Delights of Turkish Cuisine

I recently visited the bustling city of Istanbul with great anticipation of eating some of the tastiest foods I’d ever experienced. Diane Seed,my friend from Rome, had organized this adventure for four hungry food lovers who craved the flavorful and exotic tastes we had read and heard so much about. For eight days we walked and taxied through the neighborhoods and narrow streets of Istanbul, eating authentic foods prepared by chefs and home-cooks who had been using the same recipes passed down for decades and centuries. The Ottoman influence in this colorful city was not only apparent in the architecture and markets, but also in the food. Even the presentation in the delicate dishes and domes caused one to imagine how the sultans must have felt during their imperial meals.! Istanbul was nearly like a carnival of smells and flavors at every nook and corner.

The doner kebabs slowly roasting on their long shish, the breads glowing in bakery windows, some so big and airy you couldn’t help but want to poke it. The meze, which are plates of appetizers for snacking while conversing with friends before the meal, was quite a treat. The proud cook would bring a large tray full of plates and bowls filled with various choices from simple to more complex. There might be plates of olives, cucumbers, cheeses, or anchovies. And then there are the dolmas, which means “stuffed”. The Turks can stuff nearly anything, including eggplant, vine leaves, fish, or even tiny okra. The filling is usually minced lamb with rice and plenty of spices that tastes delicious even at room temperature. My favorite of the meze was burek, the flaky pastries filled with cheeses or meats and vegetables. Spicy spreads were also amazing smeared on the delicious flatbreads made by the local baker. Although I can live without dessert, I was delighted with the Turkish baklava, different from Greek baklava in that is does not have honey, but is made with sugar syrup. Oh the pistachio baklava with kaymak (clotted cream) was the perfect ending to the meal!! Istanbul is the perfect city for experiencing every food culture of Turkey. Many restaurants boast the foods of their ancestors’ regions, and their grandmother’s recipes.

Vegetables, fruits, and fish are brought to Istanbul from all over the country for the locals and visitors to get the experience of many wonderful places. Many times I sat in a small, family-owned restaurant being served the finest dish the cook knew, while he stood before me with a huge smile, waiting for my reaction to his creation. Only once did I cringe while being watched, but I managed to give a little smile and nod of appreciation. That was the time we were served raw beef that had been coated in spices and hand-massaged for six hours until the heat of the hand had “cooked” the meat. I can’t say I would ever want to taste that again, but I appreciate the labor of love that went into that dish.

I had to buy a new suitcase to bring back all the wonderful spices and bottles of pomegranate molasses. The ceramic platter with the sultan seal was quite a find, and required special packaging. But it has already been used in my home to hold the kebabs of minced lamb I grilled with my new skewers from the spice market. I still crave the lamb I ate in Istanbul, and the cheese, olives, sauces, grilled fish, and Turkish sweets. There is a certain pride there of their history and blend of cultures all over the world. In their food you can get glimpses of Greek, Asia, and Iran, but Turkey has its own signature that leaves a really good taste in your mouth.

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