Saturday, August 7, 2010

Turkish Food Culture

According to many culinary experts, Turkish food is considered to be among the top three greatest cuisines in the world along with French and Chinese. Some may agree with the French and Chinese but find the Turkish one debatable. When looking back at Turkish history, the reason for Turkish cuisine being ranked among the top three cuisines in the world can be understood better. Let’s take a look.

Original Turks lived a nomadic life style and migrated from the Far East Asia, (mainly Western China Tibet and Mongolia regions) to the current geographic location of Turkey and surrounding areas. As they moved from the Far East to Asia Minor (current Turkey), the Turkish ancestors adopted various foods from various cultures along the way which led to a very diverse although developed and refined cuisine. For instance, ‘mantı’ which is small pieces of dough stuffed with minced meat and spices topped with yogurt sauce is supposedly adopted from Chinese dumplings. It is said that the idea of ‘dolma’ (stuffed vegetables) came from ‘mantı’. Due to their nomadic lifestyle, the nomadic Turks’ diet was mainly based on animal products such lamb, goat and game. Different techniques of preserving food were invented in order to prevent food from spoiling. Perhaps ‘pastırma’, which is dried cured beef mainly made in the city of Kayseri in Cental Anatolia region came about from the need to preserve meat without spoiling. It is no secret that the integration of nomadic Turks with other civilizations, geographic locations and weather had influenced their culinary traditions which brings us to food culture of the Ottoman Empire. The vast Ottoman Empire which covered three continents for a length of almost 600 years and controlled the spice road, influenced food culture from North Africa to Eastern Europe (up to Vienna, Austria) and most of the Middle East leaving a trace of similarities in the current Mediterranean, Eastern Europe and Middle Eastern cuisines. The Imperial Palaces had enormously large kitchens that had separate cooks for each kitchen specializing in one single type of dish that was developed and perfected over time. For example, each cook specialized in ‘pilav’ (pilaf), ‘dolma’, ‘baklava’, ‘kebabs’, ‘desserts and so on. Dried fruits such as apricots, raisins, currants and the best quality spices frequently were employed in cooking. Through development and improvisation, the Ottoman Cuisine evolved to be the current Turkish cuisine. After the end of Ottoman Empire, the modern Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923 adopted the same delicious cuisine and cooking techniques.1

The importance of food during the Ottoman days and now in the current Republic of Turkey cannot be overstated. It is a significant part of the culture and daily life. This solid sense of food culture can be found in every single part of Turkey albeit the food itself is very heterogeneous. Although some dishes are prevalent throughout Turkey, every region, even province has its own type of cuisine that may not be recognized by other regions.

Almost every region or province is renowned with one or more types of foods. The South/Southeast region encompassing mainly Adana, Mersin, Hatay, Gaziantep, Kilis, Şanlıurfa provinces is known for its spicy and versatile foods. Red pepper paste and many types of spices are frequently used in its food such as ‘kısır’, ‘dolma’, ‘kebaps’, ‘stews’ and many other dishes to enhance flavor of a dish. Mersin is known for its ‘tantuni’ (sauted minced meat with spices placed inside bread), Antakya is renowned with its delightful dessert ‘künefe’, Adana with ‘Adana kebap’, Gaziantep with ‘baklava’, ‘antepfıstığı’ (pistachios), Şanlıurfa with ‘çiğ köfte’ (fine bulgur mixed with raw ground meat and spices) and Central Anatolia with ‘keşkek’ (meat and wheat or barley stew). When ‘hamsi’ (anchovies) is mentioned, the first place that comes to mind in Turkey is the Black Sea region which is located in Northern Turkey. This area is also known for its ‘kara lahana’ (collard greens) dishes, black tea and hazelnut farming. Kayseri province which is in the Anatolian region is known for the best ‘mantı’ and ‘pastırma’ (pastrami). The Mediterranean region in southern part of the country and Aegean region in the west part of the country are popular with vegetable and olive oil dishes and the list goes on.

The variation of Turkish food from region to region is as a result of a diverse weather, lifestyle due to geographic location and ancestry. Turkey is composed of people from different ancestries who carry on their food traditions for centuries allowing a wide range of foods to be served in Turkey. Thanks to the diverse weather, numerous types of crops grow in Turkey enabling a rich cuisine to form. The wheat farming that started with the nomadic Turks for centuries has given a focus on doughy foods such as ‘ekmek’ (bread) which is a main staple throughout the country, ‘böreks’ (stuffed pastries) and ‘bulgur pilafs’. Due to proximity to the seas, fish and other seafood are a crucial part of the Mediterranean, Aegean, Marmara and Black Sea region diets.

The foundation of Turkish food is based on the freshness of the ingredients. In rural areas the vegetables come right out of people’s garden just before cooking, the meat comes from a farm or local butcher. As society changes and more and more women participate in the work force, naturally many urban dwellers are adapting the modern conveniences eagerly leaving behind some of the food traditions. Although, there are still some people who are living in cities and perform the routine of grocery shopping daily to get the freshest available ingredients. In smaller cities and less populated areas, fresh ingredients are still the biggest factor in cooking.

Some of the main ingredients used in Turkish food can be stated as follows:

Tomato paste, red pepper paste, pomegranate molasses, olive oil, yogurt, olives, cheese, cumin, sumac, red pepper flakes, paprika, black pepper, lemon, oranges, parsley, mint, dill, garlic, onions, tomatoes, green peppers, eggplant, zucchini, green beans, cucumber, cabbage, fish, chicken, beef, lamb, yufka (phyllo dough), kadayıf (shredded phyllo dough), chick peas, dried beans, lentils, pistachios, walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds.

