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Food from Turkey: The Cooking Reflects the Essence of its Culture

Hostess Muhlise's karniyarik in Turkey
Hostess Muhlise's karniyarik. Photo by Lies Ouwerkerk from Food on Foot in Istanbul: A Tour of Traditional Culinary Treats.

The surest way to capture the essence of a country’s culture is through its local cuisine. In Turkey, for example, you can visit food stalls in lively and bustling outdoor markets and experience new tastes. You can search for unfamiliar spices and foods and then dine at the small neighborhood eateries serving traditional dishes made from previously unknown ingredients. Some are prepared and may be found only in home kitchens, so I am always elated when invited to dine with local families.

Among the culinary delights of Turkey are wild orchid tubers, which are dried and strung together on strings. Vendors typically hang them from high points in their stalls. An ivory-colored powder called sahleb is one form of local delight that shows off the remarkable qualities of the product, pulling and stretching it into ropes two to three feet long with the aid of long metal rods. One can enjoy different forms sahleb powder in ice cream offered in specialty shops as well. Sahleb is considered an aphrodisiac, so don’t be too surprised to see a lot of men savoring ice cream cones.

While gazing up at dried orchid tuber leis, you may notice strings of dried, hollowed-out zucchini and eggplant hanging nearby. The outer shell of the vegetables is used to make a multitude of stuffed dishes during winter. A gifted chef in Cappadocia once impressed me by how he could create a zucchini shell in a matter of seconds. He nipped the stem end off and rapidly rolled the vegetable between the palm of one hand and the table. Once the flesh was massaged free of the outer covering, it popped out and was saved for use in that day’s meal. The shell was then strung with others and allowed to dry for later use.

In Istanbul, the culinary center of the country, the first destination for food enthusiasts is the Spice (or Egyptian) market, Misir Carisi, in the part of the inner city called Eminönü. I have a favorite stall there run by a man who keeps on hand some of the finest Turkish saffron harvested from fields near the city of Safranbolu.

Spice market in Istanbul
Spice market in Istanbul. Photo by Lies Ouwerkerk from Food on Foot in Istanbul: A Tour of Traditional Culinary Treats.

Food Cities in Turkey

Some cities such as Antakya (ancient Antioch) in the Mediterranean region and Gaziantep in the southeast are on few itineraries. “Foodies” go to their wonderful old markets and shops to watch cooks who still make traditional food products by hand. One remarkable item is tel kadayif, delicate strands of griddle-fried dough resembling shredded wheat. The mixture of flour and water streams through small openings in the bottom of a vessel onto a rotating heated copper griddle below, making a circular pattern of threads as the griddle turns.

Confectioner’s shops everywhere in Turkey display in their windows a variety of irresistible treats made with tel kadayif from Antioch. A dessert favorite called künefe consists of fresh cheese sandwiched between two layers of butter-soaked, griddle-cooked threads. It is baked, drenched in sugar syrup, and served piping hot, often sprinkled with chopped pistachio nuts.

A good restaurant in which to watch elaborate dishes made is Zenger Pasa Konagi in the hilltop citadel in Ankara, Turkey’s capital. In the morning several women deftly roll out dough to make the day’s menu entries. One of the regular offerings is the popular manti, small cheese- or mincedmeat-filled pastas, served in a yogurt and garlic sauce flavored with mint or tomato sauce. The Chinese apparently contributed this wonton-like dish to the Turkish menu centuries ago. Its Italian counterpart is the more familiar ravioli.

The pasta is typical of Central Anatolia. Dried, ground berries from an edible variety of sumac—a lemony-flavored spice used before lemons arrived from Europe—decorate the top of the dish. It remains a ubiquitous tabletop condiment in restaurants.

Ottoman Innovations in Food

Extensive innovation occurred in the kitchens of the Ottoman court during the 600 years of the dynasty. Unfortunately, many of the sophisticated dishes created to please a sultan have almost faded from memory. Vedat Basaran, chef and owner of Feriye Lokantasi, a restaurant on the Bosphorus near the Biragan Palace in Istanbul is working to revive them. Mr. Basaran located ancient Turkish cookbooks in Arabic, a language the Turkish Republic had abolished in 1928, and taught himself the language so he could translate them. Dine there on a sunny day, sit outdoors at the very edge of the Bosphorus and select something from the menu that includes charcoal-grilled eggplant, one of restaurant’s signature ingredients. Try lamb on a bed of charcoaled eggplant served with saffron pilaf with almonds.

Selected Reading on Turkish Cooking

Classical Turkish Cooking: Traditional Turkish Food for the American Kitchen by Ayla Algar.

Sultan's Kitchen: A Turkish Cookbook by Ozcan Ozan.

Related Topics
Culinary Travel

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