Turkish memories: Greg and Lucy Malouf on the history of Turkish cuisine

By
Greg & Lucy Malouf
Added
15 April, 2014

Greg and Lucy Malouf explore the rich history behind the cultural melting pot that is Turkish food.

Turkish cooking is by and large dictated by the seasons. During our visit, we enjoyed the tail-end of winter’s finest produce: roasted chestnuts and hot, sweet, milky drinks of sahlep from street vendors, firm white turbot, plump mussels and salty anchovies from the sea and, best of all, gorgeously perfumed amber quinces. Towards the end of our stay spring was beginning to make its presence felt: the markets were filling up with tender green almonds and spiky artichokes, while myriad varieties of wild greens were arriving from the gardens of the Mediterranean and Aegean, along with crisp cucumbers and a few tiny, sweet strawberries.

It has been said that one of the greatest qualities of the Turks has been their willingness to adapt; their ability to embrace diverse lands and ethnic groups, varying religions and different cultural mores. This quality is joyously expressed in Turkey’s architecture and art, and in its food. The food that we enjoyed on our travels through Turkey – whether in the smallest Anatolian village or cosmopolitan Istanbul – all helps to tell Turkey’s rich and varied history.

There’s a definite tendency to divide Turkish food into two camps: Ottoman and Anatolian. In other words, a distinction between the food of the urban rich and the food of the rural poor. The reality, of course, is far more complicated. Turkish cooking today is an interweaving of many different but complementary strands that together create a gorgeous and vibrant culinary tapestry.

Both rural Anatolian and sophisticated Ottoman cuisines are a legacy of the country’s rich and varied history. Their ingredients and recipes are drawn from such diverse parts of the world as Central and Far East Asia, Persia, Arabia, the Balkans and the Mediterranean. The famous Turkish dumplings known as mantı, for instance, are believed to have been brought to Turkey by the Uyghur Turks, who ventured into Anatolia in the eighth century from their kingdom, in what is now Xingjiang, northern China. The predilection for stuffing vegetables as well as pasta is a widespread feature in both cuisines today. Another shared invention was the concave iron cooking pan that the Chinese call a wok and which is known in Turkey as a çin tavası.

Another group of Turks to bring their culinary habits to Anatolia were the Seljuk Turks from Central Asia. It’s generally believed that methods of spicing, pressing and then air-drying lumps of meat hung from saddles originated with these Turks, as did the method of spearing small morsels of meat on any kind of makeshift skewer and cooking it quickly over a fierce open fire.

Fermented dairy products, such as yoghurt and cheeses, were also believed to have been brought to Anatolia by the Seljuks, as were flat breads and bulgur wheat dishes. When the ambitious Seljuks reached Persia in the eleventh century, they encountered another highly sophisticated culture and cuisine. From the Persians they learnt about combining fruit with meat – a method that survives in many Turkish yahni (stews) to this day. The Seljuks also learnt how to cultivate rice, offering the Persians bulgur wheat by way of exchange. On their travels westward, the Seljuks took with them all the culinary lessons learnt along the way. And in Anatolia they experienced yet another new range of ingredients, such as seafood, olive oil, herbs, fruits and vegetables, quickly making them their own. This was a time of great creativity in the kitchen, producing a varied and increasingly complex cuisine.

This is an edited extract from Turquoise by Greg Malouf and Lucy Malouf.

TURKISH RECIPES

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