Foraging and eating wild greens has long played a part in Mediterranean culture and cuisine. It’s said that in the Turkish Aegean region though, the use of ege otlari (Aegean wild greens) was massively influenced by the Cretan Turks who returned to Turkey in 1923 with such a strong love of these weeds that a joke was born: "A Cretan goes into a field with a cow. The son of the field’s owner runs to his father, and says, ‘A cow and a Cretan are in the field! What should I do?’ His father answers: ‘Don’t bother the cow but chase the Cretan out!’ “
Along the Aegean coast, these wild greens now make up a considerable part of the locals’ diet. They are fried with onion and egg, boiled then dressed with lemon and olive oil, or used as börek filling - and that is only a handfulof their incarnations. Apart from being tasty, the nutritional value of these foraged greens is so high that they’re often used for medicinal purposes as well. It’s now common to find these greens at local farmers markets in Istanbul, and also on menus.
Eşek helvası (sow-thistle, or Sonchus asper) has spiny leaves, yellow flowers and looks a lot like its relative the dandelion. When cut, sow thistles secrete a milky substance that was thought to increase milk production when fed to sows, hence the name. Rich in vitamins A, B and C, iron, calcium, and magnesium, sow thistles are beneficial for the liver, kidneys, gallbladder, pancreas, and spleen. Although the plant is prickly, the prickles are actually quite tender and completely edible once the plant is blanched. In Turkey, eşek helvası is eaten mostly in salads.
Isırgan otu (stinging nettle, Urtica dioica) has small fuzzy white flowers, and leaves with serrated edges. It has fine hairs on its leaves and stems that are painful to touch, but when put into contact with an already painful body part, actually help to decrease pain. It’s thought the nettle interferes with the way the body transmits pain signals, and stinging nettle has a long medical history of being used to treat joint pain. When dried, nettles can be used to form a strong fiber that has been used to make clothing for 2,000 years. Due to a shortage of cotton, German Army uniforms were made from nettle during World War I.
The whole plant is edible, and its sting can be neutralized by soaking the plant or heating it. It is often used in mixed green dishes, and bulgur or rice pilaf. At Fıccın in Beyoğlu you can try a stinging nettle and corn soup. İstiklal Caddesi Kallavi Sokak No.13/1, Beyoğlu. T: (0212) 243 83 53.
Arap saçı (wild fennel, Foeniculum vulgare) looks a lot like dill but has a sweet anise scent. Its seeds, leaves, stems and roots are all used in cooking, as well as pollen from its flowers that is sometimes collected and sprinkled over dishes. It can be eaten raw in salads, or blanched and then dressed in lemon and oil. Generally in the Aegean region of Turkey it’s cooked with lamb. It has a long history of herbal use for digestive problems.
Hindiba (wild chicory, Cichorium intybus) has blue or lavender flowers that only open in the morning. It has quite a strong flavor and is usually blanched than dressed with lemon and oil. It's also used in kavurma - a type of meat stew - or made into köfte (meatballs). When its leaves are young and tender, hindiba is eaten raw in salads.
Turp otu (wild radish, Raphanus raphanistrum) is one of the most commonly used wild greens. The plant has radish-scented leaves, white or yellow flowers, and many health benefits. It is used to kill germs in kidneys, helps to pass kidney stones, and strengthens the liver. Wild radish is mostly consumed as a salad prepared by boiling then saucing it with lemon, olive oil, and garlic, or with yogurt and garlic.
Where to eat Aegean weeds in Istanbul?
Giritli in Sultanahmet specialises in the crossover of Cretan and Turkish cuisine. Chef Ayşe Şensılay’s background is Cretan, and her menu offers a good variety of meze and fish. Monday-Sunday 12:00pm - 12:00am. Keresteci Hakkı Sokak No.8, Sultanahmet.T: (0212) 458 22 70
How to make them at home
- 1kg medley of edible wild greens
- 1 tbsp sea salt
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- juice of 1 lemon
- 1 cup white wine vinegar
- salt and pepper to taste
Wash the greens, trim away coarse stems, and discard brown leaves. Soak the greens in a bowl with plenty of water and a cup of vinegar until they’re clean, then drain them. Bring a large pot of water to boil and add salt. Boil the greens for about 15 minutes until the thickest parts of the stems are tender. Drain and place in a bowl, add olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Serve warm or room temperature. Recipe from Cooking on the Boat by Lale and Cem Apa Apa Tasarım, 2012).
Where to learn more
Alaçatı Ot Festivali (Alaçatı Herb Festival) will take place from in April 8-9. During the event, visitors will not only be able to try wild greens, but also learn how to grow and cook them. Plan your trip ahead! For more travel tips for Çeşme area read our offseason travel article.