All the world’s nations and cities are of course unique, each from the other. But Turkey and its queen city, Istanbul, can lay a clear claim to a special kind of uniqueness, a kind of “terroir d’histoire.”
Turkey’s culinary history is really one of migratory cuisines, because the waves of people who washed over the Anatolian peninsula — as the Asian land mass of Turkey has long been known — brought foods and traditions from the lands they left behind, and took away with them the foods and traditions that they found there.
Ottoman scholar Tom Brosnahan wrote: “It is worth traveling to Turkey just to eat. Turkish cuisine is the very heart of eastern Mediterranean cooking, which demands excellent, fresh ingredients and careful, even laborious preparations. The ingredients are often very simple, but are of the highest quality, and in recipes they are harmonized with great care. Turkish farmers, herders and fishers bring forth a wealth of truly superb produce from this agriculturally rich land and its surrounding seas.”
The entire world knows some Turkish foods: shish kebob, rice pilafs, yogurt. But dig a little deeper into Turkish cuisine. It offers interesting preparations with great flavor combined with the healthfulness of the Mediterranean diet. Like all traditional diets, the Turkish way of cooking is largely plant-based, making it just as good for the planet’s health as our own health.
With the Mediterranean diet pyramid as a guide, here are some easy and delicious ways you can bring the healthy, sustainable traditions of the Turkish kitchen into your own.
The Backbone of Turkish Cuisine: Plant Foods
The base of the Mediterranean diet pyramid is a lush combination of plant foods: whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes/beans, olive oil, herbs and spices. These make up the backbone of Turkish cuisine. Let’s take a look at how you can make your kitchen a sustainable plant-based Turkish kitchen, ingredient by ingredient.
In Turkish cookbooks, the word grain is not found in the index. Instead, you’ll need to look for pilafs, bulgur, lamejun, manti, among others.
Pilafs are probably the most familiar among these grain foods. Ayla Algar, in her wonderful book “Classical Turkish Cooking: Traditional Turkish Food for the American Kitchen,” wrote “the word pilaf is of Persian origin and passed into Western usage via Turkish. The word designates a whole variety of dishes made primarily with rice and one or more other ingredients.”
During the Ottoman period (14th to early 20th century), chefs created elaborate pilafs for their sultans (rulers or kings), adding dried fruits, nuts, spices, meat and vegetables. The lesson here is that, like healthy pasta meals, pilafs are like a canvas and are a wonderful way to consume more vegetables or other healthy foods.
Cookbooks and websites, including Oldways, feature a wide variety of pilafs, and you can create your own Turkish pilaf by marrying rice and your favorite vegetables, herbs and spices, possibly adding nuts and dried fruits too. Make it brown rice and your pilaf will be even healthier.
It’s not only rice that can be made into pilafs. As Greg and Lucy Malouf write in their magnificent book on Turkish cuisine “Turquoise:” “Turkey is unquestionably a wheat-oriented cuisine. For many centuries in Anatolia, the bulk of the population consumed wheat as their staple grain, either made into bread or in the form of bulgur — cracked wheat.”
In Oldways’ 12 Great Ways to Use Bulgur, we explain that bulgur wheat is one of the world’s original fast foods, and because the bulgur has been precooked and dried, it only needs to be boiled for about 10 minutes to be ready to eat — about the same time as dry pasta.
In Turkish cooking, bulgur is often combined with lentils and other beans, such as chickpeas, in soups, stews, main dishes or salads. Kisir is a deliciously easy dish to make and highlights bulgur’s “fast food” quality. Chopped onion, parsley, lettuce, green onion, cumin, chiles, black pepper, dried spearmint, olive oil and pomegranate molasses are combined with tomato and red pepper paste and bulgur that is cooked by pouring boiling water over it.
