Saturday, December 08, 2007

Turkish Food Primer from N.Y.Times

As nomads, the Turks were limited by what the land offered and by what could be prepared over a crude open fire, so it's not a stretch to understand how kebaps and köfte became the centerpieces of Turkish cooking. Turkish food today concentrates on simple combinations, few ingredients, and fresh produce.

With access to vast cupboards stocked with ingredients from the four corners of the empire, the palace chefs developed a more complex cuisine. The majority of these recipes, recorded in Arabic script, were regrettably lost in the language reforms. Some Ottoman favorites have made it to us nevertheless, like the hünkar begendi (the sultan was pleased), imam bayaldihanim göbegi (lady's navel), a syrupy dessert with a thumbprint in the middle. These have become staples in many run-of-the-mill restaurants, but true Ottoman cuisine is difficult to come by. Several restaurants in Istanbul have researched the palace archives to restore some of those lost delicacies to the modern table, providing a rare opportunity to sample the artistry and intricate combinations of exotic flavors in the world's first fusion food. The Turkish kitchen is always stocked with only the freshest vegetables, the most succulent fruits, the creamiest of cheeses and yogurt and the best cuts of meat. But, unless you're a pro like the chefs to the Sultans, whose lives depended on pleasing the palate of their leader, it takes a lot of creativity to turn such seemingly simple ingredients into dishes fit for a king. (the priest fainted; Barbara Cartland might have likened it to a woman's "flower"), and

A typical Turkish meal begins with a selection of mezes, or appetizers. These often become a meal in themselves, accompanied by an ample serving of raki, that when taken together, form a recipe for friendship, laughter, and song. The menu of mezes often includes several types of eggplant, called patlican; ezme, a fiery hot salad of red peppers; sigara böregi, fried cheese "cigars"; and dolmalar, anything from peppers or vine leaves stuffed with rice, pine nuts, cumin, and fresh mint.

The dilemma is whether or not to fill up on these delectables or save room for the kebaps, a national dish whose stature rivals that of pasta in Italy. While izgara means "grilled," the catchall phrase kebap simply put, means "roasted," and denotes an entire class of meats cooked using various methods. Typical kebaps include lamb "shish"; spicy Adana kebap, a spicy narrow sausage made of ground lamb; döner kebap, slices of lamb cooked on a vertical revolving spit; patlican kebap, slices of eggplant and lamb grilled on a skewer; and the artery-clogging Iskender kebap, layers of pide, tomatoes, yogurt, and thinly sliced lamb drenched in melted butter. Turks are equally nationalistic over their köfte, Turkey's answer to the hamburger: flat or round little meatballs served with slices of tomato and whole green chili peppers. But even though signs for kebap houses may mar the view, Turkish citizens are anything but carnivores, preferring instead to fill up on grains and vegetables. Saç kavurmamanti, a meat-filled ravioli, dumpling, or kreplach,Pide is yet another interpretation of pizza made up of fluffy oven-baked bread topped with a variety of ingredients and sliced in strips. Lahmacun is another version of the pizza, only this time the bread is as thin as a crepe and lightly covered with chopped onions, lamb, and tomatoes. Picking up some "street food" can be a great diversion, especially in the shelter of some roadside shack where the corn and gözleme -- a freshly made cheese or potato (or whatever) crepe that is the providence of expert rolling pin-wielding village matrons -- are hot off the grill. represents a class of casseroles sautéed or roasted in an earthenware dish that, with the help of an ample amount of velvety Turkish olive oil, brings to life the flavors of ingredients like potatoes, zucchini, tomatoes, eggplant, and beef chunks. No self-respecting gourmand should leave Turkey without having had a plate of adapted to the local palate by adding a garlic-and-yogurt sauce.

Desserts fall into two categories: baklava and milk-based. Baklava, a type of dessert made of thin layers of pastry dough soaked in syrup, is a sugary sweet bomb best enjoyed around teatime, although several varieties are made so light and fluffy that you'll be tempted to top off dinner with a sampling. The milk-based desserts have no eggs or butter and are a guilt-free pick-me-up in the late afternoon hours, although there's no bad time to treat yourself to some creamy sütlaç (rice pudding). The sprinkling of pistachio bits is a liberal addition to these and many a Turkish dessert, while comfort food includes the irmik helva, a delicious yet simple family tradition of modestly sweet semolina, pine nuts, milk, and butter (okay, I lied about the guilt-free part).

So what's the deal with Turkish delight? Otherwise known as lokum, this sweet candy is made of cornstarch, nuts, syrup, and an endless variety of flavorings to form a skwooshy tidbit whose appeal seems to be more in the gift giving than on its own merit.

