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For those who travel to engage in culinary pursuits, the Turkish Cuisine is worthy of exploration. The variety of dishes that make up the cuisine, the ways they all come together in feast-like meals, and the evident intricacy of each craft involved offer enough material for life-long study and enjoyment. It is not easy to discern a basic element or a single dominant feature, like the Italian "pasta" or the French "sauce". Whether in a humble home, at a famous restaurant, or at dinner in a Bey's mansion, familiar patterns of this rich and diverse cuisine are always present. It is a rare art which satisfies the senses while reconfirming the higher order of society, community and culture. A practically-minded child watching Mother cook "cabbage dolma" on a lazy, grey winter day is bound to wonder: "Who on earth discovered this peculiar combination of sautéed rice, pine-nuts, currants, spices, herbs and all tightly wrapped in translucent leaves of cabbage, each roll exactly half an inch thick and stacked up on an oval serving, plate decorated with lemon wedges? How was it possible to transform this humble vegetable to such heights of fashion and delicacy with so few additional ingredients? And, how can such a yummy dish also possibly be good for you?" The modern mind, in a moment of contemplation, has similar thoughts upon entering a modest sweets shop where "baklava" is the generic cousin of a dozen or so sophisticated sweet pastries with names like: twisted turban, sultan, saray (palace), lady's navel, nightingale's nest... The same experience awaits you at a muhallebici" (pudding shop) with a dozen different types of milk puddings. One can only conclude that the evolution of this glorious cuisine was not an accident, but rather, as with the other grand cuisine of the world, it was a result of the combination of three key elements.
A nurturing environment is irreplaceable. Turkey is known for an abundance and diversity of foodstuff due to its rich flora, fauna and regional differentiation. Secondly, the legacy of an Imperial Kitchen is inescapable. Hundreds of cooks, all specializing in different types of dishes, and all eager to please the royal palate, no doubt had their influence in perfecting the cuisine as we know it today. The Palace Kitchen, supported by a complex social organization, a vibrant urban life, specialization of labor, worldwide trade, and total control of the Spice Road, all reflected the culmination of wealth and the flourishing of culture in the capital of a mighty Empire. Finally, the longevity of social organization should not be taken lightly either. The Turkish State of Anatolia is a millenium old and so, naturally, is its cuisine.
Time is of the essence, as Ibn'i Haldun wrote, "The religion of the King, in time, becomes that of the people," which also holds for the King's food. Thus, the 600-year reign of the Ottoman Dynasty and a seamless cultural transition into the present day of modern Turkey led to the evolution of a grand cuisine through differentiation, the refinement and perfection of dishes, and the sequence and combination of the meals in which they are found. It is quite rare when all three of the above conditions are met, as they are in French, Chinese and Turkish Cuisine. Turkish cuisine has the added privilege of being at the cross-roads of the Far East and the Mediterranean, resulting in a long, and complex history of Turkish migration from the steppes of Central Asia (where they mingled with the Chinese) to Europe (where their influence was felt all the way to Vienna). Such unique characteristics and extensive history have bestowed upon Turkish cuisine a rich selection of dishes all of which can be prepared and combined with others to create meals of almost infinite variety, but always in a non-arbitrary way. This led to a cuisine that is open to improvisation through development of regional styles, while retaining its deep structure, as all create works of art do. The cuisine is also an integral aspect of the Culture. IL is a part of the rituals of everyday life. it reflects spirituality, in forms that are specific to it, through symbolism and practice. Anyone who visits Turkey or has a meal in a Turkish home, regardless of the success of the particular cook, is sure to notice the uniqueness of the cuisine. Our intention here is to help the uninitiated employ Turkish food by achieving a more detailed understanding of the repertoire of dishes and their related cultural practices as well as their spiritual meaning.
Early historical documents show that the basic structure of Turkish cuisine was ,already established during the Nomadic Period and in the first settled Turkish States of Asia. Culinary attitudes towards meat, dairy products, vegetables and grains that characterized this early period still make up the core of Turkish thinking. Early Turks cultivated wheat and used it liberally), in several types of leavened and unleavened breads either baked in clay ovens, fried on a griddle, or buried in embers. "Manti", (dumpling), and "Bugra," (the ancestor of "börek," or filled pastries, named for Bugra Khan of Türkestan) were already among the much-coveted dishes of this time. Stuffing not only the pastry, but also all kinds of vegetables was common practice, and still is, as evidenced bv dozens of different types of "dolma". Skewering meat as well as other ways of grilling, later known to us as varieties of "kebab," and dairy products, such as cheeses and yogurt, were convenient staples of the pastoral Turks. They introduced these attitudes and practices to Anatolia in the 11th century. In return they met rice, the fruits and vegetables native to the region, and hundreds of varieties of fish in the three seas surrounding the Anatolian Peninsula. These new and wonderful ingredients were assimilated into the basic cuisine in the millennium that followed.
