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Ethnic Cuisine: Turkey
Turkey is a unique republic located on the eastern end of the Mediterranean. While most of her citizens are Islamic, the government of Turkey is both democratic and secular. Turkey has always been the meeting point for European and Middle Eastern neighbors, becoming an important link between east and west. Consequently, her customs and cuisine are modern, and at the same time historic. Turkey has often been called the crossroads of Europe. Over the centuries the Hittites, Seljuks, Persians, Greeks and Romans have ruled the area.
It was during the rise of the Ottoman Empire, (1453-1909) which at its height (1453-1650) extended into Eastern Europe, Egypt, and Inner Asia, that the genius of Turkish cooking had its greatest influence. Centuries of Ottoman empire rule helped to spread Turkish cuisine and ingredients into Eastern Europe and throughout the Middle East. Many well-known recipes show an influence from Turkish cuisine: yogurt salads, fish in olive oil, stuffed vegetables and vine leaves, and syrupy filo dough desserts.
Turkish food is regarded as one of the world's great cuisines. Today, travelers are discovering Turkey, and dining well. The Mediterranean diet, which includes Turkey's, is considered a healthy diet to follow. "Everyone loves Turkish food," a ceramics dealer confided in Istanbul's Grand Bazaar.
Despite the influence of western foods and even fast food chains in the larger cities, Turkey zealously preserves her culinary heritage. In the last decade, chefs of main hotels and international food symposiums have helped to re-introduce Turkish cuisine to the world, educating her citizens about a proud food heritage.
Blessed with a huge country that straddles Europe and Asia, Turkey's varied geography provides a seasonal climate that allows tea cultivation in the cool north and hot pepper and melon plantings in the south. The Black Sea, Sea of Marmara, Aegean, and southern Mediterranean provide Turkey with boundless fish and shellfish. Turkey is one of the few countries in the world that has been self sustaining, producing all its own food.
Vineyards are cultivated for the famous yellow sultana raisins and wine. In southern cities, it is customary to see grapevines trailed upwards along apartment balconies, providing shade and fruit at each level. Herds of sheep and goats proliferate. Lamb and chicken are the main meats. Forbidden in Islam, pork is absent. Under classic ruins of Roman columns, ancient olive, fig, and pistachio trees embellish a beautiful landscape, adding to the air of antiquity.
The Ottoman courts passed laws to regulate the freshness of food. Modern Turkish food is notably fresh. Leftovers are uncommon in a household. Newly baked bread is a staple. Seasonal vegetables and fruits abound, and are served during the height of their growing periods. Turks love their famous eggplants, spring peaches, summer figs, fall quince, and delight throughout the year in olives, dried apricots, and all type of nuts. Turkey exports most of Europe's hazelnuts, or filberts.
To dine on Turkish food is to dine on centuries old recipes. Ancient Greeks introduced wine cultivation in Anatolia, eastern Turkey. The Persians introduced sweets, sugar, and rice. Skewered and roasted meats, the famous shis-kebab, show the nomadic heritage; as do flatbreads which are baked upon an overturned griddle called a sac. The sac is similar to a flattened wok. "Yogurt" is a Turkish word, her most famous contribution to world cuisine. Yogurt made its way north to Bulgaria and Eastern Europe during the Ottoman occupation. Olive oil production is thousands of years old and part of the whole Mediterranean culture.
In Topkapi, the sultan's palace in Istanbul, chefs perfected these dishes with specialized recipes. Chefs would spend whole careers refining recipes such as pilafs, milk puddings, and desserts. Certain villages were known for producing chefs who would work in the palace. As a result of this imperial cuisine, the general population had a raised expectation and appreciation for excellent food. This appreciation continues today.
It is common in the markets to taste before you buy. Holes cut into melons allow the shopper to taste first. Delivery boys bring tea on copper trays to shoppers while they sample the peppers, spices, and fruits. Sacks of linden tea, dried fruits, sea sponges, henna, jars of amber honey, olives, and spice blends compete for attention.
