An Introduction to the Foods of Turkey

It is said in Turkey, "You choose your friends by their taste in food." When you sit at the table of Turkish food, you understand their long traditions of hospitality and friendship, with something to appeal to every taste.

Where the Silk Road crossed the routes of Alexander the Great, Roman Legions and Crusader routes to the Holy Land through the Ottoman Empire, the Anatolian Plain has long been the center of Mediterranean trade and agriculture. Istanbul has enjoyed the best of varied world diets and cuisines, blended in a style that has fed every palate and passion. Raisins originated in Turkey. Rice Pilaf came from Turkish kitchens. Yogurt from Turkey spread throughout the world. Sunflower seeds and cucumbers became a world staple. Eggplant originated in Turkey and is still considered a work of culinary art.

Turkish food is first and foremost healthy, consisting of low calorie sauces, a wide variety of spices, with a generous helping of fresh vegetables, fruit and nuts.

Appetizers: Meze - The table of appetizers sets the tone of any meal. A raki, or proper table of appetizers, is loaded with meze and endless variety of olives, cheese, eggs, nuts, yogurt sauces, stuffed vegetables and dumplings stuffed with vegetables and marinated grilled meats, bean and pea patés, bread and herbed oil sauces. It is not unusual to go to a Turkish restaurant and order just the "Meze Plate" for a meal.

Boereks: Börek - Turkish dumplings, tidbits wrapped in phyllo dough (yufka), paper-thin pastry sheets, hold everything imaginable to stimulate your appetite or fill your heart's delight.

Soups: The base of most meals, soups run from yogurt gruel with tomatoes and wheat to clear broths with delicate yet complex flavors that spark conversations guessing the ingredients. Lemon is always presented at the table for personal adjustments, and mint leaves are added for individual tastes. Credit due, the Turks were said to have invented Tripe soup to cure hangovers. (Do not be surprised if your soup is served to you with a wooden ladle and a wooden spoon is provided for you to eat with. It is traditional belief that metal can change the flavor of a soup.)

Meats: Meats and vegetables are fully integrated in Turkish cuisine, generally consisting of beef and lamb, the most readily consumed. Lamb in Turkey is unique in its flavor, its delicate taste is from having grazed in fields of wild thyme. It is always fresh and always juicy. Bite-sized pieces are called kebabs, and are broiled or spitted on an open pit.

Chicken: The Turks love poultry, the only protein more plentiful than fish in the national diet. The Turks say, "You can always tell how the Hostess feels about her guests by the degree of thought she puts into cooking the chicken." Your chicken dish will come with vegetables and a sauce that are unique to each family and each occasion.

Fish: Turkey's coast line follows the warm, salt water of the Mediterranean Sea, the transition waters of the Aegean Sea and Marmara Sea, through the Bosphorus Pass to the cold, fresh waters of the Black Sea. From these come culinary traditions associated with being the hub of the trade routes to the world: baked, fried, and broiled seafood dishes with sauces from subtle to rich and flavors as varied as the spices added to each.

Sauces: It was a Turkish cook hundreds of years ago who accidentally spilled lemon juice in milk and created some of the first yogurt sauces that seem to permeate all vegetable dishes. A little butter adds some calories but otherwise these sauces lighted a heavy meal of broiled vegetables and meats.

Vegetables: The national vegetable of Turkey is eggplant. Equally available are peas, beans, squashes, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Turkey has a climate that produces a wide variety in great quantity. Steamed, stewed, grilled, fried in olive oil, cooked and served cold, whole, or mashed into a paste, vegetables are always fresh, their flavors rich.

Salads: The simplest of foods, salads are an essential part of almost every meal. They are served as cold plates of freshly sluiced vegetable, brought to the table with dressings of herbs, oils, spices and vinegar in combinations held secret in the family pantry. These dressings have been the heart of conversations through dinner and on.