Although the term lamejun is not a familiar one, the preparation is actually something we all know. It’s a Turkish pizza. Chef Ana Sortun explains in her book “Spice” that “as served in Turkey, it is a flatbread, traditionally made with spices, onion and ground lamb that is finely chopped to a paste.” The crust is thin, similar to the traditional pizza from Naples.
This may be a surprise, but according to the International Pasta Organization, Turkey is the fifth largest producer of pasta in the world. Noodles are part of history. Algar explains that “Turks have prepared noodles dishes throughout their recorded history, and with one or two exceptions, these dishes cannot be ascribed to outside influences.”
Most noodle dishes are not so prominent in Turkish cuisine today. However, manti, a tiny doughy pillow (not unlike a very small ravioli) traditionally served with a garlic yogurt sauce, has what Algar calls noodle supremacy because it brings together a very Turkish combination of pasta, yogurt, garlic and mint.
Turks eat more vegetables than people in almost any other country, other than China. In 2000, the Turkish Minister of Agriculture and Forestry announced that on average, per capita consumption of vegetables in Turkey was 269 kilograms (593 pounds) of vegetables, among the highest in the world. For comparison, U.S. per capita consumption of vegetables in 2017 was 113 kilograms (250 pounds) per year. The reason is undoubtedly due to the historical and agricultural traditions.
Turkish food writer Engin Akin explains in her book “Essential Turkish Cuisine” that vegetables and wild greens are widely used in Turkish cooking, cooked either alone (usually with plenty of olive oil) or with meat to extend the precious protein.
As a result, there are countless recipes for vegetable dishes in Turkey. Algar lists vegetable dishes that range from vegetables and dolmas (see below) cooked in olive oil, to vegetable stews and casseroles, to salads, pickles and relishes and ending with vegetable pastes (also see below).
Dolmas and Sarmas
Stuffed vegetables, such as stuffed peppers or eggplant are called dolmas. They can be served cold or hot. Cold dolmas usually have no meat, and meats are often stuffed into vegetables or vine leaves when dolmas are served warm. Wrapped vegetables are called sarmas, the most familiar are cooked vine leaves stuffed with vegetables, grains and meat.
Red peppers are an important ingredient in Turkish cooking. Peppers first came to Turkey from the Americas; now red pepper flakes are exported from Turkey to America. Produced in southeastern Turkey, Maraȿ (the s is pronounced as sh’) pepper flakes are dried in the sun and then ground. Journalist and cookbook author Ayfer Unsal writes that “in Turkish food, pepper is the number one ingredient to be added to dishes.”
You may be familiar with Aleppo peppers; Maraȿ peppers are identical, just produced across the border from Aleppo, Syria, in Maraȿ, Turkey.
Red Pepper Paste
A cousin of tomato paste, red pepper paste is made from fresh red peppers. Unsal explains that fresh red pepper is ground and laid under sunshine to be cooked by the strong heat of the summer sun. The juicy red pepper is stirred while it is under the sun, and after a few days it becomes a thick pepper paste. With added olive oil and salt, the red pepper paste is stored in a glass jar. This paste is used especially in bulgur dishes.
If you can’t find red pepper paste in your grocery store or if you don’t live near a Middle Eastern grocery store, you can order Turkish red pepper paste online.
Beans are used universally and Turkish cooking is no exception. Like red peppers and tomatoes, dried beans came from the New World. Akin writes that the classic recipe for beans can be a thick soup or a dinner-plate dish served with rice. Not surprisingly, the recipe features tomatoes, tomato paste and red peppers along with the beans.
Nuts play an important role in Turkish cooking, whether they’re used in savory or sweet preparations. Most prominent are almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts, pistachios, and walnuts. They are added to pilafs, stuffed vegetables, sauces, soups, meat fillings and desserts.
The famous baklava from Gaziantep, Turkey — made at Iman Cagdas — is made almost exclusively from pistachios, something that Gaziantep (or Antep) is known for.