Anatolia is the region known as the "bread basket of the world." Turkey, even now, is one of the seven countries in the world which produces enough food to feed its own populace and still his plenty to export. The Turkish landscape encompasses such a wide variety of geographic zones, that for every two to four hours of driving, you will find yourself in a different zone amid all the accompanying changes in scenery, temperature, altitude, humidity, vegetation and weather. The Turkish landscape has the combined characteristics of the three oldest continents of the world (Europe, Africa, and Asia) and an ecological diversity surpassing any other country along the 40th latitude. Thus, the diversity of the cuisine has taken on that of the landscape with its regional variations. In the eastern region, you will encounter rugged, snow-capped mountains where the winters are long and cold, along with the highlands where the spring season with its rich wild flowers and rushing creeks extends into the long and cool summer. Livestock farming is prevalent. Butter, yogurt, cheese, honey, meat and cereals are the local food. Long winters are best endured with the help of yogurt soup and meatballs flavored with aromatic herbs found in the mountains, followed by endless servings of tea. The heartland is dry steppe with rolling hills, and endless stretches of wheat fields and barren bedrock that take on the most incredible shades of gold, violet, and cool and warm greys, as the sun travels the sky. Along the trade rotates were ancient cities with lush cultivated Orchards and gardens. Among these, Konya, the capital of the Selcuk Empire (the first Turkish State in Anatolia), distinguished itself as the center of a culture that attracted scholars, mystics, and poets from all over the world during the 13th century.
The lavish cuisine that is enjoyed in Konya today, With its clay-oven (tandir) (tanduri you know) kebabs, böreks, meet and vegetable dishes and helva (halva) desserts, dates back to the feasts given by Sultan Ala ad Din Keykubat in 1.237 A.D. Towards the west, one eventually reaches warm fertile walleys between cultivated mountainsides, and the lace-like shores of the Aegean where nature is friendly and life has alwavs been easygoing, Fruits and Vegetables of all kinds are abundant, including, best of all, sea food! Here, olive oil becomes a staple and is used both in hot and cold dishes.
The temperate zone of the Black Sea Coast, to the north, is protected by the high Caucasian Mountains and abounds in hazelnuts, corn and tea. The Black Sea people are fishermen and identity themselves with their ecological companion, the shimmering "hamsi" a small fish similar to the anchovy, There are at least forty different dishes made with hamsi, including desserts! Many poems, anecdotes and foIk dances are inspired by this delicious fish.
The southeastern part of Turkey, is hot and desert-like offering the greatest variety of kebabs and sweet pastries. Dishes here are spicier compared to all other regions, possibly to retard spoilage in hot weather or as the natives say, to equalize the heat inside the body to that outside!
The culinary center of the country is the Marmara Region, including Thrace, with Istanbul as its Queen City. This temperate, fertile religion boasts a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, as well as the most delicately flavored lamb. The variety of fish that travel the Bosphorus surpasses that of other seas. Bolu, a city on the mountains, supplied the greatest cooks for the Sultan's Palace, and even now, the best chef's in the country come From Bolu. Since Istanbul is the epicenter of the cuisine, a survey of the Sultan's kitchen is required to understand it...
The importance of culinary art to the Ottoman Sultans is evident to every visitor to Topkapi Palace. The huge kitchens were housed in several buildings under ten domes. By the 17th century some thirteen hundred kitchen staff were housed in the Palace. Hundreds of cooks, specializing in different categories, such as soups, pilafs, kebabs, vegetables, fish, breads, pastries, candy and helva, syrups and jams, and beverages, fed as many as ten thousand people a day, and, in addition, sent trays of food to others in the city as a royal favor. The importance of food has also been evident in the structure of the Ottoman military elite, known as the Janissaries. The commanders of the main divisions were known as the Soupmen, other high ranking officers included the Chief Cook, the Scullion, the Baker, and the Pancake Maker, though their duties had little to do with food. The huge cauldron used to make pilaf had a special symbolic significance for the Janissaries, and was the focal point of each division. The kitchen was at the same time the center of politics, for whenever the Janissaries demanded a change in the Sultan's Cabinet, or the head of a grand vizier, they would overturn their pilaf cauldron. "Overturning the cauldron," is an expression still used today to indicate a rebellion in the ranks. It was in this environment that hundreds of the Sultans' chefs, who dedicated their lives to their profession, developed and perfected the dishes of the Turkish cuisine, which was then adopted in from the Balkans to southern Russia, and reaching as fir as North Africa. Istanbul was then the capital of the world and had all the prestige, so its ways were imitated. At the same time, it was supported by an enormous organization and infrastructure which enabled all the treasures of the world to flow into it. The provinces of the vast Empire were integrated by a system of trade routes with caravanserais for refreshing the weary merchants and security forces. The Spice Road, the most important factor ii-i culinary history, was under the full control of the Sultan. Only the best ingredients were allowed to be traded under the strict standards established by the courts.
