The Language of Food: Turkey

May 2016

CNV00052I get a buzz from learning languages and make a point of it when I travel. The fact that I am even trying to pronounce words opens many doors and makes people happy.  There are a couple of languages I rely on for my work but there are others, like Japanese, in which I only know a few phrases that I learnt a long time ago but those simple words bring great merriment to every Japanese encounter. There is, however, a language we can all speak – the language of food. In all its notes of pleasure, surprise, disgust, and greed, the language is global, superbly punctuated by the splendid silence of pure appreciation. Take the food language of the French, for example, with their oohs and aahs, the pursing and smacking of the lips, the exaggerated hand-gestures emphasizing surprise and satisfaction, and the chunk of fresh baguette wiped around the plate to mop up every dribble of yummy goodness– we are not left in any doubt as to whether they are enjoying their food or not.

But what do you know of the Turkish language with its soft and melodic notes when spoken with eloquence? What do you know about the Turkish language of food? There are the recognizable, universal hand-gestures and mannerisms and there are rituals dictated or encouraged by the Islamic faith, but there are also many unique words and phrases dedicated to the subject – expressions of welcome and greeting and enjoyment of the food; praise for the cook and blessings of health to the cook’s hands; metaphors and sayings for the ingredients; myths, legends and religious stories attached to the dish. Food is a never-ending topic of conversation, sometimes of heated debate, but like the French, it is always expressed with dramatic passion and enthusiasm. With the current spotlight on the refugee crisis and the turbulent politics of Turkey, it is easy to forget that it is a nation of warm hospitality and fabulous food and I am genuinely feeling for the country right now. There is a saying ‘greet a Turk and be sure you will eat’ as food is offered and shared wherever you go. If only politics was like food – uniting us around a table of pleasure, instead of creating vast divides.

IMG_1448One of my favourite cities in the world is Istanbul. The atmospheric history of the spice trade and lavish Ottoman banquets oozes from the pores of the old city walls. Under one culinary roof, you can taste the spicy and hearty traditional dishes from different pockets of Anatolia alongside the more refined Ottoman classics, referred to as Saray (Palace) cooking. I used to sit on the balcony of my office high above the impatient tooting of car horns at the Tünel end of Istiklal Caddesi, marveling at the silent glide of the Russian tankers traveling from the Black Sea to the Aegean, or the old wooden boats, originally from the Clyde, ferrying people from the Golden Horn on the European side across the Bosphorus to Asia. I would look over to the Topkapı Palace, the seat of the Ottoman Empire, perched strategically on a hill to give the Sultans a splendid view of the sea routes and listen to the Call for Prayer echo across the water. At the height of the spice trade when the Ottomans and Spaniards ruled the seas, magnificence must have been wafting in the air, not just in Süleyman’s name!

Years later, stuffed into a backpack, my little blonde daughter, Yazzie, would sing and giggle as people reached up to touch her, calling her malek (angel) as they gave her dried apricots, a fresh fig, a pinch of the cheeks, or a kiss. When she was able to run around on her own, it was my son, Zeki, who was stuffed into the backpack and given the same treatment, although he was called aslan (lion), an affectionate term for young boys, as they ruffled his white curly locks. We were always on the hunt for good meze (Turkish spelling), steered by my old friend and food enthusiast, Hasan, who would take us to the latest, the most unique, or most traditional meyhane where we would be fed and looked after like pampered pashas.  The culinary landscape of Istanbul is like one giant moveable feast and no trip is complete without a stop at my special spice merchant, Devrim bey at Nil Baharat in Eminönü.  Perched on a stool, sipping hot tea from a tulip-shaped glass, it is difficult to exercise restraint as the sacks of potent spices tease my appetite. Before I know it, I’ve ordered 100g ground sumak, 250g ground salep (orchid root), 500g oiled kırmızı biber (ground red chilli peppers), cumin, cinnamon, dried oregano and sage, ground pistachios, saffron, boxes of sakız (mastic), several bottles of pomegranate molasses and, from a nearby stall, fine coffee and a jar of mildly hallucengenic deli bal (‘silly honey’ from the nectar of poppies).

For over 30 years I have expressed my own private love affair with Turkey and her food through cookery workshops, numerous articles, and at least 6 books – I would happily write more as there are few places in the world with so much fascinating history on a plate. When I wrote my first book on Turkish food some 20 years ago, there were no others like it on the market and, to my surprise, it was shortlisted for two of the big food awards at the time, but now there are many books on the subject, some by people who’ve only been there for a brief touristic visit and some by people who have never been there at all!  Such is the reliance on the Internet, enabling people to write about a country and its culinary traditions without any first-hand knowledge or experience, which can lead to many linguistic and cultural misunderstandings.