Pilaf (Pilav): It often takes hours of preparation to create the flavorful stocks used to cook the rice for Turkish pilaf. Blends of herbs and spices in secret combination with ingredients known only to select family members, make pilafs as individuals as American barbecue, and honor and pride go into every serving.

Yogurt: Yogurt is a miracle of time and raw milk. At about 76 calories a serving, it offers a flavor of its own to foods, and serves doubly to coat the stomach to assuage and discomforts from a heavy meal It is served in every consistency from a thin cool drink to block cheeses. Warmed as a sauce or iced as a dessert, the best yogurt always comes from fresh, whole milk, the mother culture closely guarded in the home.

Eggs: In a land that loves its poultry, eggs are a part of the national diet. Not thought of as a breakfast food, they are used as a main dish at lunch, as an appetizer, or as a first course at a dinner. Their natural flavor is easily enhanced by a choice of herbs and spices, expanding the variety of offerings at any meal.

Desserts: From fruit and yogurt to honey, melons, nuts and pastry dough, Turkish desserts can be healthy, low-calorie ways to end a meal, except for baklava in its thousand guises. Desserts are meant to be a treat to the palate and a threat to the waist line. One enjoyable ingredient you may encounter is the use of true rose water in some desserts. It is usually stabilized in granulated sugars sprinkled over the dessert or over chilled, freshly sliced fruit.

Turkish Coffee: Drinking coffee in Turkey is akin to savoring art. It is used to end a meal properly, extend a visit, begin a business deal, continue a debate, and to solemnize a wedding. Long before Starbucks, Turkish coffee houses served as refreshment and socializing centers. Coffee houses offer waterpipes, backgammon, conversation and gossip, local notices and newspapers. Coffee is the medium, and it is also to be noticed and appreciated in its own domain. The beans are ground at the time of your request to assure the richest flavor. There are three ways to order it:

- Unsweetened: Sade (sah-deh)
- Mildly sweetened: Orta (or-tah)
- Very sweet: Sekerli (sheck-air-li)

One of the more exotic aspects of Turkish Coffee is the almost lost art of fortune telling, perhaps enhanced be the caffeine buzz. When you have finished drinking the demitasse of coffee, sip the last liquid from the cup and turn it upside-down onto the saucer. The grounds will slide down the inside of the cup and after they have dried, set the cup aright and study the patterns to foretell your future.

Modern Agriculture in Turkey

Turkey has long been a major producer and exporter of fresh, organic fruits and vegetables to Europe and the world. Located in one of the best agriculturally suited areas of the world, between the Anatolian Plain and the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean Sea areas, the ecological and climatological conditions are conducive to both the development of modern large scale farming and the continued support of traditional family farms. The number of small family farms has actually increased as agriculture has expanded as a major nationally sustaining industry. Turkey is one of the few countries in the modern worked able to fully support its own national food needs.

  • Fresh fruit (apples, apricots, blackberries, cherries, figs, grapes, melons, pears, persimmons, plums, strawberries)
  • Dried fruit (apricots, figs, prunes, raisins, rose hips, fruit leathers)
  • Edible nuts (almonds, anise seeds, hazelnuts, peanuts, pine nuts, poppy seeds, pistachios, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts)
  • Herbs and spices (bay leaves, camomile, cumin, linden, mints, oregano, rosemary, sage, sumac, thyme, zatar)
  • Fresh-processed fruits and vegetables (eggplant, cucumber, garlic, onions, squashes, tomatoes)
  • Fresh "Pulses" (beans, lentils, and peas)
  • Frozen fruit, fruit juice concentrates and Fruit teas (apple tea is a delightful alternative to Turkish coffee in browsing in shops or finishing a meal)
  • Essential oils and perfume oils (jasmine, rose, myrtle, thyme, lavender)
  • Honey and olive oil

Turkey takes pride in its world class reputation in sustainable agriculture. Respected for environmental standards in both its production and harvest, much of Turkey's food is produced under strongly managed organic farming practices.

