Much like Italy, Turkey has always been a must-see destination in a tourist’s dictionary, but with an addition of headscarves and mustaches. With its turquoise waters, battlegrounds, ruined castles andpalaces of legendary empires, the country has everything a ‘voracious, all encompassing’ traveler would expect. Turks’ take pleasure in simple things; families, food and football. The culinary landscape of Turkey makes it worthwhile to go there exclusively for food. The Turks have mastered their cuisine to a fine craft and their huge repertoire of recipes dating back to several years is a true testament to their vociferous dining culture.A ten minute boat ride to Asia for a cup of tea, a gentle ferry to the serene Princes’ Islands for a seafood lunch, Gaziantep where baklava was born and Gallipoli where you get the best of garlic-oozing clamps and fresh salads which are had with chill Truva beers; like they say, tourists come to Turkey for its glorious history, but they stay back for its incredible cuisine.
THE MEAL STRUCTURE
A sumptuous Turkish meal consists of starters and main course which are made of grains, meat, seafood and vegetables, desserts and beverages. The lack of a specific dominant dish in Turkey like pasta in Italy or a French Croissant is simply because Turks believe in retaining the flavour of the principle ingredient rather than mollifying it with strong spices or sauces. Unlike what most people believe, authentic Turkish dishes are seasoned with herbs and spices scantily; for instance, eggplants are topped with parsley, while zucchini is served with mint or dill, cold vegetable platters normally come with garlic cloves and cumin is used in soups or ground meat dishes like kofte. Turks use plenty of yoghurt and lemon to balance the taste in both vegetarian and meat dishes. Meat dishes like kebabs come with ‘pide’ or flat bread with vegetables and yoghurt on the side.
Drinking along with food is an integral part of the dining culture in Turkey. Social gatherings are marked by families and friends drinking alcohol along with their food either at their respective homes or restaurants. Much like the Spanish tapas, meze is a selection of small portions of dishes which are first brought to the table along with wine or anise flavoured spirit known as raki. Meze platter ideally has nibbles of honeydew melon served with velvety feta cheese and fresh bread, spinach in a yoghurt-garlic dip, cold vegetables boiled or fried in olive oil, crunchy savoury pastries, deep fried mussels and calamari served with tomato sauce and caviar. Although, meze served before kebabs are a bit different than the usual, with green salads, cut tomatoes in herbs infused olive oil, humus, a popular dip made from boiled chickpeas, tahini (sesame paste), olive oil, bulgur and red lentils and raw kofte, a stuffed dish with marinated aubergines and peppers along with spices, nuts and pickles.
Turkey has a reputation for baking the finest of breads. Apart from ekmek, which is a common white bread, the region boasts of other dough varieties like pide, simit (sesame rings), manti (ravioli look alike) and borek, which are thin sheets of pastry. Ekmek, pide and simit are best consumed fresh and dishes are made from leftover ekmeks. On a typical Sunday afternoon, Turkish families lunch on mantis, which are essentially dough dumplings stuffed with meat, along with garlic yoghurt and paprika filled melted butter. Boreks are ideally served at special occasions and family functions and it is very difficult to make such thin sheets of dough with a rolling pin. After the dough has been rolled out, it is stuffed with various meats and cheeses and then it is baked or fried.
Pilaf is another Turkish staple, which is either made from cracked wheat or rice. Pilaf made out of a whole onions, chopped tomatoes and green peppers sautéed in butter and brewed in beef stock, makes for a sumptuous meal by itself. Rice pilafs are gently tempered with butter and are had with vegetable and meat dishes.
Turkey is known for its world famous kebabs which also go back to a time when Turkish nomads learnt how to grill meats over fire. Typically, there are two kinds of kebabs – the sis kebab and the doner kebab. While the former is grilled cubes of skewered meat, the latter is an alternating stack of minced meat (usually lamb) skewered upright; thin slices are shaved off and served as the outer layer is well done.
Dolmas – cabbage wraps filled with sautéed rice, pine nuts, currants, herbs and spices, are another popular favourite among the locals and tourists in Turkey. They are stacked generously on a huge platter and are served with lemon wedges and a yoghurt dip.
Turkey is flanked by sea on all three sides and hence offers the best of seafood. Locals who live by the coastlines prepare the finest sea treats, however, Ankara is home to some of the celebrated seafood restaurants in Turkey. Every month is significant for a specific catch which are had with different vegetables; for instance bonitos are had with arugula and red onions and blue fish with lettuce. Mackerels are filled with onions before they are grilled and a relatively dry summer fish are poached with tomatoes. But the best of fishes in Turkey is the hamsi, which can be cooked in 41 different ways including hamsi borks and pilafs.
A SWEET LAND
Turkish baklava is normally had with tea or as a snack after a hefty meal of kebabs. But Baklava is really not considered as a dessert by the locals in Turkey. Seasonal fresh fruits like strawberries, cherries, melons, peaches and apricots are also had after main course. Other desserts include, the milk puddings from the famous Muhallebi family, grain based pastries, other variants of baklava which are thin baked pastry sheets filled with pistachios and walnuts, served with heavy cream and helva which is made from semolina flour.