Bringing all these ingredients together falls to the splendors of extra virgin olive oil and spices. Regarding olive oil: Ayla Algar notes “on the culinary plane, I must stress that olive oil is not at all a cooking medium, but a culinary ingredient that imparts unique and irreplaceable flavor to everything with which it is cooked or combined.”
Turks even have whole families of dishes that are called “olive oil dishes,” in which no meat is used.
In the introduction to chef Ana Sortun’s wonderful book “Spice, Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean,” she writes “what makes each country’s food taste unique? What gives it life? In the Arabic foods around the Mediterranean and Middle East, the answer is spice.”
In the program book for Oldways 2015 Culinaria in Turkey, Sortun described the essential Turkish pantry, which includes these spices and herbs, among a few other ingredients:
— Mastic, a resin from a tree that grows in Chios, Greece, very close to Turkey.
— Sumac, slight sour crimson colored berry.
— Tahini, sesame paste.
— Sahhleb, orchid root.
— Dried spearmint.
— Maraȿ pepper.
— Red pepper paste.
— Baharat — this word literally means “spice,” and in Turkish cooking, it’s a blend of 7 to 15 different spices.
— Nigella seeds.
Because spices have such high antioxidant activity, the colorful and aromatic spices at home in Turkish cuisine can also boost the nutrition of a meal as well.
The Maloufs write that “Turkey is a nation of yogurt lovers. Most of the country’s milk production goes towards making yogurt. Yogurt is one of the most ancient foods known to man. Evidence exists of fermented milk products being produced almost 4,500 years ago, and the Turks are just one of many peoples who like to claim responsibility for its creation.”
Cookbook author Sarah Woodward explains in her book “The Ottoman Kitchen,” that in Turkey and the Middle East, the yogurt drink ayran is popular. To make it in a tall glass, Woodward fills half the glass with thick yogurt and then tops with iced water, adds ice cubes and a little salt and some mint. It’s ready to drink in five minutes.
Coffee and Tea
When you’re in Turkey, you’ll be served tea almost everywhere. If you buy a rug, the shop owner will certainly serve you several cups of tea. Business meetings always feature someone bringing in a tea tray.
Woodward writes that “Turkish tea is traditionally served in small, tulip shaped glasses, with a rounded bowl at the bottom. The glass is placed on a saucer (often decorated with lurid flower patterns), together with two or three sugar lumps for you to add to taste. If your taste is Turkish, then the sweeter the better. In the bazaars, the tea-carriers are a familiar sight, swinging metal trays loaded with glasses at a seemingly impossible angle.
Coffee has its own traditions. As Sortun notes, “coffee plays a special role in both the culture and cuisine of turkey. Beans are ground to an ultrafine texture, and the coffee itself can be served with very little — or very much — sugar. Usually served after meals, Turkish coffee is meant to be enjoyed with others, and the reading of fortunes in the grounds is one important part of the social ritual.”
Brought together, these ingredients are the foundation of Turkish cooking. Whether they’re transformed into pilafs, borek (pastry filled with cheese and vegetables and meat), kofte (bulgur-based pate or dough made into meatballs), manti, sarma or dolma, these dishes and others are the traditions that make Turkish cuisine both healthy and delicious, and with its focus on plant foods, a positive step toward more sustainable diets.
Why is this important? Because food matters. It matters because the food choices each of us makes have important consequences for the environmental future of the earth, important influences on personal and public health, and powerful impacts on the integrity of our cultures and traditions.
When we organized Oldways more than thirty years ago, we adopted a mission that intends to influence the way people make their food choices — healthy for both people and for the earth. The Turkish Mediterranean diet — full of history, culture and great tastes — is a healthy and a sustainable diet for the future.
We have only scratched the surface. There is so much more to learn about the cuisines of Turkey. One easy and fun way to do this is to sign up for the Oldways Turkey Culinaria with chef Ana Sortun from March 20-27, 2022. We’ll spend time on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast in Antalya, Turkey, and then move onto incredible, exotic and interesting Istanbul. Click here to learn more!
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