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Turkish cuisine is an interesting one. No one could pinpoint only one specific thing about it as it consists of just too many details to ponder, or at least salivate on. The Turkish cuisine is made up of assorted dishes, each quite different from each other yet complementing each other enough to translate into feast-like meals. The fact that each dish is elaborately crafted makes them so fascinating that one can keep contemplating each without getting tired of it.
As said, not one prevailing feature can be discerned from the Turkish cuisine, and really, the fact that it is so rich and diverse sets it apart from other cuisines. Turkey’s colorful culture is precisely mirrored in its cuisine, making it not only attractive to the eyes but very appealing to every food connoisseur’s palates. The Turks had a way of transforming an ordinary, boring green vegetable into a dish of heightened delicacy and color just by sprucing it up with few additional ingredients.
The history of the cuisine
First of all, let me say a few words about the history of the cuisine, particularly, what influence it had on society. About a century ago, when Istanbul was considered the most influential city in the world, a great amount of money was allocated to the Topkapi Palace for its cuisine. Large kitchen halls were located in few buildings under the ten domes of the palace. In the 17th century, there were 1300 people involved in the food-making process within the palace.
Hundreds of cooks, with each one specializing in making certain dishes, were daily feeding 10 000 court nobilities (Karpat). Besides, trays with different dishes were sent off by the sultan to different cities as a sign of predisposition. The importance of cuisine was also evident in the elite troops of the Ottoman Empire. A large boiler for making pilaf was possessed by each army division and had symbolic meaning. Whenever janissaries demanded changes either in the sultan’s cabinet or of the great vizier, they overturned the boiler. The Turkish expression “to overturn the boiler” is still used to describe riots and unrest.
Turkish cuisine goes back to the times of the Ottoman Empire. If we to characterize the cuisine, we would require a brief excursion into history. The founders of the Ottoman Empire belonged to a subgroup of Turk tribes that have ruled a state of nomadic people of Eastern Siberia in the 5th century. When they have consequently traveled through Persia into Europe, it looked more like it was a crusade. This nation had conquered the great territory of South-Eastern Europe 150 years before capturing Constantinople in 1453.
Far-Eastern military elite had quickly adopted the cultural heritage of the western world. Marriages with princesses and the upper class of the Mediterranean region brought various culinary influences and introduced culinary features of the tribe native to the successive ruler. The local population considered their capturers as barbarians not only due to their religion. The Turkish warrior did not have a knack for cooking – it was enough for them to thread pieces of meat on a skewer and fry it over the bonfire, or boil beans in a large pot. These were the only elements adopted by the Byzantine culinary traditions from Ottoman Empire (Meeker).
In this way, not one dish which is considered Turkish was not adopted from the Siberian State, or invented by Ottomans. Turkish cuisine consists mostly of dishes of the Byzantine ruling establishment, partially modified and varied due to additional components. Concerning a great variety of sweets and flour confectioneries, they have not changed a bit over the millennium (Eren).
There’s no reason to discount such the existence of a rich palette in Turkey as just something that accidentally happened.
All great cuisines come from a mixture of the three elements. These are one, a nurturing environment; two, the existence of an Imperial Kitchen; and three, the lengthiness of the social organization and its influences. Turkey possesses a nurturing environment, one wealthy in flora, fauna, and regional differentiation that are designed to bolster a profuse and diversified food culture. Turkey did have an Imperial Kitchen as well, and here it could be witnessed that all sorts of cooks were eager to please the royal family that the Turkish cuisine cannot help but become more and more perfect as time progresses.
The Turkish cuisine reflects the age of the state as well, its perfection comes with the fact that the state had existed for a millennium or so, long enough for the dishes to become the highlights and mainstays of the Turkish culture, going through refining and evolution countless times.
Better yet, the Turkish cuisine is blessed to be at the crossroads of the Far East and the Mediterranean, a manifestation of the Turkish history of migration, from China and to Europe, where all sorts of influence can take shape. These characteristics as well as history formed a variety of dishes that stamp the uniqueness in Turkish Cuisine. All dishes have room for improvement and refinement and are open to regional changes without sacrificing their core structures, just like every artwork.
Hence, Turkish cuisine is a vital part of its culture.
A problem of course that Turkey has to face because it’s at the crossroads and so many other cultures could influence it, is deciding which ones constitute Turkish cuisine. They have a collection of dishes that originates from the far east of China like mania and the Mediterranean, the ingredients like olives and vines. Then there are those dishes, such as tavukgogsu, chicken breast resting on sweet pudding, that have unclear origins.
Some did claim that this dish is recognized on the menus of early Rome (Oh, Aubergine). Characteristics of Europe, Africa, and Asia coalesced with each other to become the Turkish background. The diversity of the said country’s cuisine reflects this so. The Ottoman Empire had once been ruled by sultans, including Greece, Hungary, Egypt, and Iran, formerly Persia.
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Flavorings original to these countries can be found all over Turkish foods. Turkish cuisine could be described as a synthesis of these cuisines but refined. In turn, the Turkish ways of cooking and the foods had also influenced their cuisines, the other neighboring cuisines, as well as west European cuisines. The Ottomans had merged their different culinary traditions with the influences from Middle Eastern cuisines. The Ottoman Empire certainly formed an immense selection of specialties. Therefore no homogeneity could be expected from Turkish cuisines (Oh, Aubergine).
Dining on Turkish food is doing so on centuries-old recipes, from all sorts of cultures. For example, Ancient Greeks were the ones to introduce to Turkey wine cultivation. The famous sweets came from Persia, as well as sugar and rice. The kebabs show a distinctive Nomadic heritage or the sac-baked bread. Again, olive oils originated from the Mediterranean, without them, a lot of dishes would have been impossible to form. The Arabic influence could be seen in its sweet hot red pepper paste.