Guilds played an important role in the development and sustenance of the cuisine. These included hunters, fishermen, cooks, kebab cooks, bakers, butchers, cheese makers and yogurt merchants, pastry chefs, pickle makers, and sausage merchants. All of the principal trades were believed to be sacred and each guild traced its patronage to the saints. The guilds set price and quality controls. They displayed their products and talents in spectacular parades through Istanbul streets on special occasions, such as the circumcision festivities for the Crown Prince or religious holidays.
Following the example of the Palace, all of the grand Ottoman houses boasted elaborate kitchens and competed in preparing feasts for each other as well as for the general public. In fact, in each neighborhood, at least one household would open its doors to anyone who happened to stop by for dinner during the holy month of Ramadan, or during other festive occasions. This is how the traditional cuisine evolved and spread, even to the most modest corners of the country.
A survey of the types of dishes according to their ingredients may be helpful to explain the basic structure of Turkish cuisine. Otherwise there may appear to be an overwhelming variety of dishes, each with a unique combination of ingredients and its own way of preparation and presentation. All dishes can be conveniently categorized: grain-based, grilled meats, vegetables, seafood, desserts and beverages. Before describing each of these categories, some general comments are necessary. The foundation of the cuisine is based on grains (rice and wheat) and vegetables. Each category of dishes contains only one or two types of main ingredients. Turks are purists in their culinary taste, that is, the dishes are supposed to bring out the flavor of the main ingredient rather than hiding it under sauces or spices. Thus, the eggplant should taste like eggplant, lamb like lamb, pumpkin like pumpkin, and so on. Contrary to the prevalent Western impression of Turkish food, spices and herbs are used very simply and sparingly. For example, either mint or dill weed are used with zucchini, parsley is used with eggplant, a few cloves of garlic has its place in some cold vegetable dishes, and cumin is sprinkled over red lentil soup or mixed in ground meat when making "köfte" (meat balls). Lemon and yogurt are used to complement both meat and vegetable dishes as well as to balance the taste of olive oil or meat. Most desserts and fruit dishes do not call for any spices. So their flavors are refined and subtle. There are major classes of meatless dishes. When meat is used, it is used sparingly. Even with the meat kebabs, the "pide" or the flat bread is the largest part of the dish alongside vegetables or yogurt. Turkish cuisine also boasts a variety of authentic contributions to desserts and beverages.
For the Turks, the setting is as important as the food itself. Therefore, food-related places need to be considered, as well as the dining protocol. Among the "great-food places" where you can find ingredients for the cuisine are the weekly neighborhood markets ("pazar") and the permanent markets. The most famous one of the latter type is the Spice Market in Istanbul. This is a place where every conceivable type of food item can be found, as it has been since pre-Ottoman times. This is a truly exotic place, with hundreds of scents rising from stalls located within an ancient domed building, which was the terminus for the Spice Road. More modest markets can be found in every city center, with permanent stalls for fish and vegetables. The weekly markets are where sleepy neighborhoods come to life, with the villagers setting up their stalls before dawn in a designated area to sell their products. On these days, handicrafts, textiles, glassware and other household items are also among the displays at the most affordable prices. What makes these places unique is the cacophony of sounds, sights, smells and activity, as well as the high quality of fresh food, which can only be obtained at the pazar. There is plenty of haggling and jostling as people make their way through the narrow isles while vendors compete for their attention. One way Lo purify body and soul would be to rent an inexpensive flat by the seaside for a month every year and live on fresh fruit and vegetables from the pazar. However, since the more likely scenario is restaurant-hopping, here are some tips to learn the proper terminology so that you can navigate through the cuisine (just in case you get the urge to cook a la Turca) as well as the streets of Turkish cities, where it is just as important to locate the eating places as it is the museums and the archaeological wonders
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