Turkish Cuisine 101

With its  diverse rich flora, fauna, regional contrasts  and the legacy of an Imperial Kitchen, Turkey is known for its abundance and diversity of foodstuff. Hundreds of  imperial kitchen cooks, all specializing in different types of dishes, and all eager to please the royal palate, had their influence in perfecting  the Turkish  cuisine as we know it today. Turkish cuisine is largely described as a fusion and refinement of Central Asian, Middle Eastern and Balkan cuisines. With an astonishing variety of ingredients and influenced by the numerous civilizations which have inhabited Anatolia (small Asia in Turkish) throughout history, Turkish cuisine is simply delicious. There are different variations of Turkish cuisine across different regions of Turkey. The cooking of Istanbul, Bursa, Izmir, and rest of the Aegean region maintains several key aspects of Ottoman cuisine, light on the spices, the use of rice over bulgur (wheat cereal), and more emphasis on seafood dishes. The Black Sea Region is heavily influenced by Balkan and Slavic cuisine, and meals often includes maize dishes. Almost every region has its own specialty dish, for instance Kanlica in Istanbul is well known for its yogurt, Gaziantep for its pistachio nuts, Bursa – Iskendar Kebab, the Black Sea Region uses fish extensively in their cuisine, especially the Black Sea anchovy (hamsi) and the Syrian borderlands (Urfa and Adana) for spicy kebabs, mezes and dough-based desserts such as baklavakadayıf and künefe (kanafeh). When you are visiting Turkey, here’s a few dishes we recommend you get your hands on!

Any decent Turkish meal starts out with a selection of mezes (appetizers) both cold and hot. Some popular cold appetizers include stuffed mussels (midye dolma), humus, patlican salatasi (pureed aubergine salad), yaprak dolma (stuffed vine leaves) and cevizli tavuk (Circassian chicken ). The hot mezes usually include borek, (thin layers of flaky pastry stuffed with cheese, meat or spinach), sautéed lamb’s liver with onions and kalamari.

Our featured appetizer is the yaprak dolma. This Turkish dish is essentially vine leaves wrapped around fillings and the filling generally consists of rice, minced meat or grain. For other variations, the filling includes onion, parsley, herbs and spices. For those who want to try making this dish, here’s the recipe:

Ingredients

  • 1 cups onion, finely diced
  • 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup short-grain white rice
  • 3 tbsp pine nuts
  • 2 cups water
  • 3 tbsp currants
  • 3 tbsp flat-leafed parsley, finely chopped
  • 2 tsp fresh mint, finely chopped
  • 2 tsp dill, finely chopped
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
  • juice of 1 lemon

Makes six dozen, but if that seems like hard work, stuff some sweet, slender peppers.          If using fresh vine leaves, blanch for at least 3 minutes to soften, then refresh under cold water. If using preserved ones, rinse under cold water to remove the brine, and drain.     In a pot, add 1/4 cup of olive oil and fry the onion until translucent. Add the rice and pine nuts and continue to fry for a couple of minutes. Stir in a cup of water, herbs, currants and a generous amount of salt and pepper. Cover and simmer on a low heat for 15 minutes until the water has been absorbed. Set aside. Place the vine leaves smooth side down on a clean surface and heap a teaspoon of filling into the centre, then fold the stem end and sides over the filling and roll into a cigar shape.

Line a heavy-based pan with some unfilled vine leaves, then tightly pack and layer the rolls, seam side down. Douse with the remaining olive oil, water and lemon juice and invert a plate over the pan to keep them packed firmly. Cover the pot tightly and simmer on a low heat for one hour. Remove from heat, allow to cool and leave for up to two hours to absorb the juices.                                                                                                            To serve – Carefully lift out dolmades and refrigerate before serving. Serve with chilled yogurt. Greek, of course.

Turkish main courses are primarily fish or meat dishes, and the spices and herbs used to flavor the meat varies from region to region. Guvec dishes are delicious casseroles cooked in earthenware pots. Et sote, a kind of goulash, is very good, as is coban kavurma. Our featured main dish is the Kuzu Guvec (lamb casserole). Derived from an Altaic word for a clay cooking vessel, the  Kuzu Guvec is a dish made of lamb and vegetables and baked in a clay pot. The meat, vegetables and spices are mixed together and placed in the pot and the key to preparing good guvec is the slow cooking in the closed clay pot, which brings out the flavors of all the ingredients. The great thing about this dish is that one can alter the recipe to suit one’s own tastes, be it more meat, less spice or a dish that is entirely vegetarian. Like many traditional Turkish cuisine, rice is a fantastic accompaniment to this casserole dish. This kuzu guvec recipe is easy to make and is not time consuming so give it a try!

Ingredients 

  • 2 small eggplants, sliced
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 lbs lamb, cut in 1-inch cubes
  • 2 onions, sliced
  • 1/2 lb green beans, cut in half
  • 3 small zucchini or 2 medium zucchini, sliced thick
  • 4 medium tomatoes, peeled and quartered
  • fresh ground pepper
  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Preparation  Sprinkle the eggplant slices with 1 tsp salt and let sit 20 minutes; rinse thoroughly and drain. (This step releases some of the bitter juices from the eggplant.). In a flameproof casserole or ovenproof large skillet, saute the lamb in butter until browned on all sides. Add onions and saute 2 more minutes. Toss together the beans through tomatoes with remaining 1 tsp salt plus pepper to taste and arrange atop the meat and eggplant. Add water to almost cover the vegetables, sprinkle with paprika and bring to a boil over moderate heat. Transfer to a preheated 350F oven and bake 50-60 minutes until lamb is tender. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.

No meal is complete without dessert and one of the world-renowned desserts of Turkish cuisine is the baklava. This insanely sweet dessert dish is made of layers of rich filo pastry filled with chopped nuts (pistachio or walnut) and sweetened with syrup or honey. It’s the perfect after meal dessert to have!

Ingredients

  • 1 (16 ounce) package phyllo dough
  • 1 pound chopped nuts
  • 1 cup butter
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup honey

Preparation Preheat oven to 350 degrees F(175 degrees C). Butter the bottoms and sides of a 9×13 inch pan. Chop nuts and toss with cinnamon. Set aside. Unroll phyllo dough. Cut whole stack in half to fit pan. Cover phyllo with a dampened cloth to keep from drying out as you work. Place two sheets of dough in pan, butter thoroughly. Repeat until you have 8 sheets layered. Sprinkle 2 – 3 tablespoons of nut mixture on top. Top with two sheets of dough, butter, nuts, layering as you go. The top layer should be about 6 – 8 sheets deep.                                                                                                                                Using a sharp knife cut into diamond or square shapes all the way to the bottom of the pan. You may cut into 4 long rows the make diagonal cuts. Bake for about 50 minutes until baklava is golden and crisp. Make sauce while baklava is baking. Boil sugar and water until sugar is melted. Add vanilla and honey. Simmer for about 20 minutes. Remove baklava from oven and immediately spoon sauce over it. Let cool. Serve in cupcake papers. This freezes well. Leave it uncovered as it gets soggy if it is wrapped up.

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