Turkish Cooking

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My first recollection of childhood often focused on one kitchen of our historic home where we loved to sneak. It was a huge rectangular room with a wall to wall fireplace, dotted with all sizes of cooking pots - from a huge cauldron to a teapot. At one end there was a row of high windows. The walls were filled with rows and rows and rows of shelves stacked with jars of jams, herbs and spices.

But we loved most, the corner where the water pump stood - dripping into a large cauldron in which cucumbers, tomatoes and watermelons floated to cool. We kept away from the end where a whole lamb with its head cut off hung from a chain attached to a high black ceiling. On cold winter days when we could not play outside and the cook would not have us in the kitchen, we sat on the service window from which food was passed to the dining room and watched the cook chopping meat, cutting vegetables and mixing herbs.

We lived in a large three story home on a steep hill overlooking the Aegean Sea. Thus the delights of Turkish cooking were known only to those who visited Turkey and those who were entertained in Turkish homes. But now that the recipe book and measuring cup have captured the magic of the professional instinct; the delights of Turkish cooking can be easily duplicated across the oceans, over the mountains, many leagues away from Turkey.

The Turkish peninsula boasts six millennia of ancient and modern cultures. It is the cradle of many civilizations. Peoples from many directions and diverse climes have flocked to its green valleys and blue seas. They have bred many empires Aegean Seaand then settled to enjoy the pleasures of its climate, the delights of its many products. The Turkish cuisine is the result of this historical experience, fertilized by centuries of continuous crossbreedings from East to West and sustained by an infinite variety of fish, meat, vegetables and fruits.

Many of the well-known national cuisines rely on one basic element. For instance, French cuisine is based on the sauce. Pasta forms the essence of Italian cuisine. There is, however, no single dominant feature in the Turkish kitchen. Meats, fish vegetables, pastries and fruit are cooked in an infinite variety of ways. Eggplant alone can be prepared in at least forty different ways. Variety might catch the imagination, but taste is of the essence. Millennia have worked to refine the Turkish palate. In Istanbul, the people choose their drinking water as others would choose their wine. A sip suffices to identify the spring from which the water comes. And the proverb says, "choose your friend by the taste of his food".

In Turkey you never order peaches. You must specify whether you want Bursa (a city south of Istanbul) peaches or Izmir (a western Aegean city) peaches. When you want fish, you must specify its age. "Cinakok" is a generation younger than "Lufer". "Torik: is a year older than "palamut". This sensitivity to nuance reflects the Turkish aesthetic approach to food.

Fresh herbs play an important part in Turkish cuisine. They should always be used when called for in a recipe, unless dried herbs are designated as a substitute.

The environment where food is consumed acquires utmost importance. Inevitably the table must overlook the sea, or the hills of the inner court. Food must be consumed leisurely as one's eyes feast on the beauties of nature. The "open-air" restaurant or cafe so characteristic of Continental Europe, has its origin in the Ottoman Turkey. The outdoor restaurant was brought to Vienna in the seventeenth century by Austrian ambassador to the Ottoman court, who had enjoyed open-air cafes on the shores of Bosporus. French "cafe" was a child of Turkish coffee, which the Ottomans picked up from the southern extremities of their empire, in Arabia, and learned to enjoy after dinner and offer as a token of friendly welcome to their guests.

In view of the literal injunction of the Koran against wines, the Turks, a Muslim people, developed Raki --distilled from grapes-- as their national drink. Raki is colloquially termed lion's milk because of its potent effect. A formal Turkish dinner, even today, begins with raki and a variety of d'oeuvres, called meze, spread on the table. It is the hostess with the mostest of mezes who receives the gold medallion.

In the secular republic of Turkey, wines also grace many a table. Turkey will be recalled as the cradle of the Sultana raisins. The Aegean still abounds with the amphorae from Roman galleys which, loaded with famed wines of Asia Minor, were caught between Scylla and Charybdis and never made the return trip. A great proportion of the famed Sultanas are today made into delectable wines, a percentage of which is exported from France for blending with French wines.

Turkish cuisine is the most extensively internationalized. For hundreds of years, the Ottoman Empire spread from the Danube to the tip of the Arabian Peninsula. It bred fourteen independent modern states. The basics of Turkish cuisine today prevail from the Balkans to the shores of North Africa; Greeks and Turks, for instance, will be found to relish in the same dishes. The further south one travels, the more spicy becomes the taste. The Arabs have a hot palate. Southwest in Greece and Albania, olive oil dominates with greater pungency. The Turks like to think that as the founders of Turkish cuisine, theirs is the most refined taste.

Indeed, as one travels in the Eastern Mediterranean, one finds that real Turkish cooking is devoid of any extremes of taste and is more agreeable to the international dishes. Many of the vegetable stews provide imaginative and tasteful side dishes. Chicken Walnut or Spinach Boerek is a tasty appetizer.

Preparation is also not inhibitive. For the host and hostess who seek to combine novelty and imagination with exoticism and tastefulness, Turkish cuisine offers limitless opportunities.

------- Armagan Ozdiker

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