Dinner in Istanbul
Çoban Salatası (Shepherd’s Salad)
There are variations of this refreshing salad all across the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, and despite the name, it’s highly unlikely that the shepherds of Central Anatolia have been eating this salad for lunch while moving their herds around the plains and hills. A more plausible explanation is that a shepherd might take a tomato and an onion in his pocket, eating them out of hand while working. Café proprietors and home cooks used that timeless combination of tomato and onion, chopped it up, added some cucumber and a little salt, maybe some fresh herbs, and the “shepherd’s salad” was born. This classically Turkish version uses sumac, which is one of the signature herbs in Turkish cuisine; it is made from the dried, crushed berries of a wild shrub. It has been the primary souring agent in Turkish cuisine since long before the arrival of lemons, and indeed, its flavor is often described as “lemony.” Fresh herbs (especially parsley) are used with abandon in Turkish cooking - much as they are across the Middle East; many salads have no greens aside from herbs, and those that do are often called “lettuce salads.” (Vegan, no gluten.)
Pide Ekmek (Turkish Flatbread)
Though the name might remind you of pita, this flatbread is fairly distinct from its Greek counterpart - it is thick and chewy, and perfect for dipping into stews and lifting up bites of salad. Bread is a staple food across the country, and pide is the standard form of bread in the southeast of Turkey, though it is certainly found in Istanbul. We’ve garnished the pide with nigella seeds, which are a common spice in Turkey. Nigella has a peppery flavor that elevates any plain bread, salad, or cheese. (Contains egg, gluten; no dairy, vegetarian.)
Fasulye Piyazı (White Bean Salad)
This distinctive white bean salad is originally from the Mediterranean town of Antalya, where tahini is a common ingredient. The beans are dressed with tahini and pomegranate molasses, and then topped with raw onion, sliced chile peppers, fresh parsley, a hard boiled egg, and black olives. Pomegranates grow inland along the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, and during September, the fruit comes into season. Fresh pomegranate is a common ingredient in Turkish cooking, but pomegranate molasses is even more common. The fruit is crushed and the juice is boiled until it converts into a rich, sweet-sour molasses; two and a half gallons of pomegranate juice produce only one quart of molasses. Chiles and sweet peppers are frequent additions to Turkish dishes as well; they were brought to Turkey by the Portuguese in the 1600s, and were immediately adopted by palace chefs seeking to create more flavorful dishes for the sultans in Istanbul. (Contains egg, sesame; no dairy, no gluten, vegetarian.)
İmam Bayıldı (Stuffed Roasted Eggplant)
“Turks will stuff anything that can be made to have a space in the middle, and anything they can’t stuff, they will roll.” (From Anatolia: Adventures in Turkish Cooking by Somer Sivrioglu and David Dale) This stuffed eggplant is perhaps one of the most iconic vegetarian dishes in Turkish cuisine. The name translates to “the Imam swooned” - supposedly in delight at the flavor of this dish. This is a preparation that shows up throughout Turkey, and in many other regions of the Ottoman Empire. Eggplants were brought to Turkey by Arab traders over 3000 years ago, and are now by far the most popular vegetable in Turkish cooking - per capita, Turks are the greatest consumers of eggplant in the world. This dish also carries the history of the Ottoman spice trading routes, which passed through various trading centers in the southeast of Turkey, and all converged in Istanbul; cumin, paprika, cinnamon, black pepper, and oregano combine with garlic, onion, and tomato to make a decadent filling for the roasted eggplant. The eggplant is cooked in olive oil prior to stuffing, and this is one of an entire category of dishes in Turkish cuisine that are called zeytinyagli, or “olive oil dishes” - a direct legacy of the Ottoman palace kitchens. (Vegan, no gluten.)
Yoğurtlu Patlıcan Salatası (Garlicky Eggplant Salad)
Garlicky yogurt sauce is a constant in Turkish cooking - the creaminess of the yogurt and the mild bite of the garlic heighten the sweetness of roasted vegetables (eggplant in this case), and balance the richness of many meat dishes. The nomadic tribes that first reached the region of Turkey in the 11th century (prior to the Ottoman Empire, obviously) drank the fermented milk of their horses (as most nomadic tribes did). The fermentation wasn’t a controlled process - it was simply the combination of heat from the sun, and bacteria in the animal-skin pouches in which the milk was carried. The specific bacteria and temperature ranges required for this happy accident to occur mean that yogurt was likely “discovered” in multiple regions around the Middle East and Central Asia around the same time. While many regions lay claim to the invention, there is no dispute that Turks consume more yogurt per capita than any other people in the world - around 50 lbs per year! This dish is called a salad, but it’s smooth and creamy, and perfect for pide dipping! (Contains dairy; vegetarian, no gluten.)
