Many Americans’ experience of Turkish cuisine never extends beyond mezze, kebabs, and baklava. To Robyn Eckhardt, that handful of familiar dishes only begins to tell the story of a vast and diverse country that touches four bodies of water and shares borders with countries ranging from Greece and Bulgaria to Iran and Georgia.
Eckhardt and her photographer husband, David Hagerman, set out to uncover a more complete story of Turkey, its people, and food in their new book, “Istanbul and Beyond: Exploring the Diverse Cuisines of Turkey.” The recipes, stories, and photos they have collected reflect more than 20 years and 13,000 miles exploring roads less traveled and foods less familiar. Eckhardt spoke about the book from her home in Italy.
Q. Your story starts in Istanbul. Does it reflect the country as a whole?
A. Istanbul is its own place. The food is a melting pot cuisine. It was once said to me there’s no such thing as an Istanbul dish because of Istanbul’s past as a capital of the Ottoman empire and a trading port. Whereas when you move out east, which is mostly rural, people are eating in entirely different ways.
Q. What surprised you most as you traveled the country?
A. The first thing we weren’t expecting when we set out, is how dramatically landscapes change in such a short amount of time. It’s almost like if you took the US and you compressed it. We didn’t expect to be in a place like Hatay, which is a completely Mediterranean climate — olives, pomegranates, that sort of thing — and then to drive six or maybe seven hours north to Sivas province and the landscape is entirely different. The culture is entirely different. The way people think is different. The way people eat is different.
Q. Where do you see the influences of other cultures and countries in Turkish food?
A. The whole corn thing in the Black Sea is absolutely surprising. You’re driving around in the fall and everyone has corn cobs strung in garlands on the sides of their wooden houses and laid out in the front yard. You go to the market and corn is everywhere. It’s coating fish, in breads. It is an absolute staple of the diet. If you continue along the Black Sea coast, which we did on one trip when we crossed over into Georgia, it’s corn also. So there’s this dish muhlama. I call it a fondue. It’s a breakfast food. It’s cheesy. It’s corny. It’s unlike anything you would find elsewhere in Turkey. It’s absolutely its own thing. Except that it’s also a Georgian thing.
Q. You traveled to areas where they aren’t used to having Americans drop by to ask about their food. What made you succeed at that?
A. One, I’m an older lady. Someone could see me as their sister and maybe even their mother. If I had been young and in my 20s, I don’t think I’d be as easily and warmly accepted into a lot of these worlds which are very male, to be honest. Also I was working with my husband, who is a photographer. It was a complete collaboration. It allowed me to be kind of an honorary male and it allowed him to be an honorary female. Turks are incredibly hospitable and very polite. But they treated me as if I were one of them. Then we were in all-female situations out east in kitchens or in a home with just the ladies. Dave’s there and he’s an honorary woman.
Q. Can you think of a time while researching the book when you realized: This is really off the beaten path?
A. Dave would take off before dawn in the car and drive for a few hours looking for vistas that would give some context to this whole idea that from the land comes the food. He turned down a road and ended up in this village where women were making cheese. We went back later that afternoon and hung out with them for a while. We got to talking about mills. They mentioned that another part of the family lives a kilometer away and they have this really old mill. So they drove us there. It was this mill that was built by an Armenian priest in the late 1800s or early 1900s. On subsequent trips, we went back to see them. Yeah, it was off the beaten track. But more interestingly is that we got to know this family. And at that point, it doesn’t feel like cookbook research. I set out to write a cookbook, but the recipes happened when I was exploring Turkey and getting to know Turkey and Turkish people in a way that I never dreamed I would.Michael Floreak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.