A Punishment Worse Than the Crime? -- In Turkey, tripe soup, called Iskembe Çorbasi or Korkoreç, is a widely accepted remedy for a hangover.

You'll Never Count Sheep Again -- Bus drivers in Turkey abide by an unwritten rule never to eat cacik -- a salad of yogurt, cucumber, and garlic, often served as a soup -- while on duty. The dish is believed to be a surefire, and natural, cure for insomnia.


Rather than the question, "Would you like something to drink?" Turkish hospitality leaps immediately to the "What?" Tea, called çay (chai) in Turkish, is not so much a national drink as it is a ritual. Boil the water incorrectly and you're in for trouble. Let the tea steep without prior rinsing and you've committed an unforgivable transgression. What's amazing is that so many tea drinkers manage to maintain white teeth, and as you'll see, some don't. Tea is served extremely hot and strong in tiny tulip-shaped glasses, accompanied by exactly two sugar cubes. The size of the glass ensures that the tea gets consumed while hot, and before you slurp your final sip, a new glass will arrive. If you find the tea a bit strong, especially on an empty stomach, request that it be "açik" or "opened," so that the ratio of water to steeped tea is increased.

The coffee culture is a little less prevalent but no less steeped in tradition. Early clerics believed it to be an intoxicant and consequently had it banned. But the kahvehane (coffeehouse) refused to go away, and now the sharing of a cup of coffee is an excuse to prolong a discussion, plan, negotiate, or just plain relax. Turkish coffee is ground to a fine dust, boiled directly in the correct quantity of water, and served as is. Whether you wait for the grinds to settle or down the cup in one shot is entirely an individual choice, although if you leave the muddy residue at the bottom of the cup, you may be able to coax somebody to read your fortune.

There are two national drinks: raki and ayran. Raki is an alcoholic drink distilled from raisins and then redistilled with aniseed. Even when diluted with water, this "lion's milk" still packs a punch, so drink responsibly! Raki is enjoyed everywhere, but is particularly complementary to a meal of mezes.

Ayran is a refreshing beverage made by diluting yogurt with water. Westerners more accustomed to a sweet-tasting yogurt drink may at first be put off by the saltiness of ayran, but when mentally prepared, it's impossible to dismiss the advantages of this concoction, especially after a dehydrating afternoon trudging through shadeless, dusty ruins.

And Not a Starbucks in Sight! -- As a result of the Ottoman's second unsuccessful siege on Vienna, many of the army supplies were left behind in the retreat, including sacks and sacks of coffee beans. Believing them to be sacks of animal waste, the Viennese began to burn the sacks, until a more worldly citizen, aware of the market value of the bean, got a whiff and promptly saved the lot. He later opened up the first coffeehouse in Vienna.

A Restaurant Primer

The idiosyncrasies of a foreign culture can create some frustrating experiences, especially when they get in the way of eating. In Turkey, dining out in often boisterous groups has traditionally been the province of men, and a smoke-filled room that reeks of macho may not be the most relaxing prospect for a meal. A woman dining alone will often be whisked away to an upstairs "family salon," called the aile salonu, where -- what else -- families, and particularly single women, can enjoy a night out in peace and quiet. Take advantage of it, and don't feel discriminated against; it's there for your comfort.

Restaurants are everywhere, and although the name restoran was a European import used for the best establishments, nowadays practically every type of place goes by that name. Cheap, simple, and often charming meals can be had at a family-run place called a lokanta, where the food is often prepared in advance (hazir yemek) and presented in a steam table. A meyhane is a tavern full of those smokin' Turks I mentioned earlier, whereas a birahane is basically a potentially unruly beer hall. Both are said to be inappropriate for ladies; however, recently, some meyhanes have morphed into civilized places for a fun and sophisticated night out.

Now that you've picked the place, it's time to sit down and read the menu, right? Wrong. Not all restaurants automatically provide menus, instead offering whatever's seasonal or the specialty of the house. If you'd feel more comfortable with a menu, don't be shy about asking, and politely say, "Menü var mi?" Mezes (appetizers) are often brought over on a platter, and the protocol is to simply point at the ones you want. Don't feel pressured into accepting every plate the waiter offers (none of it is free) or into ordering a main dish; Turks often make a meal out of an array of mezes. When ordering fish, it's perfectly acceptable to have your selection weighed for cost; if the price is higher than you planned to pay, either choose a less expensive fish or barter for price per weight. Some restaurants do have fixed costs per weight, however.

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