Turkish food can be divided into the following groups:

1) Mezeler (Appetizers)
2) Dolmalar (Stuffed vegetables with rice or meat)
3) Çorbalar (Soups)
4) Salatalar (Salads)
5) Baklagiller (Legumes)
6) Zeytinyağlı Sebzeler (Olive oil vegetable dishes which are usually served cold)
7) Pilavlar (Rice or bulgur pilafs)
8) Etli Sebzeler (Vegetables with meat)
9) Börekler (Stuffed pastries with meat, cheese or vegetables)
10)Pideler (Flat bread with cheese, meat or vegetables)
11)Kebaplar (Kebaps which range from kebabs cooked in a pot to skewered kebaps)
12)Balık ve Deniz Ürünleri (Fish and other seafood items)
13)Tatlılar (Desserts)
14)İçecekler (Drinks such as Turkish coffee, Turkish tea, rakı, ayran)

Turks love eating and relishing food. As a result, feast-like meals are not out of the ordinary in a Turkish home. If you are present in a Turkish home for breakfast, lunch or dinner, the variety and the effort put into preparing the table will be very evident. In Turkey, having people over for dinner or a tea party is a very common and frequent tradition which involves socializing. It is part of the society, the culture and tradition.

Note: If you live in Houston or surrounding areas and interested in Turkish food or culture, there will be an annual Turkish Festival taking place on October 16-17, 2010 that will have delicious food, music, dancing and etc. This is sponsored by the American Turkish Association of Houston which is a non-profit organization. For more info visit the following website:

1- Republic of Turkey Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Culinary Culture

Friday, August 6, 2010

Turkish Kunefe (Künefe)

Künefe is considered to be one of the most delicious Turkish desserts, especially in the city of Antakya (Antioch) located on Mediterrenean Sea, in Southern Turkey. Although künefe shops are very common throughout Hatay, Kilis, Adana, Mersin and Gaziantep provinces, the city of Antakya in Hatay is known for the best künefe in Turkey. What distinguishes Antakya’s künefe from others is the daily made fresh, elastic cheese that is only made in Hatay region. The kadayıf (shredded phyllo dough) is also made from scratch at small künefe shops in almost every corner in Antakya which I find very entertaining to watch.

The künefe shops in Antakya serve the künefe topped with cream or ice cream. Every time I visit home, I go to Antakya which is about two hours from my hometown and have künefe with ice cream. One of my favorite places to eat künefe is in Harbiye (known as Daphne from Roman times) which is in the outskirts of the city in a valley surrounded by plenty of trees and streams of water. Many restaurants and cafes in Harbiye serve künefe, however I opt for eating künefe at Hidro restaurant that overlooks a man-made pond.

Very few people choose to make künefe at home in Antakya since this delightful dessert is abundant, however people who do choose to make künefe at home buy the daily made fresh kadayıf from the künefe shops. Even homemade künefe in Antakya is very tasty which probably is due to the fresh kadayıf.

As you may guess, künefe is not widely available in the States except the packaged, prepared kind found in Middle Eastern stores; therefore I wanted to make my own künefe. I spoke to both my mom and my mother-in-law on how each one makes her own künefe to get a general idea. As a result, I created my own with trial and error. This dessert was made 4-5 times in my kitchen until I acquired the right taste, texture and appearance. I did not publish it until it turned out perfect to me. Of course it is still not like the künefe in Antakya, but it turned out a very good homemade one.

This elegant looking and delicious dessert should be consumed hot, right after the kadayıf absorbs the syrup for the best taste. The cheese will be very stringy, so a knife will be needed when eating this luscious dessert. In Hatay, Adana, Mersin, Kilis, Gaziantep and in adjacent regions, this dessert is very often served for guests after the dinner or at women’s tea gatherings.

Note: If you would like your künefe to be thinner, use a larger pan or Pyrex dish for baking the künefe. Also, I like this dessert a little on the darker side so I let it bake a little longer. Once it turns golden brown it should be ready.

For Syrup:

2 cups sugar
2 cups water

For Künefe:

1 lb shredded phyllo dough
½ lb unsalted, shredded mozzeralla cheese or any other white, stringy, unsalted cheese
1 cup butter (2 sticks)
½ cup milk (optional)

For Decoration:

2-3 tbsp finely ground pistachios

In a medium pot, combine sugar and water and put on the stove. Let it boil and remove from heat. Let it cool.

Remove shredded dough from package.

Shred it in a food processor or chop it up with a sharp knife until the shredded phyllo dough pieces are very small.

Melt butter in a non-stick pan. Add the shredded phyllo and mix continuously.

Add the milk and continue mixing until the butter and milk are completely incorporated into the shredded pyhllo. Remove from heat.

In a round pan or a Pyrex dish, place half of the buttered phyllo dough and press with a spatula or your hands.

Distribute the shredded, unsalted cheese evenly on top of the buttered phyllo dough and press with a spatula or hands.

Add the rest of the buttered phyllo dough on top of the cheese and distribute and press evenly.

Heat the oven to 375º F. Place the künefe pan and bake for 45-50 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven and pour the cold syrup on the hot künefe. Let the künefe absorb the syrup for about 5 minutes.

Serve hot immediately.

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