Turkish Delights

Having written about the various Mediterranean cuisines (Spain, France, Italy, Morocco, the Maghreb, Lebanon & Greece) Turkey rounds this up geographical tour nicely.

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Under the Ottoman empire, the Palace Cuisine, as it was known then, led to a specialization that had a lasting influence on culinary art. Turkey is well known for an abundance and diversity of produce due to its rich flora & fauna, its fertile maritime coastline and rugged, mountainous regions. Additionally the Turkish cuisine sits at the cross-roads of the Far-East and the Mediterranean which would have the advantage of giving the seasoned traveler a foretaste of Asia.

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.

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Here’s a quick recipe for a Pide (flat bread with yeast & sesame seeds – see pic above) that can be baked in an ordinary oven: for one large loaf you’ll need 500 grams of strong white flour (roughly 4 1/2 cups), 1 oz of yeast, a pinch of sugar, 250 ml of lukewarm water (1 1/4 cups), a generous pinch of salt, 1 egg yolk, 1 tbsp olive oil and 1 oz (30 grams) of sesame seeds. Dissolve the yeast with a pinch of sugar in half the water. Sift the flour into a working bowl, add the salt and the dissolved yeast, and stir well. Add the remaining water and knead the dough until smooth and elastic, and no longer sticky. Cover and leave in a warm place for at least 20 minutes. Preheat your oven to 400F (200Celsius roughly). Shape the dough by hand (it’s fun) on a floured surface. Make sure you run your finger through the middle to make a slight hollow, and then dip it into oil to make a lozenge pattern. Place the dough on a oiled baking tray. Paint the surface of the bread with a mixture of oil and egg yolk, and scatter the sesame seeds all over it. Bake for 20 minutes or until the bread is golden brown. There, you have it.

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.

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Heat the olive oil in a wide, deep, non-stick saucepan over medium heat and cook onion, stirring, for about 5 minutes or until starting to soften. Add the garlic, ginger and cook for 30 seconds. Add the rice and stir to coat. Pour in the stock, then cover and cook over low heat for about 15 minutes or until all the liquid has been absorbed and the rice is cooked. Remove the lid, stir through sultanas, pine nuts and chickpeas, and cook for a further 2 minutes to warm through. Stir in the lemon juice and the parsley. Add salt & pepper, and serve.

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.

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Bring ½ cup of cold water, 1 cup sugar and the grated rinds of one orange and one lemon or lime to the boil. When boiled, add 2 tablespoons of gelatin dissolved in warm water and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat, stir in 2 tablespoons of a blackcurrant, lemon or red currant jelly, the juice of the orange and lemon or lime. Add additional flavoring or any kind of nuts you like. Pour into a shallow, square wet tin and chill until set. When firm, cut into squares using a hot knife and toss pieces into icing sugar and eat immediately or store in an airtight container. Voila! Next, coffee, Turkish coffee of course.

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!

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