Journey to the heart of Turkish Cuisine

People are always eating and drinking around the clock in Istanbul: grabbing chewy sesame-crusted simit (bagels) on every street corner, sipping refreshing freshly-squeezed pomegranate juice, small glasses of sweetened tea or thick mastic-flavored Turkish coffee on their way to work, stopping at hole-in-the-wall döner and köfte joints for a quick snack or slurping bowls of chickpea and lentil, tripe or spinach and yogurt soup at tiny Çorbacı soup shops at lunch time. In the afternoon, it’s customary to have a sugar hit of honeyed yogurt or kaymak (clotted water-buffalo cream) or myriad pastries like baklav and kadayıf dripping with honey and nuts. The late-night crowd around Istanbul’s equivalent of Oxford Street, Istiklâl Caddesi, are addicted to the famed ‘wet’ ıslak burger (a burger steamed in its bun with sweet tomato sauce) or chicken and pilaf carts where vendors pile a paper plate with a mound of rice, chicken, chickpeas, pickles and ketchup.

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My sketch (Top right): Pide joints abound in Istanbul. At the best ones, there’s usually a queue for this filling flatbread snack- boat-shaped or round Turkish ‘pizzas’with cheese, spinach, spicy sucuk sausages, egg and pepper fillings. During Ramadan, plain pide is also eaten sprinkled with nigella or black cumin seeds.

You could spend a lifetime visiting all the neighborhoods and villages of Istanbul trying the different regional foodstuffs that reflect the diverse immigrant nature ofthe populace- Greek mezze, Albanian fried liver, Circassian chicken, Mongolian mantı ravioli and spicy Bulgarian sausages to name just a few- and realise that food and drink, as much as culture and history inform the city’s daily rhythms.

Ottoman cuisine began to flourish when Constantinople was captured in 1453 by Sultan Mehmed II ‘The Conqueror’and, by the time his original Topkapi Palace was finished in 1478, food played an integral role in court life. A visit tot he Topkapi kitchens today reveals a rambling kitchen complex with massive chimneys and domes dominating the rooftop where over a thousand chefs prepared exquisite dishes that have become the backbone of Turkish cuisine today. The opulent banquets where up to 300 dishes were sometimes served to courtiers and visiting dignitaries have been well-documented by Grand Tour-ists and bear testament to the complexity of Ottoman cuisine which took recipes and ingredients from its vast empire and refined them in these kitchens. When Ataturk took power in Turkey in 1923 and began to modernize the country, the Palace kitchens were closed and many of its chefs opened the restaurants and specialist sweet shops that you can still see scattered around the city today.

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In the sketch (bottom left) : Borek are pastries made with filo, stuffed with a variety of fillings and then baked or fried. You can make these popular fried, cigar shaped borek with other fillings such as aubergine or meat

The classic Turkish breakfast is really just a much raunchier, perhaps more sensual version of a Scandinavian smorgasbord buffet. Its simplest form is a repast found throughout the Mediterranean world – a few olives, sliced tomatoes and cucumber and some cheese, all drizzled with ripe olive oil and a sprinkle of sun-dried mountain herbs and spices.

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The Turks excel at grilling meat. There’s everything from doner grilled vertically or horizontally and served every which way, to spicy adana kebabs and the addictive yogurtlu where kofte are piled onto sliced flatbread moistened with yogurt and spicy tomato sauce.

Smoked Aubergine Dip

Serves 6

Ingredients:

  • 2 large aubergines
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
  • 4 tbsp thick yogurt
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 2 tbsp fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, finely chopped
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions:

Prick the aubergines all over with a skewer. Using tongs, carefully hold them over a gas flame or charcoal grill, turning occasionally, until they feel tender and the skin has blackened- about 20 minutes. Leave them to cool.

Place the aubergines on a chopping board and scoop out the flesh into a bowl, discarding the skin and stems. Add the lemon juice and set it aside for 15 minutes. Now transfer the aubergines to a sieve and allow it to drain, using a spoon to squeeze out any excess liquid. Transfer this pulp to another bowl, add the olive oil and yogurt and season generously with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Use a pestle and mortar to pound the garlic cloves and a little sea salt to a paste. Add it to the aubergine mixture with the parsley and stir well. Just before serving, drizzle with a little olive oil.

Source: Eat Istanbul A Journey to the Heart of Turkish Cuisine by Andy Harris & David Loftus. Quadrille Publishing.

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