Having written about the various Mediterranean cuisines (Spain, France, Italy, Morocco, the Maghreb, Lebanon & Greece) Turkey rounds this up geographical tour nicely.
Like Greece and Lebanon, it is in the varied meze (hors d’oeuvres, see pic above) that we begin to see the wealth of Turkish cuisine. Go to a Turkish restaurant and order a meze spread and a large choice of small delicacies promptly materialize at the table with a bottle of raki, the popular aniseed flavored liquor. In Istanbul and other large cities this is known as a “raki table”. Some restaurants offer exclusive meze cuisine. Meze dinners usually last longer than regular dinners, since eating meze and drinking raki often means relaxing, enjoying and sharing the burdens and joys with each other in that spirit and ambiance.
Meze consists of melon, stuffed vine leaves, humus, circassian chicken, Manti (filled pasta), pureed aubergine, Kofte (spiced lamb meatballs), Borek (filled pastries), mackerel stuffed with pilaf etc…these are among the many, many small dishes on offer.
It is of little use to discuss Turkish cuisine without mentioning first their flat bread. Flat bread has been eaten in Turkey for as long as the country culinary memory reaches. It was an important element in the diet even for the nomadic tribes, and during the Seljuk period (from the 11th to the 13th century) in Anatolia there were religious communities that maintained inns and kitchens where they would feed their own members as well as travelers with two main meals a day (as prescribed in the Koran) at which each person would receive four unleavened loaves. Since this bread is simply made out of flour, salt and water it doesn’t require ovens, it can be baked on a round griddle and when dry they can keep for weeks.
Turkish cuisine uses three basic ingredients which endow many dishes with a particular charm, Yufka, Bulgur and rice. Yufka are sheets of pastry rolled out thinly (think Greek fillo pastry) which are used for sweets as well as meze, filled with cheese or spicy meats, spinach etc. Bulgur is simply parched crushed wheat made from boiled grains and used as a side dish to mince meat dishes or kabobs, or else forms a main dish along with vegetables and diced meat. Rice is a component of most main dishes in Turkey: it is cooked by the pilaf or absorption method (akin to risotto) and the liquid here is all important. Here’s a simple recipe, one that be served with a meat or vegetable dish: For about 6 persons you’ll need:
2 tbsp olive oil, 1 medium-sized onion, chopped, 2 garlic cloves, minced,
a pinch of grated ginger, 1 1/2 cups (300g) basmati or any rice you like, 2 1/2 cups (625ml) chicken stock, 2 tbsp sultanas, 2 oz of pine nuts, 400g canned chickpeas, rinsed, drained, juice of 1 lemon, chopped parsley leaves, salt & pepper to taste and a few chopped almonds if you feel like it.
One can not write about Turkish cuisine without referencing their Turkish Delight! Known as Rahat Loukoum (“rest for the throat”) or just Lokum, this thick jelly confectionery is popular in both the middle east and the western world and was inherited from Persia, although its one of Turkey more modern creation and is thought to originate from the 18th century. It is made from corn starch, gelatin sugar, honey and fruit juice and is often tinted pink or green and flavored with rose, banana, and even eggplant liquor. Chopped almonds, pistachio nuts, pine nuts and hazelnuts are often added and when firm it is cut into squares and covered in a mountain of icing sugar (not good for those on a diet!)
Quick Recipe for Turkish Delight. Yes, you can make them easily.
Volumes have been written about the Turkish coffee; its history, its 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, yes he did) may accidentally end up chewing. A few words of caution will have to suffice: 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 matter – the coffee is just an excuse for the occasion!