Topalak (Meatballs in Spicy Tomato Sauce)
Turkish cooking does include chicken and beef, and certainly seafood (never pork, as it remains a predominantly Muslim country), but the most common meat eaten - by far - is lamb. It is grilled, roasted, minced, sautéed, and baked into savory pastries. Topalak simply means “round” in Turkish, and these meatballs fall into a category of Turkish dishes called kofte - ground meat that is shaped and cooked in any number of ways. These meatballs combine lamb with bulgur wheat and spices, before poaching them in a spicy, sweet, and sour tomato sauce. Wheat was first cultivated in 10000 BCE in the Fertile Crescent, specifically the region that includes southeastern Turkey and Syria. Bulgur is simply parboiled and cracked wheat, and it is used in many dishes throughout Turkey. (Contains gluten, egg, dairy.)
Şehriyeli Pilav (Rice with Orzo)
We’ve talked about the origins of pilaf a few times now (see Zanzibar and Charleston menus). Polow originated in Persia around 330 BCE, and now shows up in cuisines all over the world. We’ve made a few of them, and we’ll probably make a few more! The distinguishing feature of pilaf is that the rice grains remain separate; the ingredients (aside from rice) vary widely. In Turkish pilaf, short vermicelli noodles or toasted orzo are often added to contribute a nutty flavor and variety of texture. For this pilaf, we’ve opted for orzo, and the grains of rice are coated with butter before cooking, which not only adds flavor, but also helps to keep the grains separate. (Contains dairy, gluten; vegetarian.)
Baklava is a sweet pastry that calls for ultra-thin layers of pastry dough to alternate with chopped nuts and honey or sugar syrup. Baklava (along with Turkish Delight, helva, and elaborate Turkish puddings) is a prime example of the food that evolved in the Ottoman Topkapi Palace kitchens - fussy, time-consuming, beautiful in presentation, and delicious. For centuries, baklava was considered food for wealthy people - it was only in the mid-19th century that it became more common. The sultan employed a baklavaci to make all the syrupy pastries in the palace kitchens (along with several hundred other specialist cooks). While pistachios and pine nuts are generally more common in Turkish cuisine, the walnut (also known as “the king of nuts”) was most widely used in the palace kitchens. The baklava we’re delivering to you this evening comes from Dearborn’s famed Shatila Bakery; their baklava is incomparable, and we know our limits! (Contains gluten, dairy, nuts, soy; vegetarian.)
Available at A&L Wine Castle
Made of twice-distilled grapes and aniseed, Raki is (unofficially) the national drink of Turkey. Whether celebrating, commiserating or commemorating, Raki is the common denominator in Turkish culture, and is enjoyed by Turks from all walks of life. To properly enjoy Raki, pour into a narrow glass and add a splash of chilled water. The cold water will turn the Raki from crystal clear to milky white, hence its nickname in Turkey, Lion’s Milk. Raki tastes best when paired with good conversation, great food, and even better company. We’ve taken care of the food for you, but the other two are up to you!
It would be absurd (and egotistical!) to attempt to capture the history of the Ottoman Empire in a space as small as this. The Islamic Ottoman Empire was one of the most powerful and longest-lasting empires in all of history, and it ruled vast swaths of the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and North Africa for more than 600 years (1299-1922). During its heyday, it was stable, tolerant (as much as an empire can be so), diverse, and prosperous. In the late 1600s, the Ottoman Empire began a long and slow decline (largely because the Portuguese were busy developing competing trade routes all over the globe to break the Ottoman monopoly on the spice trade). Over the next 300 years, numerous battles and revolutions contributed to the Empire’s decline (more detail in the resources below), until the partition of the Empire was finalized in 1920. The sultanate was abolished in 1922, and replaced by the newly established Republic of Turkey. This summary is a vast simplification of centuries of war and enemy oppression; inevitably, in an empire so large, there were hundreds of ethnicities, tribes, languages, and religions, and though the Ottoman Empire was generally known for its religious tolerance, violent suppression did happen. We would be remiss if we did not mention the massacre of ethnic Armenians in the late 1800s and the genocide of 1915-1923. We have included resources below if you’d like to read more about this subject.
The story of the Ottoman Empire is undoubtedly one of migration - some of it elective, but much of it forced. All of the wars and boundary-shifting within the Empire created waves of refugees, with each new wave seeking shelter from persecution and trying to find its place in an already hugely diverse population. With all this human movement came the merging and overlapping of many cuisines. If there was a global culinary Venn diagram, Turkish cuisine would overlap with Armenian, Lebanese, Greek, Cypriot, Italian, Balkan, Iranian, and Russian cuisines (among others). At the same time, there are regional differences in the food within Turkey. The food of Istanbul (in the northwest of the country, on the Black Sea) differs from that of Ankara (the capital of Turkey, on the high Anatolian Plain of central Turkey), and from that of the Mediterranean coast of southern Turkey. Turkish food involves a multitude of fruits and vegetables, with eggplant sitting prominently at the top of the list. The cuisine is a mix of color, balance, and taste. Nuts are common in dishes throughout the country, as are dried fruits and fruit molasses. Bread is a staple everywhere, though the form it takes differs by region. Spices feature heavily in some regions of the country (the regions that were historically on the Spice Trade routes), and very little in other regions.
