Turkey, situated as she is between Europe and Asia, forms a culinary buffer zone between the hot spicy food of the Orient and the plainer cooking of the West. She is surrounded by countries which all possess widely different cooking patterns. Her most western section is still part of Europe. A close link exists between Turkey and her Balkan neighbours and as she overran so much of the Balkans in the past, there has inevitably been an exchange of cooking traditions. The long Mediterranean coast line and common borders with Syria and Iraq bring her into contact with the Arab world and the cuisines of the Middle East: her eastern borders touch on Iran and Armenia, with whom she shares tastes of a more Central Asian nature. The constant movement of various peoples into Turkey throughout her long history has enabled her to assimilate all these various cooking patterns into what now forms a distinct Turkish cuisine.
Turkish cooking has evolved from basic simple peasant food; straightforward and practical, using ingredients at hand and presenting them to their best advantage. This type of cooking can be done under any conditions, from the sophisticated modern kitchens in Istanbul with gas stoves, electric mixers and pressure cookers, to wood burning ranges or simple open pit fires in the centre of the village home. The only difference between the peasant meal and the sultan’s banquet is in the quantity of dishes and the expensive extra garnishes. A dish of stewed vegetables will be the same wherever one eats it and just as good: the Turks possess an instinct that knows how to bring out the best in any food. However humble the dish may be, it will always be well cooked and attractively served.
I have cooked a kebab and a pilaf equally well in the middle of a field on an open wood fire as I have in my kitchen at home. I feel this bears out the point that most of Turkish cooking has evolved from generations of practical minded nomads who cooked out in the open and who developed a type of food that could be prepared and eaten easily or re cooked at a later time if necessary. Turkish food reflects this background as it tends to take the form of small bundles or to be rolled into balls which I presume allowed it to be easily carried around and heated up over fires out in the steppe where shepherds might find themselves while following their herds. Much of the time taken in the preparation of Turkish dishes consists in reducing the food to the small sizes which are so typical of the koftes, dolmas, mantis and boreks. Another characteristic feature is the composite dish which combines ail that one needs for a meal in a single confection, as, for example, so many of the versatile casseroles in which Turkish cooking abounds.
It is the unexpected combination of ingredients that surprises one in Turkish food; and this provides an unending source of fascination when travelling, to discover what other people do with food. Turkish cooking is full of contrasts such as poached eggs in cold yogurt, fried mussels with a walnut sauce or cold garlic vegetable stews to mention only a few. Each dish is savoured for itself and is therefore always served separately; this gives the impression of many courses but to my mind is the pleasantest way of enjoying a dish. The natural instinct that every Turk has for serving a balanced meal will guarantee a gastronomic delight.
The average Turkish housewife will expect to do a lot of hard and patient work in the preparation of her meals and will not have many modern appliances to help her. She will probably use hand made wooden utensils such as ladles, mortars and spoons and will cook in large brass or copper pots and trays and will spend many hours stirring these over a large black wood burning stove which requires constant stoking. Although these stoves may appear tiresome and old fashioned to many, they do in fact produce by far the most delicious results. All the meals that I have cooked on them have always turned out the best: there is something about the woody flavour that cannot be captured with gas or electricity. The Turkish cook manipulates her ingredients with a sure touch and a dexterity which has produced a wonderful array of dishes, both as varied and as fascinating as the architecture and cultures with which she is surrounded. Her skill reflects in its richness the subtle merging of peoples both from the Arab world of the eastern Mediterranean and that of the Balkans and Asia.
There is an unlimited list of sumptuous dishes to be had in Turkey and this will only serve as an introduction to their possibilities. I hope it may act as a stimulant to any would be traveller who may feel tempted to sample them in their original setting.
Turkish Cooking Festivals Photos: