SELECTION OF FOOD
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 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 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 "kġfte." 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 flat bread 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 "pazar", 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 setting 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 pazar. There is a lot of haggling and jostling, as people make their way through the narrow isles 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 pazar. 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 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, and "manti" - dumplings, a whole family of food, called "börek," 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.
Börek 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 börek as a regular part of its menu.
Along with 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 in 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.
"Kebab" 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. Döner 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 a 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 are 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. "Kebabci" 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 kebabci will have "lahmacun" (meat pide) and "Adana" (spicy scewered 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 speciality of the kebabci. 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, "kġfte," or "sis" (select cubes of meat). The way of preparing ground meat will be the "köfte." 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 kġfte. 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 chilantro, 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 off 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 mischief.
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 a main course such as rice or börek 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 (or aubergine) 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 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 Abdülaziz. 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 Çiftlik 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 "raki", 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 calamaris served in sauce, tomato and cucumber salad, and fish eggs in 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" chick peas mashed in tahini, bulgur and red lentil balls, "raw köfte," 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 börek, hamsi pilaf and hamsi dessert!
Another common seafood is the mussel eaten deep fried, poached, or as a mussel dolma and mussel pilaf. Along the Aegean, octopus and calamary 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 fisherman'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 meze 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 Turkish 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 a 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 acquire 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 of 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. 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 finger are fine examples.
"Helva" 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 helva is conducive to communal cooking. People are invited for "helva conversations" to pass the long winter nights. The more familiar tahini helva 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, börek, or muhallebi are sold, exclusively or in combination. People come to these places for take-away or to sit down at one of the few tables tucked in a corner of the store. The baklava stores also usually feature "water börek", an especially difficult börek to make. Most börek 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 börek 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 speciality of Bursa, are among the most wonderful nutty desserts.
Beverages: Beyond Turkish Coffee and "Ayran"
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, 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 road-side with a scenic overview by a waterfall or in the woods. Among the typical tea-gardens in Istanbul are: the Emirgan on the European side, Çamlica on the Anatolian side of the Bosphorus, the famous Pierre Loti cafe, and the tea-garden in Üsküdar. 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, fermentated drink made of wheat berries, to be enjoyed with a dash of cinnamon and a handful of roasted chick-peas. Boza can also be found year-round at certain cafes or dessert shops. Finally, "sahlep" is a hot drink made with milk and sahlep powder. It is a good remedy for sore throats and colds, in addition to being delicious.