Many visitors come to Turkey thinking they have a handle on Turkish cuisine, and that this handle is skewer shaped, impaling delicately seasoned, char-grilled meat. By the time they leave, some of the many and varied dishes that reveal Turkish cuisine’s complex and multi-layered nature will have been sampled, but in actuality, this experience merely scratches the surface. Along with French and Chinese, the Turkish kitchen is regarded as one of the world’s greatest, yet defining it can be tricky.
We asked Hande Bozdoğan, founder of the Istanbul Culinary Institute, what makes Turkish culinary culture so unique: “When we say Turkish food, we talk about a big variety, in terms of types and also geography. With a rich historic and geographic span, today’s Turkish kitchen represents all the food cooked and served in this land, which, some centuries ago, covered an area from the Middle East to North Africa and part of Europe, encompassing various ethnic culinary cultures.”
With this much diversity, it’s possible for ten different visitors to leave with ten different ideas about Turkish cuisine’s many components. With that in mind we wanted to take a closer look at how history, geography, and culture have shaped Turkey’s food history, and paved the way for today’s restaurant scene.
“Turkish food presents incredible variations of delicious tastes because of the ingredients’ sources, the history of Turkish footsteps from central Asia to the Balkans, and the dynamics of early civilization in Anatolia. Turks lived in an area where 80% of edible botanies originated and the world’s oldest cuisines were nourished. Turks also had a big role in the silk and spice road trade over the centuries. Nomadic life meant that Turks were influenced and inspired by others.” Vedat Başaran, Chef and President of Turkey’s Culinary Arts Center, Nar Lokanta and Surplus
The nomadic Turkic tribes, regarded as the ancestors of modern day Turks, departed from the Altay Mountains of what is now Mongolia, to traverse the often unforgiving landscapes of central Asia, before settling in the fertile plains of Anatolia between the 6th and 11th centuries. Along the way, different culinary techniques were assimilated and several of the fundamental aspects of today’s Turkish cuisine were established during this period. Turkey’s world-renowned kebabs can be traced to the pastoralists’ meat based diet, consisting of meat cooked over campfires. The substantial use of yoghurt, another defining feature of today’s Turkish kitchen, was also a feature of those times, when it was most probably fermented by the wild bacteria present in goat skin bags.
When they reached Anatolia, mutton and wheat (the main agricultural products of the region) became the basis of their diet. South Eastern Anatolia is actually regarded as the birthplace of wheat – where it was first cultivated. Bread was cooked on griddles or in clay ovens, while mantı (stuffed dumplings) and a dish similar to börek (filled pastry) were also consumed. As the nomads reached the warm seas of the Mediterranean and Aegean, seafood also became part of the diet.
17th century records suggest that in Istanbul:
250 tons of bread were baked every day
18,000 oxen were slaughtered each month
2000 ships of food sailed to the Golden Horn annually
130 courses were served in one Banquet
After the Ottomans took Constantinople from the Byzantine Empire in 1453, a new chapter began in the Turkish cookbook. The multinational and multilingual empire spread from the Black Sea to North Africa and from Arabia to the Balkans, with Istanbul as the truly cosmopolitan capital. This tri-continental span became the source of Persian, Arab, Balkan, North African, Slavic, and Central Asian influences, which remain on Turkish tables today.
However, it was in the Imperial Palace’s kitchens where Ottoman cuisine really blossomed. Any visitor to Topkapı Palace today understands the importance of eating well by witnessing the ten domes housing huge kitchens where up to 1,300 staff members worked to feed as many as 10,000 discerning, hungry mouths. The hundreds of cooks each specialized in and mastered one food type such as helva, pilafs, fish, vegetables, pastries, soups, jams or beverages. Though it was mostly confined to the palaces, this rich cuisine also spread to the rest of population via royal favors in the form of food trays or Ramadan celebrations.
The Sultan’s appetites were satisfied with lavish feasts that brought in the best produce from the empire’s four corners. As Semi Hakim from Gastronomika told us, “although each chef specialized in their own niche, it actually became a great place for the exchange of ideas, as chefs were brought from each part of the empire. However these traditions remained inside the palace walls and when then Ottoman Empire was dismantled, many of the chefs did not start cooking for the people. As a result, a large number of recipes were lost.”
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To have a go at some Ottoman-inspired recipes, see The Ottoman Kitchen: Modern Recipes from Turkey, Greece, the Balkans, Lebanon, and Syria by Sarah Woodward, or Timeless Tastes: Turkish Culinary Culture published by the Vehbi Koç Vakfı
Yet, in recent years, much work has been done to rediscover the Imperial Palace’s recipes. Vedat Başaran is one of the chefs who worked closely with Ottoman scholars to discover original recipes. One of the key features of palace cuisine was the use of aromatics and fruit in savory dishes, such as chicken with apricots or lamb with figs.
It’s important to note that while certain dishes were being refined in the palace kitchens, other traditions were developing simultaneously in rural Anatolia. These were not only determined by the geography, climate, and regional produce, but also by the different cultures such as the Armenians, Jews, Bulgarians, Laz, Circassions, Kurds, Syrians, and Greeks – who all influenced the rich tapestry of Turkish cuisine.
To read more from this article (originally published in the March/April edition) see: The Main Components of Turkish Cuisine; Turkish Regional Cuisine; Types of Turkish Restaurants in Istanbul; Modern Turkish Cuisine.