Cooking Turkish Cuisine Turkish cooks are the inheritors of one of the world’s great cuisines. The best chefs in the Ottoman Empire vied to create special dishes to please the Sultan and the court. Many of these delicacies filtered down, over time, to ordinary people, elevating the quality of everyone’s diet. The Turks brought traditions with them out of Central Asia, and they also found new foods and new ways to prepare them, in Asia Minor. Later, like the rest of the world, they were happy to add New World foods like tomatoes, potatoes, corn, and peppers to their diet. As with the geography and some other aspects of the culture, East meets West in the food of the country.
Americans, used to supermarket food that often looks good but suffers from a lack of flavor, find markets in Turkey are stocked with some of the best fruits and vegetables they have ever tasted. This is due both to the great location and climate for
growing foods that Turkey is fortunate to have, and to the fact that food is still more seasonal there, where it is picked, prepared, and served at its peak. Breakfast: A typical Turkish breakfast consists of freshly baked white bread or toast and jam (usually sour cherry or strawberry) or honey, a mild white cheese called beyaz peynir, that comes in an enormous variety of forms, black olives, and strong tea. Turks like to drink their tea with sugar, from elegant, handleless glass cups on glass, metal, or porcelain saucers. Some years ago, a Turkish newspaper proudly reported that Turks drank more tea than the English.
Bread:Turks have been making bread from wheat flour since they lived in Central Asia. They make several kinds. This is one of the foods both Turks (and former residents of Turkey) miss most when they are away from home. There is a kind of flat bread that is served with meals. There are the rings of white bread encrusted with sesame seeds, called simits, that you can buy in bakeries or from street sellers who hawk their wares from a kind of tray with legs that can be carried easily and piled high with these soft treats. There are the ubiquitous loaves of bread baked fresh every day, crusty golden on the outside, and soft and white inside. They can be bought warm from the baker’s, for breakfast, or anytime. Turks also make bread topped with cheese and meat — a kind of cousin to pizza, but with a distinctive and delicious Eastern Mediterranean twist. In the Ottoman Empire, the bakers of Istanbul believed that Adam, the first man in the Bible and the Koran, was a baker and their patron saint.
Drinks: Besides tea and coffee, Turks make and consume a variety of other beverages, some familiar to us, and some more exotic. Turkey produces many different kinds of fruits, so some are made into fruit juices such as apple, orange and cherry. The cherry drink is made from a variety of sour cherry different from those generally grown in America, and it makes an appetizing change from the flavor we know. Another drink that is unfamiliar to many Americans is called ayran.
It is made by mixing mild, unflavored yogurt with water. Yogurt is said to be one of the foods that the Turks brought with them from Central Asia. Yogurt was also known in the Middle East from ancient times. Certainly, Turks are great consumers of different varieties of yogurt, to which they attribute the sort of health-giving properties Americans are more likely to attribute to chicken soup. Except that yogurt is supposed to help with upset digestive systems, and chicken soup is presumably an aid to getting over colds and sniffles. Turkey is a producer of alcoholic drinks, which may surprise Americans, since it is also a country of Muslims. Anatolia has been a grape-growing region since ancient times, however, and Turkey continues the tradition of wine production. Good beer is also readily available, as well as an anise-flavored drink, called rakı, that is beloved by Turks, and consumed with food in the evening, with friends. Rakı is clear in the bottle and the glass, until a little water or ice is added. Then the water or melting ice turns the drink a milky color.
Meze: One of the glories of Turkish cuisine is the wide variety of hors d’oeuvres that can be a meal in themselves, or that comprise the courses served to guests before the main course in homes and restaurants, or spread out at buffets. The idea of a number of small dishes served to whet the appetite before the main part of the meal goes back more than two thousand years in the Mediterranean, though in classical times, the food eaten could be somewhat different from today. It might include exotic fare from nightingales and edible iris bulbs to sea urchins and crickets, in additional to more familiar foods such as chickpeas and shellfish.
These days, meze dishes can be seafood or meat dishes, or stuffed vegetables, called dolma, which means “stuffed” in Turkish. Dolma are often squash, tomatoes, eggplant, grape or cabbage leaves, or tender green peppers filled with meat, rice, pine nuts and spices such as cinnamon, mint, or dill. Mezeler also include bean salads, eggplant salad, cucumber and yogurt dishes, and foods like the green and black olives, pilafs, and chick pea spreads similar to ones that Americans may be familiar
with from other Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines. Turks also make many different kinds of börek, a pastry that is filled with cheese, or cheese and meat, and spices, and deep fat fried, or baked.
Seafood: Most Turks love seafood, and are especially fond of taking guests out to restaurants that specialize in cooking it. Such establishments abound in Turkey, and many restaurants specializing in this fare overlook the water. With coasts to the north, west and south, many kinds of fresh fish, as well as shellfish, octopus and calamari, are available, in season, and are finely prepared.
Grilled Meats: Of course, Turkey is the land of kebap (kebab), which likely came with the Turks out of Central Asia. Lamb is the most usual meat eaten in Turkey, although beef and chicken are also available. Even if you are not normally a lover of lamb, try it if you go there. It tastes deliciously different from the lamb sold in this country. The method of butchering is similar to a kosher style, and removes blood from the meat. As in Judaism, pork is proscribed by Islam, so Muslims are not supposed to eat it. Turkish cuisine does not include pork, and it is rare to see it in shops and restaurants, except sometimes those that serve foreigners and the non-Muslim communities.
A typical kind of Turkish “fast food” is the döner kebab that can be bought and eaten while strolling along the street. Döner means “to turn”, and refers to the way the meat turns on the spit to cook. Many thinly sliced layers of meat are packed onto the
spit and grilled. As the outer edge of the meat is finished cooking, it is carved off and served. A host of other kinds of grilled dishes are made, and there are also restaurants that specialize in this type of fare.
Sweets, Desserts and Coffee: Turkish Delight, called lokum in Turkish, is probably the most famous sweet from Turkey. There are many varieties and flavors of lokum, including mint, lemon, and
pistachio. There is even one that is delicately flavored with rose petals.
Baklava is also well known. But there is an extensive and less well-known tradition of desserts, many of which were invented to please the Sultan and the court. Some of the most subtle desserts are milk-based. There is another that sounds strange but is exquisite; it uses chicken breast as one of its ingredients.
Dinner is often concluded with a cup of Turkish coffee. This drink is prepared differently from the drip method typical of American coffee. The beans are ground more finely, to begin with. The ground coffee is then measured, and cold water, and as much sugar as the drinker desires, are added into the small container (a cevze) in which the coffee will be prepared. The water and coffee are heated just to boiling, and the coffee poured into small cups. Some of the foam from the top of the cevze should go into each cup, and the diners are careful to drain the cup only down to the grounds, leaving them in the bottom of the cup.