Saturday, April 30, 2011

Turkish Dining Delights

Arriving Istanbul by Sea
As you may know, I was just in Turkey and thought I would share my thoughts on the country's cuisine, which has been influenced by all of the great world empires.  As the gateway between Europe and Asia you find a wide mix of flavors and food types in Turkey.  As the ancient Silk Road flowed directly through Istanbul spices from around the entire region were available to the chefs of the Ottoman Empire, and are still used generously in cooking today.

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Istanbul sits directly on the sea, so you have plenty of access to good, fresh fish. In fact, Turkey is surrounded by seas which contain a large variety of fish so you have many seafood options while dining. Pazıda Levrek is a seafood speciality which consists of sea bass cooked in chard leaves, which I found particularly good.  In Istanbul, grilled fish served in bread with tomatoes, herbs and onion is also a popular fast food.

In Istanbul, and many parts of the country, meat has now also become a staple of the local diet.  While here on my last trip, we enjoyed a large platter of roasted meats including beef, veal, lamb and sausages.  No pork is served in the country, because of the country's predominantly Muslim faith.  Kebabs (skewered meat roasted over a fire) are hugely popular and delicious as well.  Most kebabs are served with a variety of Turkish-style salads, shredded lettuce, pickled red cabbage, tomatoes, raw cucumbers and lemon.

The Doner kebab should not be confused with traditional kebabs.  This is a typically a street and casual food, shaved off of the spit, usually consisting of lamb but sometimes chicken and served in a pita pocket, and much like what Americans think of as the Greek gyros.  But you can find restaurants that specialize in Doner kebab cooking and during this trip our local hosts took us to Istanbul's most famous restaurant, Beyti

This restaurant began in 1945 and is still run by the same owner.  We had the pleasure of having him spend some time with us at dinner.  On the walls near the entry you'll see letters from heads of state, kings, princes, film starts and members of high society.  They are well known for their traditional meat dishes as well as the restaurants unique atmosphere.  If you are out by the airport in Istanbul, give this restaurant a try.

Of course, most meals wouldn't be complete with out some type of bread and the Turks serve Lavas.  This is a thin, leavened flat bread and you find it with most every meal.  Sometimes it comes with toasted poppy or other seeds, but most often it is plain and makes a good accompaniment for foods of all types.

Yogurt is also an important item in Turkish cuisine. In fact, the English word comes from the Turkish word "yoğurt." Yogurt usually comes with most meat dishes (kebabs, köfte), vegetable dishes (especially fried eggplant, courgette, spinach with minced meat etc.), meze and a speciality called mantı (folded triangles of dough containing minced meat).  One of the most common Turkish drinks, ayran, is also made from yoghurt.

This post wouldnt' be complete without some mention of the world famous "Turkish Delight".  Lokum, the turkish word for this candy which in Arabic means morsel, has been produced since the 15th century, when it originated in the Ottoman Empire. Originally, honey and molasses were its sweeteners, and water and flour were the binding agents.  Lokum was introduced to the West in the 19th century reported by a Briton shipped cases of it to Britain under the name Turkish delight.  This sweet chewy confection is based on a gel of starch and sugar. Premium versions consist of chopped dates, pistachios and hazelnuts or walnuts bound by the gelatin.  Less expensive versions are mostly lemon or other inexpensive fruit-flavored gels.  Whether expensive or not, most all are packaged and eaten in small cubes dusted with powdered (icing) sugar.  Based on the quantities being purchased by the tourists, I would say this must be the single most popular take home item.

Blue Mosque, Istanbul
With its location on the Mediterranean, with the Black Sea to the north and the Aegean Sea in the west Turkey is an ideal location to reach by  ship.  In fact, a cruise of the Greek islands brought me to Turkey for the first time.  It is also surrounded by Bulgaria and Greece to the west, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia to the northeast, Syria, Iraq and Iran to the southeast, and a small piece of the country in Europe.  So you'll have a sense of being in the best of all cultures combined, but yet in a safe, hospitable environment that is welcoming to tourists and business travelers alike.  And while you can explore the ancient and feel a part of the old world, Istanbul is at the same time a modern country with all of the Western conveniences. 
Turkey offers a wealth of varieties to visitors: from dome-and-minaret filled skyline of Istanbul to Roman ruins along the western and southern coasts (highly recommended), from heavily indented coastline against a mountainous backdrop of Lycia and wide and sunny beaches of Pamphylia.  While I've only been to a few places in Turkey so far, I hope to return again in the future as I continue to explore this wonderful land and to enjoy the many foods they offer.

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