Food from Turkey: The Cooking Reflects the Essence of its Culture
The surest way to capture the essence
of a countrys 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 dont 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 days 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.
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.
Confectioners 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, Turkeys capital. In the morning
several women deftly roll out dough to make the days
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 sumaca
lemony-flavored spice used before lemons arrived from Europedecorate
the top of the dish. It remains a ubiquitous tabletop condiment
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
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 restaurants signature ingredients.
Try lamb on a bed of charcoaled eggplant served with saffron
pilaf with almonds.