Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Story edited by Alina Wang.
Turkish cuisine dates back to the 6th century CE, when the Turkish people were nomads in Central Asia, and their diet consisted of mainly meat, dairy and a few, gathered by their campsites, fruits and vegetables.
Early in the 11th century, a number of Turkoman nomads settled in Anatolia (meaning the Land to the East) amongst the Greeks, Armenians, Azerbaijanis and other ethnic groups that were populating the area, while the Seljuk Turk majority settled in what was then Palestine, The Red Sea shore of the Arabic Peninsula, Persia, Isfahan and the region of modern Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 1453, when Sultan Mehmet II conquered Constantinople i.e. modern day Istanbul, it was the end of the Byzantine Empire and the beginning of the Turkish (Ottoman) Empire as a regional Moslem power. The Ottomans conquered the Balkans and parts of Eastern Europe, as far west as the outskirts of Vienna and as far south as the Mediterranean shores of North Africa.
The Ottoman Turks placed great importance on lavish and opulent dinning. The kitchens of Topkapi, the Sultan’s palace, were set under ten domes! By the middle of the 16th century, the Topkapi kitchens employed over 1,200 people and fed as many as 8,000 persons each day! The staff was organized as specialist cooks each performing a specific task under the supervision of a master cook i.e. a chef de cuisine. That was way before Escoffier first organized his kitchen at the Savoy and, later on at the Ritz Paris, in a very similar way and created the discipline of a modern commercial kitchen. It was the beginning of how a restaurant’s kitchen works, nowadays with each person specializing in a specific task or a very few tasks such as salad making, soup making, meat or fish grilling, frying or poaching, sauce making, preparing desserts etc.
Actually, desserts such as Baklava, Kataifi, Lokum (Turkish Delight), Tavukgöğsü (Sweet Custard made with Shredded Chicken Breast), Sütlaç (Turkish Rice Pudding), Tulumba (similar to short Churros), Kurabiyesi, Ekmek Kadayifi (Turkish Bread Pudding), Revani (Semolina Cake in Orange or Lemon Syrup), Tahini Helva, Ashure a.k.a Noah’s Ark Pudding, Kunefe (Sweet Cheese Pastry), Lokma (Fried Sweet Dough in Syrup) and many others are perenial Turkish favorites. Turkey has a sweet tooth and will undulge at every oportunity!
Many culinary influences came from the surrounding lands the Ottoman Empire conquered as well as from travelers on the Silk Road; one of the Silk Road’s many branches started and ended in Istanbul. When Mustapha Kemal – known as Atatürk i.e. father of Turkey – established the modern Turkish Republic, the local cuisine started accepting influences from even further away ethnic groups. But I think the classic dishes I grew up with, still reign supreme in the kitchen of the average Turkish family.
The Turkish cuisine is extremely rich, healthy and regional, though it still mostly remains among the lesser-known global cuisines. In the Eastern Mediterranean it is as revered today as it was in the past.
We’ll start with my favorite breakfast dish, Menemen.
It is an Anatolia-originating dish that utilizes day-fresh eggs, tomatoes, onions and a mixture of sliced hot green peppers and red bell peppers. At a hotel in Ürgüp in Cappadocia, during a stay in 2011, the chef made Menemen every morning. The fresh sweet skinless tomatoes, thinly sliced red and white onions and rounds of the green part of scallions and red and spicy green pepper slices were cooked down in a mix of butter and olive oil until the vegetables were fully cooked to almost a paste; then the eggs were broken on top and the sauteuse where the vegetables were cooking was placed under a broiler for the eggs to set. A few times, crumbled fresh white cheese (beyaz peynir) similar to feta or ricotta salata was mixed with the vegetables.
This dish also makes an appearance at night, but in a slightly different configuration where the eggs are beaten and the cooked vegetables are then folded in, using less tomato and more of the onion and hot pepper mix and the dish is cooked as a frittata, then sprinkled with dried oregano.
Street food is ubiquitous in Turkey, a leftover from the nomadic days when one could not be sure where or when the next meal will be.
In the major cities, itinerary peddlers have carts that sell simit (thin round bread covered with toasted sesame or poppy seeds), roasted chestnuts in the winter and roasted corn in the summer and both in the autumn, fresh shelled almonds or walnuts kept in ice-cold water; as well as dondurma (ice cream on a cone), toffee-on-a stick and numerous other delicacies. Even pickles (turşu) are sold from an elaboratly decorated cart.
There are storefronts that sell “to go” such nibbles as ice cream, baklava or kadayifi, döner kebap or shish kebap and salad in pita bread, ayran (a beverage made from yoghurt diluted with cold water), kokoreç (charcoal grilled and highly seasoned lamb offal, wrapped with intestines on a skewer) and many other snacks to take out.
In Turkey, no matter where you are, you’ll never go hungry.
There are restaurants that specialize in particular dishes and are typically classified by the main ingredient of the dishes they serve. There is always a Kebapçı nearby i.e. a restaurant that specializes in grilled beef, lamb or goat meat. In the Istanbul area, on platforms along the seashores of the Bosporus or under Istanbul’s Galata Bridge there are Balıkçı restaurants that serve fish and seafood in hundreds of variations.
There are restaurants that serve mostly vegetables or oil-stewed vegetable dishes; many of these vegetables are stuffed with a mixture of rice, pine nuts and ground or very finely chopped onion, garlic, parsley, tomato pulp and spices. Tomatoes, eggplant, long and short zucchinis, bell peppers, preserved grapevine or fresh cabbage leafs, are all stuffed with the rice mixture; then they are baked in an oven.
Mussels and large squid or cuttle fish are also stuffed with the rice and vegetable mixture and oven baked.
Some of the vegetables are altenatively stuffed with a mixture of ground meat, rice and aromatics and are cooked in equal amounts of water and olive oil untill all the water has been absorbed, then the remaining juice after the food is fully cooked is used to make an egg/lemon sauce in which the vegetables are bathed.
A very special vegetable dish as far as I’m concerned is Imam Bayildi. The name of the dish means “The Priest Fainted” (for a recipe see Olive Oil Dishes in this section). It is always better the second or third day after it has been backed, but once you have tasted it, it is very difficult having to wait a couple days to devour it!
Another vegetable stew that I love is Türlü or Briam, the Turkish version of ratatouille. Made every summer in a clay pot from fresh, cubbed vegetables in a diluted tomato paste sauce or from grated fresh tomato pulp, it should delight equally both vegetarians and omnivores, either as a main dish or a side.
One of the tastier Ottoman specialties is Hünkar Beğendi i.e. the “Sultan’s Delight.” Chunks of lamb or beef stewed in a gently herbal tomato sauce accented with sweet paprika are served over fire-roasted skinless eggplant mixed with béchamel. The resulting dish is indeed fit for royalty.
The origins of this dish are shrouded in mystery – there is an apocryphal story about the dish resulting from an affair between Empress Eugenie, wife of Napaoleon III, and Sultan Abdulaziz – but since the meat looks and tastes almost like a very traditional goulash, I believe it is a Central European transplant modified for the meat and aromatics available in a Turkish kitchen. Anyway, it is a beloved specialty available in many of the restaurants of the larger cities to the delight of the traditionalists.
To quote a good friend: “Turkish cuisine is a treasure trove of flavors, combining the influences of different cultures and regions. It reflects the rich history and vibrant culinary heritage of the Turkish people. Whether you savor a traditional breakfast dish like Menemen, indulge in street food delights, or explore the depths of Ottoman specialties, the diverse and delectable Turkish cuisine is sure to satisfy every palate.”
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