Pickles have always been important elements of Turkish cuisine. Nevin Halıcı, expert on Anatolian cuisine, confirms that Celaleddin Rumi wrote about pickles in his works dating back to the 13th century. From the Aegean to the Caucasus, from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, all four corners of Anatolia and modern Turkey are dotted with local flavors getting pickled. They vary as far as the famous pickled Çubuk cucumbers from the Çubuk province near Ankara, to pickled mushrooms of Kastamonu, to brine bathed kayakoruğu (a South Aegean herb), with its highly acidic minerality.
Traditionally, turşu (pickles) were eaten to get the stomach juices flowing in preparation for the heavy foodstuffs that would follow. For Anatolian cuisine, the subsequent dish would most likely be a pastry or a meat dish. Pickles were also useful to aid digestion while eating. To this day, Turks continue to enjoy drinking şalgam suyu, literally the juice of red carrot pickles, which is salted, spiced, and flavored with aromatic turnip to accompany heavy meat dishes from the South East, especially Adana kebab.
The pickling season starts when the raw ingredients, i.e. the cucumbers are at their peak. Collected fresh and pickled, the fruit or the vegetable not only retains its health giving properties, but also its color and texture. The main aim of pickling is to preserve fresh produce in order to consume it even after its season has ended.
While central and eastern European cultures tend to enjoy a much sweeter pickle taste, and have a differing method of pickling, here in Turkey, pickles are obtained in two ways. The most traditional method of pickling is by keeping the fresh vegetable/fruit in water brine for a predetermined time period (most often three months), under the exclusion of oxygen. Fermentation takes place, as with any process of pickling, and produce which would only last for a few days may still be consumed months after. An alternative method of pickling is by adding vinegar to the brine solution, or solely adding vinegar onto the fruits and vegetables. What matters most when it comes to Turkish gusto is that the pickles become sour and salty, whether that’s obtained over a three month period using only a brine solution, or through the much faster (and perhaps more intrusive) method of pickling with vinegar.
The main pickling season in Istanbul is September/October, the pickles lain to brine reaching maturity to be heartily consumed in December. Most traditional households take care of their own pickling, the act becoming a social activity for the whole family to enjoy. Once the pickles are matured , they take their place among the dishes laid out on a family dinner table, where their juicy, salty and sour flavors elevate the taste of homemade meatballs or tepsi böreği (homemade, oven prepared puff pastry).
If you’re on the go, and decide to grab a quick bite of döner dürüm on the way, you are also most likely to come across slices of cucumber pickles in your wrap, or even pickled peppers to add a bit of sour heat.
Alternatively, pickles make a great pairing partner to alcoholic drinks, most notably rakı, its salty acidity cutting through rakı’s viscous sweetness. Many nightlife venues in Istanbul have also started pairing long drinks with pickled green plums’ signature tartness.
HOW TO MAKE YOUR OWN PICKLES
Semi Hakim and Gastronomika team have shown The Guide Istanbul how to transform kelek, a type of unripe melon, into pickle.
First, quarter kelek, making sure to set aside the bulk of the seeds, which will later be added to aid the fermentation process.
The designated pickle jars are first sterilized in boiling water for about ten minutes.
Places the aroma giving ingredients of pickling to the bottom of the jar. For this particular pickle, use only of peeled garlic cloves, and kelek seeds (the sugar found within will also help with the fermentation process). Traditionally, Turks are known to place chickpeas to the bottom of the jar to speed up the fermentation process. "In Poland, they use horseradish roots and leaves for fermentation," Hakim adds, "That’s why their pickles are much sweeter." Alternative aroma giving additions could be cloves, black peppercorns, dill, vine and chard leaves.
Place the sliced fruits tightly within the jar. As the fruits ferment in the brine solution, they will also be getting smaller, which would cause them to float to the top, unless they are tightly packed.
After kelek is snugly fit, fill the jar with a teacup of vinegar and a brine solution, making sure not to leave any space on top. Place another clove of garlic at the top of the jar before sealing. "Garlic as an antioxidant is a natural preservative," Hakim says, "With the addition of garlic, the risk of spoilage is considerably diminished." After sealing the jar, he shakes it to make sure all brine content is evenly distributed.
Kelek pickles require being kept at a constant temperature and away from sunlight. The same goes for cucumber pickles, the most often prepared Turkish pickle variety.
Gastronomika team have experimented with more than 20 different types of pickles, including tomatoes and jujubes from the Aegean, small peppers from the South East, haricot beans, kebab staple sivri biber (thin green peppers with a distinct bitterness that hits on first bite), as well as peaches from Bursa.
"It is a common misperception to think that pickles may only be prepared at the end of summer," Hakim concludes, "All vegetables and fruits, no matter their season, may be pickled, granted you would like to taste them salty and sour in a few months time."
Check out the best places to buy some pickles in Istanbul, here!