  • No artificial or chemical fertilizers or pesticides
  • Minimal use of energy and irreplaceable raw materials
  • No use of artificial additives or colorings
  • Processing methods that ensure natural qualities
  • Packaging that is recyclable and environmentally friendly

Part of a visit to Turkey may lead you to one of these organic farms. Eat well, and enjoy the gardens. Know that the ingredients of the food in local restaurants were probably produced locally, and brought to market with a good deal of pride.

For your first or your next visit to a Turkish restaurant, try one or more of the following, remembering that dining is an art, never to be hurried, and always to be done in the company of friends.

Coban Salata - Shepherd's salad of minced cucumber, tomatoes, green peppers, and onions; olive oil and vinegar
Taze Fasulye - Cooked green beans with carrots, tomatoes, and onions served in herbed olive oil
Meze Tabagi - A sample plate of various appetizers
Kuzu Sis Kebab (Lamb shish kebab)
Sekerpare (honey cake) or Firin sutlac (baked rice pudding)

**Afiyet Olsun (ah-fee-yeht ohl-soon) - Bon Appétit** 

Herbs, Fruits, Nuts and Spices of Turkey: A Mix of Europe and Asia

Almonds - badem
Allspice - yenibahar, bahar
Aniseed - Anason
Basil - Fesiegan
Bay Laurel - dafne
Black pepper - kara biber
Caraway seed - karaviye
Cardamom - kakule
Cayenne - arnavut biber
Cinnamon - tarcin
Cloves - karanfil
Coriander - kisnis
Cucumber - salatalik
Cumin - kimyon
Dates - hurma
Dill - dereotu
Eggplant - patlican
Fennel - raziyane
Fenugreek - chaiman
Figs - incir
Garlic - sarimsak
Ginger - zencifil
Hazelnuts - findik
Lemon - limon
Marjoram - mercankisk otu, merv
Melons - kavun
Mint - nane, mente
Nutmeg - hucuk hindistan cevizi
Olives and Olive Oil - zeytin and zeytin yagi
Onions - sogan
Paprika - kirmizi biber
Parsley - maydonoz
Pinenuts - can fistigi
Pistachio - fistik
Poppy seeds - gelincik tomumu
Raisins - kuru uzum, currents, sultanas
Red Pepper - aci biber
Rosemary - biberiye
Saffron - safran
Sage - abacayi
Sesame - sasam
Shallots - arpacik sogani
Sumac - somak
Tarragon - tarnum
Thyme - kekik
Tumeric - zerdecal
Vanilla - vanilya
Vinegar - sirke
Walnuts - ceviz
Watermelon - karpuz
Zatar - zatar (blend of dried thyme leaves, toasted sesame seeds, a pinch of sumac, and a little salt)

Turkish Curry

2 tbsp each tumeric, cumin, coriander
1 tbsp each ginger, black pepper
2 tsp each fenugreek, chili powder, cardamom, mace
1 tsp each mustard seeds, cloves, poppy seeds

Finely grind all ingredients and blend together.  Use within a few weeks to assure yourself of the freshest and best.

A Proper Pace for Herbs, Fruits and Flowers

There are traditionally four major uses for herbs, fruits and flowers throughout history:

  • Culinary - to alter and enhance the flavors of foods
  • Medicinal - to complement and promote good health and well being
  • Religious - to decorate sacred sites and celebrate religious events
  • Magical - to influence the actions or relationships of individuals with their Earth, their environment, life patterns, daily life styles, or interactions with other people

The plant world serves as a powerful, resonating, vibrational communicator for us all.

Submitted by Lucia and Michael Bettler

- originally published by Lucia's Garden - 2360 W. Alabama St. Houston, TX 77098 

Herbs of Turkey

Turkey: The First Gardens of Western Civilization
Anatolia to the Mediterranean