In 1453, the Ottoman Turks made Istanbul (previously Constantinople) the new capital of the Ottoman Empire; it was a flourishing center of trade and commerce, and a leading influence in science, religion, art, and culture. Most of the thirty-six Ottoman sultans who ruled during the Empire’s history lived in the elaborate Topkapi Palace complex in Istanbul. It was in these kitchens of Istanbul that Turkish “palace cuisine” evolved, distinct from the simpler, agrarian fare of much of the Turkish population. At the height of Ottoman power in the 16th century, there were over 400 cooks employed in the Topkapi kitchens. This palace cuisine, while extremely fussy and ostentatious, has merged with more rustic cooking and is evident throughout Istanbul.
Istanbul is part of both Europe and Asia, as it straddles the Bosporus Strait. It is the most populous city in all of Europe, with over 15 million residents. Modern Istanbul is a city of towering skyscrapers, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has supported a frenzy of construction and modernization during his term, which began in 2014. Its prominence in the Ottoman Empire, along with its location at the fringes of Europe, mean that the food of Istanbul is an amalgamation of flavors and abundant ingredients. Food in the farther reaches of inland Turkey is generally more clearly defined and traditions are carefully guarded. Istanbul cooks have access to seafood from the Black Sea and the Aegean Sea; olives, walnuts, and pomegranates from the fertile inland Mediterranean region; spices from India; nuts and dried fruits from the Middle East; and rice and grains from the Central Anatolian region. There are street carts selling bread and kebabs, bakeries with glass cases overflowing with flaky pastries and sweets, and esnaf lokantasi (workers’ canteens) serving hearty stews and stuffed vegetable dishes to the office workers of the city.
This menu reflects the thousands of years of migration that molded the food of Istanbul. It’s a timely reminder to consider the migrants of our modern times - refugees fleeing climate disaster, war, religious and ethnic persecution, corruption, abuse, and turmoil resulting from complicated political maneuverings far beyond the scope of their own daily lives. Human history is, ultimately, a story of migration: who leaves, who stays, where we go, what we carry, and what we leave behind. It is undoubtedly a complicated subject matter, and we’re hardly experts, but at the very least, our food has improved dramatically because of human migration. The imminently quotable poet and mystic Jallal al-Din Mohammed Rumi was himself a refugee for almost 20 years before spending his last 50 years in Turkey. He offered this reminder, “If the house of the world is dark / Love will find a way to create windows.”
Featured Recipe: Topalak
Lamb Meatballs in a Spicy Tomato Sauce
Makes about 24 meatballs
For the Meatballs:
200g of bulgur wheat
200g ground lamb
60g of onion, coarsely grated (about ¼ of a large onion)
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
2.5 g (½ tsp) red pepper flakes
16 g garlic cloves, finely minced (about 4 large cloves)
3.5 g (½ tsp) salt
For the Sauce:
50 g of butter
24 g garlic, finely minced (6 large cloves)
60 g of onion finely sliced
145 g anaheim peppers, halved, seeded and finely sliced to ⅛” (2-3 peppers)
5 g (1 tsp) red pepper flakes
20 g (1 tbsp) tomato paste
13 g basil leaves, chiffonaded & divided in 1/2
¼ tsp black pepper
¼ tsp salt, plus more to taste
1 28 oz can diced tomatoes in juice
1.5 cups vegetable stock
16 g (2 tbsp) red wine vinegar
33 g (2 tbsp) pomegranate molasses
6 g parsley leaves, large stems removed & finely chopped
Mix the bulgur wheat, lamb, grated onion & any juice, ground cumin, dried chili flakes, garlic, egg and salt in a large bowl until all is well combined
Roll the mixture into one inch meatballs
Place in the fridge to chill while you make the sauce
To make the sauce heat the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat,
Add the garlic and onion and sauté for until the onion is translucent
Add the sliced peppers and cook for a few minutes until the peppers have softened
Add the dried red pepper flakes, tomato paste, half of the basil, black pepper and salt and cook for another minute or so.
Reduce the heat, add the tomatoes, stock, vinegar and molasses, and bring to a simmer. Taste for seasoning & adjust.
Once the sauce is simmering, add the meatballs and cook for 10-15 mins until cooked through.
Add a splash more vegetable stock if the sauce is too dry or does not cover all the meatballs.
Remove from heat and stir in the remaining basil & parsley.
Recipes Inspired By:
The Turkish Cookbook by Musa Dagdeviren, a definitive guide to the regional cuisine of Turkey.
Ripe Figs: Recipes and Stories from Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus by Yasmin Khan.