As a traveler in Turkey, or a cook here at home, recipes are easily identifiable and not difficult to prepare. The beauty of Turkish cooking is in its affordability, use of fresh ingredients, and ease of basic cooking techniques. Dishes are simply presented, not hidden under sauces, or excessive presentations. Classic recipes from centuries of palace and home cooking are well known to all home cooks. The most common seasonings are: dill, mint, parsley, cinnamon, garlic, and the lemony sumac. Yogurt is a common side condiment. Another southern condiment is Aleppo pepper flakes, or "pul biber." This semi moist, hot, flaked red pepper is sprinkled upon foods before eating. Vegetarians and meat eaters easily find much to choose from on the menu.
Turkish cuisine also has many specialties and variations: there are at least forty ways to prepare eggplant alone. Unique are the strings of dried, hollowed out eggplant. It is reconstituted and stuffed with rice in winter. Honeys, preserves, nut mixtures, and cheeses round out a menu.
The first meal of the day is breakfast. A typical Turkish breakfast is fresh tomatoes, white cheese, black olives, bread with honey and preserves, and sometimes an egg.
Lunch often will include a rice or bulgar pilaf dish, lamb or chicken baked with peppers and eggplant, and fresh fish grilled with lemon. A popular lamb cut is prizolla. These are extra thin cut lamb chops which are seasoned with sumac, thyme, and quickly grilled. Favorites include sucuk, a spicy sausage, and pastirma, a sun dried cumin-fenugreek coated preserved beef. It is sliced thin much like pastrami. For lunch or dinner, soups are central in Turkish cuisine. In addition to the famous red lentil soup, there is a well-known soup with the exotic name of Wedding Soup made with lamb shanks in an egg broth.
Dinners will most commonly start with mezeler, (singular, mezze) or appetizers. Mezeler are Turkish specialties, showing off the originality and skill of a restaurant. Roasted pureed eggplant, fine chopped salads, miniature filled pasta called "manti," pepper and turnip pickles, mackerel stuffed with pilaf, sardines rolled in grape leaves, and "kofte", spiced lamb meatballs, all tantalize the diner.
One unique specialty of Turkish cuisine is the "zeytinagli" or olive oil course. Foods such as peppers or tomatoes are prepared with olive oil. These are typically served at room temperature.
Dessert is commonly melon and fresh fruit. Desserts made with filo dough, puddings of rose water and saffron, are favored. Another favorite is dried apricots drenched in syrup, stuffed with buffalo milk cheese and garnished with pistachio nuts. All sweets are usually served with Turkish coffee. Turks are credited with the spread of coffee throughout their empire and later Europe.
During the day the popular drink is tea, served in crystal tulip shaped glasses. Chai houses are popular among the village men, while coffee houses cater towards the young moderns in cities. Two popular winter drinks are: cinnamon flavored sahlep, a drink made from powdered iris root, and boza, a fermented barley drink. Raki, an anise liqueur is the national drink of Turkey. Sour cherry juice, turnip juice, rose tea and "elma chai", apple peel tea are all popular.
In restaurants, the waiter will help the traveler select a meal, with breads and olives always available. Put your dinner into the hands of the restaurant and you will not be disappointed. Regional specialties abound, ask for them. In southern Turkey, Adana is famous for "Adana kebab" a spiced minced meat. Istanbul is known for "midye" or pilaf stuffed mussel meze. The Aegean region near Izmir, is known for its figs, fish, and peaches. In some restaurants, lemon cologne is available after dining to pour over hands as a refreshing cleanser.
Unique specialties of Turkish cuisine make souvenirs from a trip. "Lokum," a gelled sweet often mixed with hazelnuts or pistachios, is cut into cubes and rolled in powdered sugar. In the United States it is commonly called Turkish delight. Rose, banana, and eggplant liqueur are savored. Sweet hot red pepper paste, Muhammara, notes the Arabic influence. Rose petal or sour morello cherry jam, fig and quince preserves are popular. Pulverized Turkish coffee, black Risi chai or tea, and raki are happy reminders of alfresco dinners. A thicker version of filo dough, called, "yufka" can be found in middle eastern markets. All these food specialties are so loved, import grocers of Turkish foods keep them available in the United States for the expatriate and nostalgic traveler. All can be brought back, or purchased in the states to recreate a memorable meal.