From its frugal origins in the rugged terrain of Central Asia to sumptuous Ottoman banquets, Turkish cuisine is a rich tapestry of flavours.
Acuisine as old as Turkey’s bears the imprints of history, geography, migration, conquest, settlement and cultural exchange. Evolving from a nomadic diet of meat, milk, yoghurt, from their herds of cattle goats and sheep, and wheat, which they cultivated in the winter months spent on the plains of Central Asia, traditional Turkish cuisine attained a more structured identity after Turkmen tribes migrated from Central Asia and settled in Anatolia.
The Selçuk dynasty in the eleventh century laid the foundations of traditional Turkish cuisine and prescribed a cooking and dining etiquette like the laying out the sofra (large, low communal table or tray and the cloth, which is spread under it) , were prescribed in great detail.
But, it was the Ottomans who established their reign in the fifteenth century who took high living and fine dining to a whole new level. Opulence, excess and refinement were the hallmarks of their cuisine. The kitchens of Topkapi, the Sultan’s palace in Istanbul, were the centre of the Ottoman culinary universe and staffed with an army of chefs specializing in different dishes as the palace kitchens fed between 1,500 and 2000 people daily! Straddling Asia and Europe, the Ottoman Empire absorbed the best of the neighbouring cuisines, and soon European influences transformed the cuisine and etiquette into a vibrant, modern one.
The famous Egyptian Spice Bazaar in Istanbul is a fine testament to the Turkish passion for flavour. The air in the market is thick with the aroma of spices, most of which have for centuries come from Egypt. Black pepper, saffron, ginger, cloves, cardamoms, cinnamon and cumin are sold alongside dried fruit, lokum (Turkish delight) and other sweets and cookies. Gum mastic or mastaki is a common ingredient in pilavs, sherbets and some desserts. Desserts are sweetened with honey and dried fruit such as figs, plums and apricots, and sprinkled liberally with almonds and pistachios. On the whole, Turkish cuisine is a mild but flavourful cuisine given texture, aroma and freshness by olive oil, yoghurt, mint, parsley, onions and garlic.
A Turkish meal today begins with appetizers or meze (starters), çorbasi (soups )and salats (salads). Doner kebaps, sis kebaps, dolmas or vegetables stuffed with minced meat or rice, meat, seafood and vegetable stews, rice pilavs and pasta (makarna) dishes are also popular main dishes. Baklava, helvah, lokum (Turkish delight), and sutlaç (rice pudding) end the meal on a sweet note.
And who has not heard of Turkish coffee, the strong brew served in tiny cups? A Turkish saying describes the perfect coffee: coffee should be as black as hell, strong as death, and sweet as love. Sherbets or sweet fruit drinks, ayran (salty yoghurt drink) and kefir (a fermented milk drink) are popular thirst quenchers, which are sold everywhere, and go perfectly with street foods like simit (ring-shaped bread dusted with sesame seeds), sis tavuk (grilled chicken), gözleme (bread stuffed with cheese, meat or spinach).
Turkish food today shares much with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine, but is also uniquely its own. Every dish has a story and a past, which is rooted in tradition and enriched by time.
– Rita D’Souza