Back in the glory days of the Ottoman Empire, perhaps as a corollary to military adventurism, the Turks first tasted exotic spices from the East and discovered they couldn’t do without them. Consequently their chefs adapted and perfected the use of spices in many of their classic dishes. The result of this culinary assimilation spread far beyond their borders with Turkish-style pastries, the quintessential baklava made with filo pastry and pistachio, gaining universal popularity.
The classic Turkish style of cooking is characterised by a light hand with the spice jar, buttressed by time-tested methods of grilling food over charcoal. While we pride ourselves on our tandoors, it is probably fair to say that Turkish barbecuing methods have a far wider reach by leaving an indelible impression on culinary techniques from Tokyo to Manhattan.
At the heart of Turkish food is the olive which grows in abundance all over the country, particularly in the West. Obviously, olive oil is generously used both as a cooking medium with the cold-pressed, extra virgin oil version used in salads and dips.
The classic Mediterranean diet is rich in fresh leafy vegetables, herbs, and seafood with some emphasis on lamb, beef, chicken, nuts, garlic, lentils, and the humble eggplant. Turks don’t enjoy cilantro; they much prefer spices such as cumin, pepper, mint, oregano, parsley and paprika.
A Turkish meal typically begins with a thin soup known as a corba, which, go to the top of the class if you guessed, is the twin separated at birth from our shorba. Turkish soups derive their name from the main ingredient, which may be lentils, wheat, or a delightful yogurt soup made of gently simmered lamb bones and yoghurt, embellished with fresh lemon juice and egg.
One of their dishes, the Karniyarik is popular through the length and breadth of the country. It is gently sautéed eggplant topped with minced meat, onion, parsley, and garlic, and has tomato filling, rich, hearty and voluptuous. Then there is the Turkish version of pizza, a flatbread known as Lahmacun. Imagine a spicy mélange of onions cooked with spices served on flaky thin dough, topped with tomatoes, lettuce, parsley, and rocket leaves. Turks with traditional tastes prefer to squeeze lemon on it and eat it like a kathi roll. Lamacun is believed to have Syrian roots: it is essentially food from the Levant and the Arabic translation is “dough with meat”.
If the olive is the heart of Turkish cuisine, the soul would have to be the kebap: the catch-all name for minced beef or lamb pressed onto a skewer and grilled over a charcoal fire. Turks enjoy lamb or beef kebaps, but nowadays, thanks to Istanbul becoming Bollywood’s go-to destination, chicken kebap has become ubiquitous.
My favourite is the Iskender kebap, one of the most famous dishes in Northwestern Turkey with roots in Iraq. Named for its creator, Iskender Efendi Konağı from Bursa, which is just a two-hour ferry from Istanbul and a lovely place in its own right, this subtly flavoured dish is a rare treat that I first tasted in Bodrum where the Iraqi chef, when pressed for the recipe, simpered coyly before saying her principal ingredient was love.
First a simple pita is placed on a cylindrical plate and lightly topped with tomato concasse, enlivened with a medley of herbs. Then a bed of thinly-sliced lamb is layered on with a healthy slather of Turkish ghee: melted sheep butter. Pop it into a wood-fired oven and when it’s bubbly on top, serve with a scoop of fresh yogurt: heaven on a plate.
Döner is tourist food; I had a friend who caustically enquired, “Who’s the donor?” when he first tried it. It is essentially thinly sliced escalopes of meat lightly pounded with a mallet, seasoned with fat, a secret mix of local herbs and spices, skewered on a rotating spit and grilled vertically. The meat cooks in its own juices and is sliced on the diagonal before being packed into a pita with salad leaves and a yoghurt dressing.
Köfte is the generic term for meatballs, but as my grand aunt Emily observed - albeit in a different context - they come in various shapes and sizes.
Köfte are like our cutlets: freshly ground mincemeat of lamb or mutton with 30 percent fat, mixed with breadcrumbs, minced onions and spices, and grilled in a wood-fired oven. Perhaps the best known is the Izgara Köfte, where the kofte are served with perfectly roasted green pepper, finely chopped parsley, and dried chilli flakes with rice or bread on the side.
If you are in Istanbul, a good place to try soup and kofte is Nezih in the Bebek neighbourhood and Café Privato near the Galata Tower where they serve fabulous breakfasts.
While the Russians make the best dumplings, Turks aren’t exactly slouches when it comes to a delightful comfort food called Manti. As may be expected, the main ingredients, the dough and the filling, are of exceptional quality. Once you savour the eclectic marriage of flavours, the springiness of the doughy exterior yielding to the savoury delight of the filling beef or lamb, perfectly seasoned with herbs, you will realise why good handmade manti is a far cry from ravioli with curd. U2 frontman Bono is a big manti fan too.
Another favourite dish is the Pilav. You’re probably thinking, hello, this sounds way too much like home; what is this but biryani lite? However, the varieties of pilaf found in Turkish cuisine are like all the perfumes of Arabia.
The most popular is sade pilav, a bit like the kushka you get in Impie’s or Empire. It is basically plain rice cooked with butter or oil and tiny pieces of the pasta known as şehriye. There are a whole bunch of variations: rice cooked with eggplants, chickpeas, kidney, liver or sometimes a whole chicken, enlivened with the grace notes of cinnamon, pepper, thyme, cumin, and almonds.
A simple grilled fish with just salt and olive oil tastes divine with pilav; there is another version made with silver fish on a bed or rice.
Turkish food is a smorgasbord, packed with freshness and flavour, and is light on both the digestion and the palate.