Anatolia has a deep-rooted tradition of cultivating dried fruits; a cornucopia which lends itself perfectly to all manner of seasonal treats.
By Aylİn Öney Tan
The famous seasonal pudding aşure—often called Noah’s Pudding in English—is a glorious mix of dried fruits and nuts adorning an otherwise humble wheat berry pudding, and is often served during Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar. Similarly, the Jewish Tu B’Shvat seder table is all about dried fruits and nuts, welcoming spring and the blooming of trees. And, of course, dried fruit makes for delicious fruit cakes, figgy puddings, plum puddings, and mince pies—all perfect for holidays.
These celebrations partly stem from the practices of ancient agrarian communities, and dried fruits are a key component of dishes marking the cycle of seasons.
Iconic trio: grapes, figs, and apricots
Turkey’s role as a major producer of dried fruits—and the world’s leading exporter of raisins, dried figs, and apricots—is rooted in a long-standing Anatolian tradition.
Back in Hittite times, circa 2,000 BC, viticulture was highly developed. The city of Melita, today’s Malatya, whose name is derived from the Hittite word for honey (melit or milit), was famous for its legendary fruit orchards. No wonder that today the city is considered as the capital of apricots, famed for their sweetness.
Dried figs were favorites of rich and poor alike in ancient Greek and Roman times, and dried fruits from the Aegean region of Anatolia were long exported from the port of Smyrna (today’s İzmir)—reaching its zenith during Ottoman times.
Indeed, Anatolian shade-dried, seedless white grapes were even named after the Ottoman sultan—hence the name sultanas—and sultaniye grapes now make delicious fruity coupage wines with steely dry Emir grapes. But as far back as Hittite times, grapes were dried as a nutritious sweet, often incorporated into breads and dishes, as well as used for producing wine and molasses.
Anatolia’s grapes—whether black whole bunch grapes, seedless black grapes, big prune-like black grapes from Horoz Karası, Kilis Karası, or golden-brown Besni grapes from south east—now amount to an astonishing variety.
But this trio is just an elementary introduction to the world of dried fruits in Turkey.
Beyond the trio
Black mulberries have recently become popular, although white mulberries always used to be the snack tucked into pockets of kids going out to play or to school. In the past, when sugar was scarce and expensive, powdered mulberries were used as a sweetener. Mulberries make an ideal sweet-salty contrast when mixed with leblebi, a snack made from roasted chickpeas.
One royal staple of Ottoman tables were barberries. Still growing wild in the woods around the Kastamonu region, barberries are small narrow berries, tart and slightly sweet. They used to adorn buttery saffron pilafs shining like rubies, fit for the sultan. Now the berries are known as zereşk, typically imported from Iran, and have made a comeback on modern tables; ideal to add to soups lightly fried in melted butter, and tossed in salads where they give a refreshing tang. They do miracles when infused with liquors like Amaretto or Grand Marnier, and are glorious when sprinkled over vanilla ice cream or milky puddings like panna cotta or crème brûlée.
One latest trend is for whole persimmons. Their succulent sweet flesh develops an even deeper sweetness, almost like a date, when hung and dried on string. The fruit was actually known as the date of Trabzon, where dates cannot grow in the rainy climate.
Another new fad is to cut thin slices of fruits, such as strawberries, and dry them to a chip-like texture. Just like barberries, they perform well in salads, and on cakes, tarts, and cream puddings.
Last but not least
Dried fruit sweets are often the perfect end to a festive feast. Sucuk usually refers to garlicky, spicy beef Turkish sausage, but cevizli sucuk is also given to sausage-shaped sweets made by dipping strings of walnuts in grape juice syrup thickened with starch. The liquid gels around the strings of nuts, and forms a fun snack.
Pestil (fruit leathers) are made by pasting gelatinous grape or mulberry juice onto waxy paper or plastic wrap, and drying them; resulting in silky, chewy, rollable sheets of fruity goodness. These can be folded into triangular parcels stuffed with pistachios to make muska, meaning a talisman. They are indeed like talismans of fortune; one feels lucky upon biting one. The same is done with stone fruits where the pulp of apricots or prunes are spread out and dried.
Cezerye is a mix of black or purple carrots and walnuts, pretty much like a fruit loaf cut into fingers. If you are lucky to find a whole cone-shaped cezerye, you can decorate it with dried fruits and nuts, and make your own table-top edible Christmas tree to chop down and munch on Christmas Day, and enjoy the rest with mulled wine on Boxing Day.
Where to buy them
There are several branches around the city, but Malatya Pazarı in the Spice Bazaar is nostalgic and unmatchable for its display of dried fruits. Look for fruit leathers stacked on one side; the prune leather in particular is phenomenal. Mısır Çarşısı No.44, Eminönü
Cafer Erol in Kadıköy is the best place for candied whole tangerines, candied cherries, emerald-like unripe green figs, coral-colored candied tomatoes, and bitter orange peels. Bear in mind that they also have a wide selection of fruit-shaped marzipan. Yasa Caddesi No.19, Kadıköy