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, 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...