Crunchy and chewy, satisfyingly savory with a touch of malty sweetness, nutty from the sesame seeds dotting the ring of bread. These are the tastes of a simit, the ultimate Turkish street snack. While there is no direct English translation, it is often described as a sesame-crusted bread ring. While similar in shape to a donut, the dough is dense and chewy in contrast to regular bread’s fluffy, springy, light texture. Part of simit’s appeal lies in the contrasting tastes and textures—chewy and crunchy, savory yet sweet, satisfying all around.
There are versions of the Turkish treat from Central Asia to Central Europe. The snack closest to the simit is called the obwarzanek krakowski, a trademark of the Polish city of Krakow. The Greek koulouri has a similar appearance, but is crunchier, more of a ring-shaped crispy breadstick. The Balkans is also home snacks similar to the simit, including the Romanian covrigi and the Bulgarian kovrig.
Simit is prepared in a way similar to its European counterparts, dipped in a sugary liquid glaze before going into the oven, giving the simit its unique crust. Turkish simit is sometimes dipped in diluted pekmez (molasses) or boiled molasses and water mix. The latter is called kazan simidi, referring to the cauldron (kazan) in which the molasses syrup is boiled. While dipping the simit may sound like an easy task, the traditional process requires specially mastered skills.
After the dipping process, the dough rings are rolled in sesame prepared specially with a coating of molasses and roasted to achieve a brownish tint and enhanced flavor. Such sesame is produced for simit makers and not available on the market. There has been controversy in recent years about the decline in quality of the sesame as cheaper imports from countries such as India are considered inferior or not ideal for simit. Dipped and rolled simits are then baked in a hot wood-fired oven.
There are different versions of the simit around Turkey and not all are sesame coated. The kel simit (bald simit) of Kastamonu and the Black Sea provinces is made without sesame. The “baldness” gives the simit a different appeal, a shiny, almost gliding surface. Stale kel simit are used to make the local dish tirit, made by reconstituting simit pieces in hearty broth, topped with shredded meat or chicken, and finished off with a healthy pour of melted butter. Simit is often accompanied by strongly brewed Turkish tea served in tulip-shaped glasses. It is most delicious right out of the oven and is considered stale after only a few hours.
A timeless treat
In the past, simit vendors wandered the streets during certain hours. The first tour would start early in the morning as people were rushing to work or having breakfast at home. Later in the day, the second tour would be around afternoon teatime. According to Evliya Çelebi, 16th century writer and historian, “There were a total of 300 sellers and 70 bakeries that made simit five times each day. The last batch came out after dark, and the sellers threaded the rings onto long sticks fixed into the corners of their baskets or trays, and hung a small lantern at the top to attract the attention of the crowds on their way home after work.” In a way, the working day in the city started and ended with simit vendors, with rounds so precise that one could set the clock by the simit sellers. Today, simit vendors are found throughout the city at all hours, reflective of a modern 24/7 lifestyle.
While today’s simits are sized to be a convenient, on-the-go snack, in the past simits were considerably larger, sometimes as big as a hoop or the wheel of a cart. According to a historical court record in Istanbul from 1593, simits weighed around 430 grams, more than three times the weight of today’s 125 gram simits. Simits were larger through at least the 1840s, when British traveler Charles White wrote, “These light cakes are made in rings, a foot in diameter, and retailed by itinerant semitjee, who also sell biscuits called gevrek, composed of wheat flour and the water in which dried peas have been boiled.”
While simit’s size may have shrunk, it still has a big place in people’s hearts. Simit is the snack that satisfies all—rich and poor, young and old, uniting everyone one taste bud at a time.
Recipe: Simit with butter and pekmez
If you find yourself with a stale simit, give it a second go with this recipe. Traditionally, grape or mulberry molasses is used but beet molasses also works well. Melt one or two tablespoons of butter in a pan. Break simit into small pieces or slice in bite-size morsels and add to the pan; toss well to coat the simit pieces with butter, and fry until slightly golden. Drizzle with a stream of molasses and serve while still warm.
Note: The original version of this article was published in the November/December 2017 issue of the magazine and has been reformatted in its online version.