Monday, August 17, 2009
Pass the Turkey Please
The soul of a country can be seen inside the food they serve. The joy and the beauty of the Italian people flows through their pasta. The peasant power of China is seen in their rice. The on-the-go mentality of Americans is ever present in our pre-packaged, frozen cuisine and numerous fast food chains. I learned on my recent jaunt to Turkey that their food also reflects the complexity of their culture and history as a nation on the doorstep between Oriental and Western cultures. Sometimes, though, we have a primal need to bury our soul out of sight. Thus the invention of alcoholic beverages. Turkey has these too, in full measure, and I was so kind as to sample the various varieties so I could report back on them to you, dear reader.
First things first, though, a man must eat, and in my journey from Istanbul to Efes there was no shortage of options likely to turn that man into one of Pavlov's drooling beasts. Fortunately, I was prepared, having spent several years being taught the advanced art of Tongue Fu by Shaolin monks.
Tidal waves of saliva began to flow at each meal with the meze, a series of side items and finger foods that can play the role of appetizer or the main course. Meze made up the majority of the meal in Istanbul, but when we traveled in Anatolian Turkey mezes were lighter and a course composed of a spiceful, brothy soup was often inserted. You can see a selection of meze in the picture accompanying this article. The eggplant and tomato dish on the far right was my personal favorite from that meal.
Yogurt, sometimes served with dill, but not with fruit as we often see in the United States, is a constant at every meal, whether used as a sauce or meze. Fresh fruits and vegetables are standard as well, and you can absolutely count on an attack by some killer tomatoes. The honeydew, plums, and apricots are amongst the juiciest I have ever consumed, melting in your mouth like the perfect M&M.
One of my favorite items often served as meze is dolma. Dolma translated into English means "stuffed" and can come in many different forms. The objects being filled to bulging with tastiness by the taxidermist/chef include peppers, eggplants, and grape leaves. Inside you will find a savory combination of rice, tomato, meat, and spices.
When time came for the main course I often had to struggle with the urge to give up and call it a meal. By summoning up my mental fortitude I was able to soldier on and thus can report back to you on what I found.
There are some items in Turkey with which Americans would be somewhat familiar. Kebabs, for example, have found their way onto the menu of many a restaurant here. The Turkish versions I saw differed slightly - they were not served upon a skewer (as in shish kebab) - probably because of the bad experiences the Ottomans had with a man named Vlad the Impaler. Nor were they diced into chunks of meat and vegetable. Turkish kebabs consisted of a piece of tenderloin or lamb stuffed with cheese and vegetables. Some were topped with a sauce, others served plain.
Of the foods I sampled the kebabs were amongst the best, but were unable to reach Olympic medal status. Which flavors did manage to medal in the gustatory battle?
Bronze: Pide. No food does a better job of illustrating the combination of Eastern and Western influences in Turkish cuisine. Pide is the local form of pita, but lacking the pocket we normally associate with the bread. Instead, pide is made into the Turkish version of pizza, with various meats, cheeses, and vegetables (almost always includes tomatoes) used as toppings. The pide is chopped up into small finger food-sized portions. Similar to pide is lahmacun, an oval-shaped pide dough topped with finely chopped meats and herbs. Lahmacun melts in your mouth like the butter made from the udders of the Gods, assuming you are Polytheistic enough to enjoy such a concept.
Silver: Manti. Manti is a Turkish pasta that consists of folded triangles of dough filled with minced meat, often with minced onions and parsley. Manti is typically served hot topped with garlic yogurt and melted butter or warmed olive oil, and a range of spices such as oregano, dried mint, ground sumac, and red pepper powder. The version I sampled in Cappadocia involved a ring of yogurt topped dumplings encircling a castle of minced meat and onions. This dish alone was almost good enough to justify the long flight to Turkey.
Gold: Yurek Kavurma. I had many great meals during my seven days in Istanbul and Anatolia, but the best may have been the very first. My stepmother prepared a very typical Turkish repast with yogurt, dolma, as well as fresh cheese and bread.
Nalan had a special treat in store for what happened to be my birthday luncheon (although I was so jet-lagged I kept forgetting what day it was). The piece de resistance happened to be a very simple looking preparation of steak, tomatoes, onions, and peppers. The pieces of steak were actually beef hearts, a fact Nalan withheld until after we had eaten, probably for fear the timid Americans (Dad and I) would be scared to give them a try. They tasted as good as any filet and I miss them already as much as the desert misses the rain. The desert is better off. The dry sands don't know the taste of what they are missing.
These fine meals would not have been complete without beverages to wash them down and there are a variety of great choices in the gullet lubrication department as well. Hot tea, or chai as it is called in Turkish, is always offered, an omnipresent sign of your host's hospitality. Coffee comes in the regular American style or a Turkish version strong enough to give an oxen pause before taking on the challenge of a cup. If you are looking for something unique try the ayran, a salty, frothy yogurt-based beverage that goes well with pide.
Sometimes after a hard day of touring you need to imbibe something with a little more punch. Dad recommends a glass of Yakut, a red wine produced in Anatolia, where certain areas boast a climate not dissimilar to the wine-growing regions of Northern California. The potential for growth in Turkish wine is intriguing as it is currently imported into the US in only small quantities.
Being a lover of the beer myself I present to you Efes, the official beer of the Turks. This tasty pilsner is named after the city of Ephesus (called Efes nowadays), which you may know from the Bible chapter of Ephesians. These are a series of letters the Apostle Paul wrote to those fools he was religious pen-pals with in Ephesus, dropping some seriously heavy spiritual shit on them.
If you aren't a pilsner fan you are in luck, the beer market has opened up tremendously in recent years and there is now another option, known as Gusta. Gusta is a wheat beer and it tastes exactly like Blue Moon, and I mean exactly. Not trying to instigate a lawsuit here, just sayin'. There aren't a lot of other choices in the hops and barley department there so you better like one of the two - fortunately I was down with the Efes.
On times such as your birthday, for example, you might be looking for something with a little more poof and proof behind it. Worry not, for the Turks have created a drink just for you. Raki. An anise-based liquor similar to ouzo or pernod, raki can have quite an effect on your vocal cords, resulting in a state of mind known as raki talk, endless blabber about nothing. Fortunately for me I do that sober and thus I avoided that effect.
Raki can also result in some strange escapades. According to recent studies raki makes it 300 times more likely that you will jump into the Bosphorus, the body of water separating Asian and European Istanbul. The same research indicates that it is seven times harder for people to pull your drunk ass back onto a boat lacking a ladder when you have consumed raki and weigh over 200 pounds. Sometimes you have to drink in the name of science.