Thumb through a cookbook from a country you’re unfamiliar with and you’re getting more than just an interesting dish to add to your repertoire. You’ll acquire a sense of the region’s agriculture, its staple dishes, what’s in its markets, how the residents go about everyday life.
To accomplish this, you have to read around the recipe instructions, look at the intros, at the ingredient explanations, at side notes. Insight might come from a passing comment, like the one Musa Dagdeviren makes in “The Turkish Cookbook: The Culinary Traditions & Recipes from Turkey” in the header note about a chickpea salad from southeastern Anatolia: “This is popular street food in the region. Vendors cook the chickpeas (garbanzo beans) in a lamb stock and serve them in this fresh salad. Chickpea rolls are sold in front of bakeries and enjoyed in the early morning in homes and workplaces.”
So now you know what might be on the morning table in this part of the world. Later, the author talks about eating soup for breakfast as a child — he is from Gaziantep in Anatolia in south-central Turkey — though that tradition has faded in urban areas in favor of cheese, eggs, tomatoes, cucumber, olives, honey, and more. These are ordinary daily events, but you’re cobbling together a portrait of the culture.
Turkey is the dividing line between Europe and Asia (Istanbul, on the Bosporus, straddles the boundary) and sits between the Mediterranean and Black seas. It was ruled by the Hittites, Assyrians, Phrygians, Romans, Seljuk, and Byzantine, and Ottoman empires. This led to a region of diverse practices and religions. It became a republic in 1925.
Musa Dagdeviren is the son of a farmer who grew pistachio, olive, and fruit trees. His mother’s family were bakers. He worked in bakeries, then restaurants, before opening his own place, Ciya/Kebap-Lahmacun, which expanded to three locations. His menu draws from specialties all over Turkey. Now he’s on a quest to bring back old dishes and with his wife, Zeynep, runs Ciya Publishing Co., which reprinted the first Ottoman-Turkish cookbook and other volumes on culinary history. They also put out a Turkish food and culture magazine.
“The Turkish Cookbook” is published by Phaidon, known for comprehensive volumes (this one is 500-plus pages) and relatively high price ($49.95). But you won’t find the depth of research like this just anywhere. Here are dishes you may know and some that are almost forgotten.
The meze section has old favorites besides others you won’t run across elsewhere. You might recognize taramasalata made with carp or pike roe, hummus, or tzatziki, the cucumber-yogurt dip. But you’ll also find tzatziki made with fresh almonds, along with recipes for pickled baby eggplant, mung beans with pomegranate molasses, and shrimp with apples, pine nuts, and currants.
A chapter called “Stuffed & Wrapped Dishes” includes vine leaves stuffed with sour cherries, a whole chicken stuffed with rice and almonds, sorrel leaves wrapped with bulgur and curd cheese, cousa squash filled with rice and onions.
Among the many lamb dishes is an inspired meatball recipe in which you simmer the little balls with onions and bell pepper in water seasoned only with vinegar (it calls for grape vinegar but I used white wine vinegar) in a pot lined with parsley leaves, with more leaves covering the little balls. They are full of flavor.
Photos are splendid, simply presented with just the food on the plates and little adornment. One shows several dozen fresh sardines that have been grilled in vine-leaf wrappers, their little heads sticking out of the green leaves. Another shows a dome of golden pastry topped with almonds and pine nuts, filled with nutty rice. This is translated as Veiled Rice Pilaf, writes the author, and often called Wedding Pilaf, with the almonds and pine nuts representing the husband and wife.
There are recipes for the popular savory pastries borek, for simit, the sesame bagels sold on streets, and meat-topped lahmacun, often called lamejun in this country. An extensive glossary explains ingredients, but you won’t have access to many of them. Just make do.
Learn about tahini swirls, yeasted flatbreads filled with tahini and grape molasses, prepared for lunch by women when they get together to make flatbreads or noodles for the village. You’ll read about trotter soup, simmered from goat, cow, veal, or sheep trotters, given to anyone who breaks a bone. “Even doctors are in consensus that this folk remedy really works,” writes Dagdeviren. And discover a dish of fresh anchovies with potatoes that’s regularly sent to the village baker to be cooked in the wood-fired ovens.
This is your guide to the history, geography, and culinary culture of Turkey. And whether you know the traditions well or this is all new for you, you’re in good hands.