The Turkish landscape covers a wide range of geographic zones that by going around, one would experience frequent changing of zones, that is, the recurrent changing of the environmental situations like weather, scenery, and the like. This no doubt influences the regional variations of the cuisines. For instance, in the Eastern region, where long winters are famous, livestock farming is the dominant activity.
After all, this period is best aided by yogurt soup and meatballs flavored with aromatic herbs found in the mountains, and endless servings of tea to prevail over the cold season. And then, on the southeastern part of Turkey, where it is hot and desert-like, they put forward the utmost selection of kebabs and sweet pastries. Spicier foods are the range here as well, compared to other regions, probably to delay spoilage in such scorching weather conditions. Or their unique outlook that they should balance out the heat outside with the heat spicy foods can give their bodies! And other more regional differences brought out by the different conditions a zone has.
To sum that up, the fact that it’s huge and blessed to be between Europe and Asia, Turkey’s varied geography provides it a seasonal climate that allows conflicting things in one country, that is, tea cultivation in the cool north while planting hot pepper and melon in the south. The Black Sea, Sea of Marmara, Aegean, and the southern Mediterranean all supply Turkey with abundant sources of fish and shellfish. That said, Turkey is one of the few countries in the world that sustains itself.
Specifically, these regional specialties are: from northern turkey, the Black Sea region’s cuisine, a bred of corn and anchovies. Then the southeast is well-known for its kebabs, mezes, and desserts such as baklava, kadayıf, and künefe. The western parts of Turkey, where olive trees are abundant, are renowned on the other hand for obviously, its olive oil, a major type of oil used for cooking in Turkey. Mediterranean cuisine influence could be seen in some regions that are rich in vegetables, herbs, and fish. Central Anatolia is favored for its pastry specialties like keşkek, mantı and gözleme.
Among the Turkish states in history, two had contributed majorly to the refinement of Turkish cuisine. One is the Selcuk Turks, which had controlled vast parts of Anatolia. But more importantly, two centuries later, the Ottomans ruled a great territorial mass of Istanbul plus Anatolia. Not only did they greatly influence the food, but it could also be discerned that their ways of life, as well as culinary traditions, were deeply intertwined with their religion, or the practices of Islam. This is a religion they had embraced after coming across it in Persia.
The Ottoman period was when every dish of turkey came to the brink of perfection. The palace’s kitchens were several buildings wide and more or less 13,000 kitchen staff worked there. Hundreds of cooks dedicate themselves to a specialty like soups, pilafs, vegetables, and fish among others that they serve to thousands of people daily in and out of the palace. Dedicated as they were to please their masters or the royal families, they cultivated their dishes into excellence, that they were espoused by different provinces and even reaching North Africa. Istanbul seemed to become the prestigious city where all its ways are being replicated.
Even with its acclaimed simplicity, the unique thing about Turkish cuisine is that a lot of specialties and variations can be made.
Back to eggplants, a simple purple vegetable like this could be prepared forty ways. It could be stuffed with rice, honey, preserves, nut mixtures, cheese, and many more. The Turkish has something called zeytinagli or an olive oil course as well. That’s quite different. And then, all sweets during desserts are usually served with Turkish coffee. Coffee is a big thing in Turkey, and it had even been recognized to spread coffee throughout their empire and to Europe as well.
Modern Turkish cooks have not lost their ability to present various unique aspects of national cuisine. Against the common belief, Turks are using spices very moderately. When cooking, local chefs are doing their best to keep the taste and flavor of the dish’s main component, not trying to cover it up with sauces or spices. For them, the eggplant needs to remain eggplant, lamb to taste like lamb, and pumpkin to keep the flavor of pumpkin.
For example, to prepare zucchini, the Turkish cooks are using little mint and dill, add parsley to eggplant, a few pieces of garlic are providing exquisiteness to cold veggie soups and snacks, seeds of caraway are stressing but not interrupting the taste of lentil soup, and lemon juice is complementing meat and vegetable dishes. Turkish cuisine is diverse, especially concerning its soups. This food is served at dinner time, as well as breakfast and supper. The diversity of Turkish soups could be divided into few groups. First off, soups are made based on meat (usually chicken) broth with the addition of vegetables, rice, noodles, and yogurt.
Secondly, strained cream soups with butter, as well as soups dressed with lemon juice and egg. Another distinct version of the soup is called dzhadzhik. It is made of fresh cucumbers with yogurt and spices and is served with rice. Besides the above, tarhana is frequently added to Turkish soups. Various spices are added to dough from wheat flour and dried up in the sunlight to produce tarhana. The most popular authentic Turkish soups are lentil soup (mercimer corbasi), fish soup (balik corbasi), tripe soup (iskembe corbasi), as well as sour-piquant soup with yogurt and mint called wedding soup (yayla corbasi) made from the lamb’s hind-head. The last one mentioned is famous for being the most original dish in Turkish cuisine (Bender, and Bender).
Only from Turkey, is lokum, a gelled sweet mixed with hazelnuts or pistachios, cut into cubes then was covered in sugar. A Turkish delight as termed in the United States. And where else could one find rose, banana, and eggplant liqueur but here? There is even rose petal or sour-morello cherry jams. I just wonder how they taste!
Arnold E. Bender, and David A. Bender, A Dictionary of Food and Nutrition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).
Kemal H. Karpat, Ottoman Past and Today’s Turkey (Boston: Brill, 2000).
Michael E. Meeker, A Nation of Empire: The Ottoman Legacy of Turkish Modernity (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001).
Nuri Eren, An Experiment in Westernization An Experiment in Westernization (New York: Praeger, 1963).
“Oh, Aubergine.” The Economist 344 (8032). 2007. Web.