Sunday, 20 August 2017

From Börek to Kadin-Göbek

Text by Marina Karakonova   
Aubergines are in their element here. They are everywhere – dark, shiny and elegant, lined up next to one another as if ready for a feast. It is a little known fact that this noble vegetable is actually a fruit. In the East and in many spots along the Mediterranean, it is served as dessert – fried, with honey poured over it generously. But there is a place where it constitutes the backbone of a centuries-old cuisine: a place also famous for making it in 40 different ways and that is, of course, Turkey. Fortunately, not just the Turkish names but also many of the foods, like aşure, ayran, börek, kadayıf, kavarma, köfte, lokum, pastırma, sarma, sucuk, shish, yufka, güveç – were inherited by and are now commonly known and served in other Balkan nations.

One characteristic of Turkish cuisine is its extraordinary diversity. While, in the eyes of the West, its emblem may be the döner or the baklava, in fact it is extremely rich and varied. There is also a lot of creativity in Turkish cuisine: whoever thought to take a cabbage leaf and wrap it around some rice, cedar nuts, raisins and spices, thus making sarma, the stuffed cabbage leaves? Creativity can also be observed in desserts, and especially in their names, which employ diminutive forms of terms and personages associated with the Orient: turbans, sultanas, sarajs and kadın-göbek – the round, buttery sweet with a peanut in the middle, reminiscent of the white and chubby bellies of Oriental dancers.

Let’s not forget that this six-century old culinary culture results from the heritage of hundreds of chefs in the sultans’ palaces, who specialised in the preparation of soups, kebabs, fish, bread and desserts. Their kitchens not only consisted of several huge buildings, but they were also institutions with complicated rules on labour organisation and relations with the fishermen’s, butchers’ and bakers’ guilds. Add to all that the strict quality control. The beauty of Turkish cuisine lies in the fresh products, the simple cooking techniques and in the way it is served: the dishes are completely exposed, not disguised by sauces or unnecessary surprises.

Only a day in Istanbul is needed in order for all this to be experienced.

In the morning, start with a hot börek (a pastry filled with cheese, vegetables and/or meat), washed down with a cold ayran (a salty drink of yogurt mixed with water). Then, at the port, try a dolma midie – a grilled, rice-stuffed mussel, followed by tripe in one of the special antique salons – the appropriate place for this delicacy. For lunch, a pilav should fill you up. In the afternoon, it is time to stretch your legs in a teahouse, under the dense shade of the courtyard trees. As a way to get closer to the truth in these temples of silence and contemplation, order a narghile (a traditional water pipe for smoking), along with your tea, served in an elegant tulip-shaped glass.

At dawn, when the Golden Horn is covered in a sunny fog, let yourself get lost in Istanbul’s mysteries, such as the covered bazaars and markets. Many kinds of meze await you there – grilled aubergines; marinated peppers and celery; anchovies; little olives; sardines wrapped in vine leaves; lamb meat balls; tomatoes, startled in a bit of olive oil, served – or rather drawn on the tray. In the end – peaches in syrup, nuts and lokum, the sweets known as Turkish delight in the West.

When it’s all over, contemplate the idea that you spent your day in a similar way as the Turkish sultans used to live, while their empire lasted. And that was not for a brief moment – from 1299 till 1922…

The article was originally published in Bulgarian daily Dnevnik.



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