Cuisine evolved and spread, even to the most modest corners of the country.
A Repertory Of Food At The Great - Good Places
A survey of types dishes according to their ingredients, may be helpful to explain the basic structure of the Turkish Cuisine. 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 sea-food, 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 flavour 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 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 "köfte". 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 flavours are refined and subtle.
Grains: Bread to Börek
The foundation of Turkish food is, if anything, the dough made of wheat flour. Besides "ekmek" - the ordinary white bread, "pide" - flat bread, "simit" - sesame seed rings, "manti" - dumplings, a whole family of food made up thin sheets of pastry called "börek" falls into this category.
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.
Next to bread, "pilav" is another staple in the Turkish kitchen. The most common versions are the cracked-wheat pilaf and the rice pilaf. A good cracked-wheat pilaf made with whole onions, sliced tomatoes, green peppers sautéed in butter, and boiled in beef stock is a meal itself. Many versions of the rice pilaf accompany vegetable and meat dishes. The distinguishing feature of the Turkish pilaf is its soft buttery morsels of rice which readily roll out from your spoon, rather than sticking together in a mushy clumps.
"Kebap" is another category of food which, like the börek, is typically Turkish dating back to the times when the nomadic Turks learned to grill and roast their meat over their camp fires. 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 "döner" introduced to them mostly by Greek entrepreneurs, who have a good nose for what will sell! Sis kebab is grilled cubes of skewered meat.
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.
"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 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 has a special place in the Turkish Cuisine. This handsome vegetable with its brown-green cap, velvety purple, firm and slim body, has a richer flavour than that of its relatives found elsewhere.
"Meze" Dishes to Accompany the Spirits
In Turkey, there is a rich tradition associated with liquor. Drinking alcoholic beverages in the company of family and friends 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-flavoured national drink of Turks sometimes referred to as "lion's milk", for a few hours until the main course is served.
Fish and other Sea-Food
Grilling fish, 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 flavour.
The Real Story of Sweets : Beyond the Baklava
The most well known sweets associated with the Turkish Cuisine are the Turkish Delight, and the "baklava", giving the impression that these may be the typical desserts eaten after meals. This is not true. First, the family of desserts is much richer than these two. Secondly, these are not typical desserts as part of a main meal. For example, baklava and its relatives are eaten usually with coffee, as a snack or after a kebab dish. Let us now look at the main categories of sweets in the Turkish Cuisine.
The most wonderful contribution of the Turkish Cuisine 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. 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.
Beverages : Knowing beyond the Turkish Coffee and Tea
Volumes have been written about the Turkish coffee; its history, 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 on which an uninitiated traveler (like Mark Twain) may accidently 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.
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 colour 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.
Reference: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey
Call for reservations: