Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Turkish Food Part 1: Turkish Cuisine starting with Breakfast

I figure that I have evaded writing about food for long enough at this point, so I leave you with bated breath no longer. I will begin to chip away at the Turkish cuisine with a series of blog posts put up in no certain structure or time frame-haphazardly, if you will. So, let us start with the basics, and perhaps dispel one myth up front.

To start, Ottoman cuisine has been rich with meat and butter fats since Mehmed the Conqueror was a mere twinkle in his mother's eye. It was only the Jews and the Christians south of Izmir that used olive oils in their foods, something that has become very common in the recent past among Mediterranean geographies. In fact, much of the Middle East used meat and butter fats for their dishes, and this practice has survived into modernity-who doesn't use butter! To expound a bit, a traditional meat fat that is widely used is fat of a sheep's tail (Kuyruk yağı). It is most often used in preparing meat dishes and kebabs, but if you're feeling frisky, you can use it to flavor many other typical Turkish dishes. Many pilafs are made with meat stocks and fatty substances, so throw some sheep's tail fat in the mix just to say that you did!

Before we delve any further into discussion, let's make a distinction between Turkish and Ottoman cuisine. First off, the Ottomans took over a vast territory beginning in about 1299 AD, which marked the emergence of Ottoman activity against the Byzantines. After many successes during the 1300s, the Ottomans managed to take control of Anatolia and much of the western shore of the Mediterranean. Their momentum swept Constantinople in 1453 and led to a long period of expansionism and prosperity in the already large, Ottoman Empire. They ruled much of the land in Southeastern Europe as far as the Balkans, and also maintained control over much of the Middle East and Northern Africa. They almost made it past modern day Austria in 1683, if it wasn't for those meddling Viennese (and their silly dog too!...someone will get that reference). After their defeat at the Battle of Vienna, they never recovered and expansion into Europe ceased. The Ottomans had control of a large, gangly nation of very diverse and independent cultures. So, why am I telling you all of this? Precisely because a bunch of independent cultures cannot have a unified cuisine. Ottoman cuisine was a mixture of everything. Many of these cuisines that made up the Ottoman cuisine remained within micronodal culinary fabrics, hard pressed to escape their cultural boundaries, even to today. Yes, Istanbul is a big melting pot for a lot of it, so let's get back to some of the distinct regional varieties that converge on this two-continent metropolis (we'll label that Turkish cuisine for now).

Turkish cuisine is fairly diverse, despite some peoples' view of a kebab-centric culture. As with any cuisine, fast-food and mass-consumerism is partially usurping the traditions of old. There's a saying that goes, "all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." For this year, I'm going to alter this a bit and say, "all that is necessary for the return of culinary tradition is for Ethan Woods to research his butt off about cuisine and then advertise that knowledge." So here it goes...

Turkish Breakfast
In my experience, a typical Turkish breakfast consists of any of the following:

1) Fresh parsley, tomato, and cucumber salad (perhaps with some fresh mint or green peppers) topped with a squeeze of lemon





2) Cheese! Now this isn't your ordinary slap-me-on-a-burger cheese. This is the kind of cheese that screams "I've been sitting in an open air barn fermenting for 10 years!" Ok, maybe that's an exaggeration. Kaşar is a typical Turkish cheese that is made from sheep's milk. There are two types, fresh kaşar and eski kaşar (old kaşar). Both types taste mildly fatty and have a warm, bite to them. That is, they have the sort of bite that is like a baby lamb nibbling on your ear (Does that help?) The old kaşar has more of this mild bite than the fresh. Another pervasive cheese is beyaz peynir (white cheese). These cheese exists in a wide variety of strengths, but a common denominator among them all is that they are salty and light, similar to a Greek feta cheese. It can be used in salads or put in a number of different Turkish breads, which I will cover later.
3) Olives. Olives and olive oil breath life into the modern-day Turkish cuisine. They can be found in every market, around every corner, and even rolling all over the floor, unaware of life around them. They come in greens, blacks, browns, mauve (kidding...I just wanted to say mauve), and mixtures thereof. Many times, the olives are made into a tapenade and spread on bread or eaten with cheese. (To the left is the breakfast I had at Erol's mothers house every day)


4) Bread. No breakfast, or meal for that matter, is complete without a healthy dose of carbs in the form of bread. As you may imagine, there are a gazillion different kinds, so I won't expound much further other than to say that white bread is very, very common. It's funny to think that white bread was only reserved for the aristocracy back during the early empires: Carolingian, Ottoman, Roman, etc. My how the tables have turned!

5) Of course there needs to be something to slather on all of that bread. So for that purpose, Turkish people employ the fruity-goodness of jams and jellies, and the golden-sweetness of honey.

6) Eggs. Usually soft boiled, topped with salt and pepper. Add oregano and thyme if you're feeling like a true Mediterranean chap.

7) Don't forget the hot black tea. Will someone please drink an iced tea for me back home! It's getting a bit ridiculous drinking hot tea when it's 100 degrees outside.

8) Turkish coffee. Turkish coffee is finely ground coffee, boiled directly in the water (with milk or sugar), then served turbid (with a glass of water sometimes to battle against the black tooth). The Turkish word for breakfast, kahvalti, literally means before coffee...so, you might say coffee is important in Turkish culture.




9) Simit. Simit is a circular sesame-covered bread with a whole in the middle...think bagel. It is often a little less dense than a bagel but varies in consistency and outer crunchiness. These are sold everywhere at all times of day. Street vendors everywhere sell it and it's extremely cheap...about 75 turkish cents (kurus). That's about $0.50, wow!!

10) Soups. Soups used to be more ubiquitous, but have gone down in popularity. Nonetheless, they still exist as breakfast stuffs every so often.

11) Yogurt. This is the white, unsweetened, unsalted stuff. Add sugar in front of a Turkish person at your own peril!

Of course, there are mixes and matches of breakfast foods all over the place. Personally, I've been eating a lot of muesli topped with apricots, peaches, grapes, and assorted dried fruits. I'm sure there are some weirdos out there who eat sardines in pig-skin sauce, who knows? BUT, these are the staples of a Turkish breakfast. Do try this at home.

Quick update on where I am: Right now I am sitting in a Turkish kitchen writing this blog post. Today I made Focaccia and my own recipe for rice pudding, American pie style with cinnamon and apples. Tonight I will prepare two steaks that have been marinating in black pepper, salt, worcestershire sauce and garlic for three days. I hope Nafiz likes them! Nafiz is the guy who is letting me stay at his apartment.

I'll get back to you with more of the Turkish Cuisine soon...

Thursday, July 23, 2009

L'ola Lokantasi...in depth

Like I outlined in my last post, L'ola is a Spanish/Mediterranean fusion restaurant. They use lots of saffron, mint, parsley, onion, and, of course, garlic...who could forget that one?

The restaurant is located in Arnavutkoy, a little town (city section) right along the Bosphorus. It almost has a view, haha...if only that darned Abracadabra restaurant wasn't in the way. If you are looking at the picture on the left, the water is about 150 ft. to the right. My friend, the cheese man is directly behind where I'm taking the photo. The cheese man speaks German, so we can interact a little bit.


The restaurant is very classy and has a beautiful interior. It sits just below a boutique hotel called Villa Denise. This hotel has about 5 rooms and has recently been popular among the American Jazz singers coming to sing in the Jazz Festival. Both establishments are owned and run by Aydin-bey, who is shown below sitting with Erol. Aydin-bey is the proud father of a Hamilton student, Zeynep. He is also into classic cars and used to be the president of Istanbul's Classic Car Association. I think he's up for re-election soon. Very cool! He told me if I do a good enough job in the kitchen, he'll give me a Rolls Royce!...pshh, I wish. Aydin-bey is extremely jovial and I am very thankful to him and his staff for putting up with me!


The restaurant interior is small, but very welcoming with a nice hardwood bar, assorted chairs made with red fabric and wood, a chandelier, and a nice assortment of classic car models, Spanish paintings, and smiley service.

The chefs downstairs work their butts off and make very good food. It is a treat to watch them make paella, bake an anniversary cake in the shape of a heart, or work magic with the deep fryer.


If you ever get a chance to come to L'ola, you must try the saffron calamari with homemade bread for dipping. You must also try the paella or paella marinara. The tapas are delicious and delightfully arranged. Any of the desserts are spectacular, especially the pistachio cream dessert. And, the apple-strawberry sangria is a treat!

I'll give you a run down of what I've learned to cook at L'ola:

1) saffron paella
2) bechamel egg croquettes
3) borek (a Turkish dish made with Yufka and different fillings)
4) focaccia bread
5) dolma (Turkish stuffed dishes including stuffed peppers, stuffed eggplant, and stuffed grape leaves)
6) creme Catalan (a creamy dessert with the flavor of lemon and oranges)
7) a pistachio cream dessert (almost like a crembroulet)
8) a vanilla, cardamom, cinnamon custard
9) cheesecake
10) a number of spinach and rice dishes
11) miscellaneous small dishes

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Istanbul - Take 1

Alright, so I guess I told a fib in my last post. I am not going to review the restaurant in this post, but instead post a video of clips from Istanbul that I threw together. I will review the restaurant in my next post. Enjoy the clip!


video

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

L'ola Lokantasi (Restaurant)

As promised in some of my email correspondence, I will now show you where I am working. The name of the restaurant is L'ola and it is a Spanish-Mediterranean fusion restaurant. The Turkish chefs dance about with castanets and throw olives at each other, and the staff sings merry tunes of Gibraltar (all jokes). The restaurant uses ample amounts of Saffron in their flagship dishes such as calamari in a saffron butter sauce, seafood paella, paella marinara, and others. Saffron originated from the Iberian peninsula, so it is aptly used in the restaurant's Spanish dishes. To the left is an image of the restaurant's typical tapas platter which consists of the following crostinis:
1) eggplant
2) blue cheese and walnut
3) salmon with dill soft cheese and capers
4) pastirma with parmesan
5) avacado and shrimp
6) roast beef with pine nuts and pomegranate sauce
7) tomato and chili spread with parmesan
8) dill octopus salad
9) a salty fish which I can't remember right now, but I'll update

Behind the tapas platter are two dishes. One is calamari in a saffron butter sauce and the other is shrimp in a Mediterranean tomato sauce.

Here is a video that I shot of one of the Chefs making a seafood paella marinara (his name is Niyazi):



video

So as you can see, above, I work in a smallish kitchen beneath a boutique hotel called Villa Denise. Niyazi speaks English pretty well, so we work things out so that I can learn from him. He is, succinctly, very chill. We hang out in the kitchen together and we are very good friends now. He is very excited, because he just left for vacation. The other two guys I work with are Cem, the other chef, and Mustafa, who helps around the kitchen and washes dishes. Cem speaks French and Turkish, so we have a difficult time communicating, but communicate nonetheless. Mustafa and I barely communicate other than to make each other tea or coffee. That is a brief introduction. I review the restaurant in my next post.

Inaugural Post

Hello everyone,

Since this is an inaugural post, I figured I should celebrate, so I’m sitting in a Turkish sweatbox drinking a bottle of Champagne!! That’s a joke! I’m too young to drink.

In my never-ending quest to amuse and entertain, I broadcast my life over the ever-so-ready-to-serve ethernet. I hope you find my stories enthralling, my pictures captivating, and my information enlightening.

As you may already know, my first puddle-jumper (the puddle being the Atlantic) has landed me in the land of paper-thin layered pastries, of olives, of Captain Kebab, and of course, the only multi-continent city, Istanbul. Grab a coke, light some frankincense, and peruse my posts. Happy sailing!