CNV00067For example, the current misuse of the word humus (hummus in Arabic), which simply means ‘chickpea’ and is also the name of the ubiquitous dish made with them when they are mashed or pureed, but fashionable foodies boldly give the label ‘hummus’ to any moosh, be it mashed feta with crushed olives or pureed butternut squash with cream cheese. And the frequent appearance of menemen and shakshuka on the metropolitan breakfast menu has led to some interesting claims of their origins.  Similar in content and popular as street and bus station food, one dish is Turkish the other is Arab.  Commonly referred to as a vegetable omelette in Turkey, menemen is prepared with sautéed peppers and tomatoes into which eggs are either cracked and left to set whole, or they can be stirred into the mixture and left to set like an omelette. Found throughout the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, shakshuka (şakşuka in Turkish) is of Arab origin and has many regional variations but the eggs are cracked into it and left to cook whole as  ‘shak’ implies that the egg is ‘cracked’ into the dish.

But does all of this matter? Are people really bothered about the origins, or the correct use of food language? Perhaps not in the world of food fads but I think it does matter to the people of the country.  The physical language of food may be universally understood but the culinary terminology and its cultural meaning is special to each culture. So, Özlem my friend, I think it is time we write that definitive book on Turkish food that we have been talking about. We need to introduce more Laz and Güney traditions and dig deep into the culinary foundations of Kayseri and Gaziantep. Meanwhile, for authentic Turkish food cooked by a lovely Turkish lady please check out Özlem Warren’s site, follow her on Facebook and Linked in, and sign up for one of her courses. She’s the real deal and passionate about her nation’s food:

I am going to leave you with 3 of my favourite recipes – one of ancient origin, one uniquely Anatolian, and one Ottoman delight from the palace kitchens.

Afiyet olsun!

Fırında Mantı

The first Turks to inhabit the region were tribal warriors who moved westwards on horseback through Central Asia, bringing with them their traditions of preserving meat in its fat and a noodle dough reminiscent of a Chinese dumpling. Traditionally, the noodle dough is stuffed, baked in the oven until crisp, then revived with stock and served with garlic-flavoured yogurt and a drizzle of melted butter. It falls somewhere between a dumpling and Italian pasta. Modern recipes often call for a boiled ravioli-style mantı but the traditional Anatolian dish is supreme in its uniqueness. The best mantı I have ever had was in fact made by a Russian woman married to a Turk who ran a tiny mantı house in the back streets of Istanbul which was packed with appreciators of his wife’s freshly made noodle dumplings.

Serves 4-6

For the dough:

450g/1lb plain flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 egg + egg yolk, lightly beaten
roughly 50ml/2fl oz lukewarm water

For the filling:

225g/8oz finely minced lamb or beef
1 onion, very finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1-2 teaspoons finely chopped dried red chilli
a small bunch of parsley, very finely chopped

600ml/1pint chicken or beef stock
roughly 500g/9oz creamy plain yogurt (I use Yeo Valley)
2-3 cloves garlic, crushed
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1-2 tablespoons ghee or butter
1 teaspoon finely chopped dried red chilli
2 teaspoons dried mint or oregan

Preheat oven to 400F/Mark 6/200C

Sift the flour and salt into bowl. Make a well in the centre and pour in the beaten egg. Using your fingers, draw in the flour with splashes of water until it forms a dough. Knead for 5 minutes, cover with a damp cloth, and leave to rest for 1 hour.

Meanwhile, tip all the ingredients for the filling into a bowl, season with salt, and knead well. Beat the yogurt in a bowl with the garlic and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Roll out the dough and cut it into 4 pieces. Roll each piece as thinly as possible and cut into squares (approx. 1”/2.5cm square). Put a little of the filling into the middle of each square then bunch together the 4 corners to form a little parcel with a slight opening at the top.

Lightly grease an oven dish and place the mantı, side by side, in it so that they are tightly packed. Put the dish in the oven for about 20 minutes until the mantı are golden brown.

Bring the stock to the boil. Take the mantı out of the oven and pour the stock over them. Cover with aluminium foil and pop them back in to the oven for 15 minutes, until the mantı have absorbed the liquid.

Quickly melt the butter or ghee and stir in the chopped chilli. Serve the mantı straight from the oven with the yogurt spooned over the top, then drizzled with the butter and sprinkled with the dried mint or oregano.

Hot humus heaven

This is heaven in a clay dish! Sometimes things taste better in their utensil of origin – a wok, a tagine, a clay pot – so if you have an oven-proof clay dish, use it. I first had this humus 30 years ago in a tiny village near Kars in Eastern Anatolia. I had been travelling in PKK territory with a Kurdish-speaking colleague and, in order to decrease our vulnerability at road blocks, we filled the car with locals, one of whom invited us to spend the night in his tiny stone dwelling where his wife prepared this moreish, warm chickpea concoction topped with a puddle of melted ghee. As we dipped chunks of freshly baked flat breads into it, we really had a moment in heaven. Needless to say, I have been writing about it and enthusiastically devouring it ever since – even my Turkish friends were unaware of its existence.

Serves 4-6

2 x 400g cans of chickpeas, drained and thoroughly rinsed
2-3 cloves garlic, crushed
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
roughly 4 tablespoons olive oil
juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons tahini
6-7 tablespoons thick, creamy yogurt
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2-3 tablespoons pine nuts
1-2 tablespoons butter, or ghee
1 teaspoon finely chopped dried red chilli

Preheat the oven to 400F/mark 6/200C

Instead of using a mortar and pestle to pound the chickpeas to a paste in the traditional manner, make life easy and tip the chickpeas into an electric blender. Add the cumin seeds, garlic, olive oil, and lemon and whiz the mixture to a thick paste. Add the tahini and continue to whiz until the mixture is really thick and smooth. Add the yogurt and whiz until the mixture has loosened a little and the texture is creamy – the yogurt makes the humus lighter and mousse-like when cooked. Season to taste with salt and pepper and tip the mixture into a clay pot, or ovenproof dish.

Roast the pine nuts in small pan until they begin to brown and emit a nutty aroma. Add the butter, or ghee, to the pine nuts and stir until it melts. Stir in the finely chopped chilli and spoon the mixture over the surface of the humus. Pop the dish into the oven for about 20 minutes, until the hummus has risen a little and most of the butter has been absorbed.

Serve immediately – it is best when it is still hot – with chunks of warm crusty loaf, or strips of toasted pitta bread, and enjoy this divine chickpea puree with marinated olives and a salad.

Tavuk göğsü kazandibi

I love this pudding. My kids love this pudding. So did the Ottoman sultans as it is one of the delights from the Palace kitchen. Crucial to the pleasure of the pudding are the fine threads of cooked chicken, which must be thin enough to add texture but not so thick they are detectably meaty. Sounds bizarre? I assure you it is truly scrumptious! If, for no reason other than novelty, these thick, creamy puddings with a lightly burnt bottom are well worth trying and you might even be won over!

 Serves 6-8, or more

1 chicken breast
5 tablespoons rice flour
850ml/1½ pints milk
300ml/½ pint cream
a pinch of salt
175g/6oz sugar
ground cinnamon for dusting

Place the chicken breast in a pan with enough water to just cover it. Bring the water to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the breast is cooked. Drain the breast and tear it into very, very fine threads – almost as fine as thread for a needle.

In a bowl, slake the rice flour with a little of the milk to form a smooth paste, the consistency of thick double cream. Pour the rest of the milk and the cream into a heavy-based pot. Add the salt and sugar and bring it to the boil, stirring all the time, until the sugar has dissolved. Add a ladleful of the hot milk to the slaked rice flour, then tip it all into the pot and stir vigorously. Reduce the heat, stirring all the time, until the mixture begins to thicken. Gently beat in the threads of chicken and continue to simmer until the mixture is very thick.

Lightly grease a wide, non-stick, heavy-based frying pan and place it over the heat. When hot, tip the mixture into it and keep it over the heat for about 2 minutes to brown, or slightly burn, the bottom of the pudding – you can check by gently levering up an edge to peep beneath. Reduce the heat and move the pan around for 2-3 minutes to make sure the bottom is evenly browned – a little bit burnt is fine, but you are not looking for a charred pudding! Turn off the heat and leave the pudding to cool in the pan.

Using a sharp-pointed knife cut the pudding into small rectangles. Lift each rectangle out of the pan, using a spatula, and place them on a flat surface, burnt-side down. Roll each one over slightly, like rolling someone over in bed, so that the burnt side is up and the two long edges of the rectangle form a seam underneath. Place them seem-side down on a serving dish, cover them, and keep in the refrigerator. Serve chilled with a dusting of cinnamon.