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Turkish Culture & Cuisine

Turkish Culture & Cuisine

Turkish Tastes

Türkiye has an incredibly rich and diverse history and culture. The development of the Turkish culinary culture and cuisine, with its great variety of local traditions and associated customs can be linked to a wide variety of foods that originated from the lands of Asia and Anatolia some millennia ago. This long history can be traced through the kitchens of the Hittites, Seljuk, Greeks, Persians, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires. With Istanbul as its capital and control of lands around the Mediterranean Basin, the Ottoman Empire was at the center of interactions between the Eastern and Western worlds for six centuries.

Türkiye strides Europe and Asia, separated by the Bosphorus seaway upon which Istanbul, the largest city is built, partly in Europe and partly in Asia as was once the capital of three great empires, the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman. Türkiye is surrounded by seas on four sides (Black Sea to the north, the Mediterranean Sea to the south, Aegean Sea to the west, and the Sea of Marmara dividing the European and Asian land masses).  With well-defined natural borders between its eight neighbors, Türkiye has been well positioned throughout the centuries as the gate way into Europe and containing abundant arable land and biological wealth much richer than any of its neighbors.  

The European portion known as Thrace, 3% of the country, consists mainly of plateaus, the Asian part is known as Anatolia (or Asia Minor) consisting of a large central plateau. With altitudes ranging from sea level to mountain ranges over 5,000 metres (Mount Agri) Türkiye’s diverse regions have different climates, with the weather system on the coasts contrasting with that prevailing in the interior. With a coast line covering more than 8000 klm (5000 miles) in length one would expect the harvest from the sea to be most important in regional cuisines.

In June 1941, the First Geography Congress, held in Ankara, divided Türkiye into seven regions. These geographical regions were separated by their climate, location, flora and fauna, human habitat, agricultural diversities, transportation, topography.  The four coastal regions and three inner regions were named according to their proximity to the four seas surrounding Türkiye, and their positions in Anatolia.

• The Black Sea Region

• The Marmara Region

• The Aegean Region

• The Mediterranean Region

• The Central Anatolia Region

• The Eastern Anatolia Region 

• The Southeastern Anatolia Region 

These regions bring a diverse agricultural heritage and a multicultural inheritance. Türkiye produces 75% of the total number of plant species found in Europe, and ranks 9th in terms of biodiversity richness with over 33% of its flora. Are you aware that cherries, apricots, almonds and figs all originated in Türkiye? Many important domestic species (e.g. wheat, chickpea, lentil, apple, pear, apricot, chestnut, and pistachio) owe their existence to wild relatives also originating in Türkiye and the cuisine varies across the country. The cuisine of Istanbul, Bursa, Izmir, and rest of the Asia Minor region inherits many elements of Ottoman court cuisine, with a lighter use of spices, a preference for rice over bulgur, koftes and a wider availability of vegetable stews (türlü), eggplant, stuffed dolmas and fish. 

The cuisine of the Black Sea Region uses fish extensively, especially the Black Sea anchovy (hamsi) and includes maize dishes. The cuisine of the southeast (e.g. Urfa, Gaziantep, Adıyaman and Adana) is famous for its variety of kebabs, mezes and dough-based desserts such as baklava, şöbiyet, kadayıf, and künefe. Western parts of Türkiye, where olive trees grow abundantly, olive oil is the major type of oil used for cooking. The cuisines of the Aegean, Marmara and Mediterranean regions are rich in vegetables, herbs, and fish. Central Anatolia has many famous specialties, such as keşkek, mantı (especially from Kayseri) and gözleme. 

Did you know that Türkiye is also home to a number of ornamental flowers, most notable the tulip? The oldest known human settlement located in Çatalhöyük, overlooking the Konya Plain in south central Anatolia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, dating back to 7,000 B.C. Interestingly, the earliest known landscape painting was found on the wall of a Catalhöyük house, illustrating the volcanic eruption of nearby Hasandag. The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus and the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus in Bodrum, two of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World were located in Türkiye.

Other interesting facts were that the Turks introduced coffee to Europe, the first minted coins, 7th century BC, were credited to Sardis, the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lycia, and the word “turquoise” comes from “Turk” meaning Turkish, representing the deep blue color of the Mediterranean Sea. 

This diverse cultural heritage and climatic variations have given rise to the Mediterranean diet, reflective of traditions within Türkiye and the surrounding seas.  The core of this diet are the everyday whole grains, dried and fresh vegetables and fruits, dried and fresh legumes, herbs, spices, nuts, interspersed with fish, seafood, dairy foods, eggs, occasional meats and sweets and of course healthy fats such as Turkish olive oil.  In 2013, the Mediterranean diet was inscribed on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage and Humanity. Although the Mediterranean diet has become well known in many countries, it is important to concentrated more on acknowledging the cultural rituals and culinary tradition that make this diet important.

Some strengths of the Mediterranean diet include using few ingredients to make flavorful dishes while reducing or even eliminating food waste. Eating with an emphasis on sharing this occasion with family and friends and viewing food and diet as a social ritual have enhanced the importance of culture and cuisine.

One example of food being used socially would be street food culture throughout Türkiye. It is common to purchase and consume well known foods such as Döner, Simit, Kokoreç (informally, known as “hangover food”), Çiğ Köfte, Gözleme, and Lahmacun (one of the most popular dishes in Turkish cuisine) Türkiye’s answer to the Pizza.

Another important feature of cultural identity is the role that local markets have on Turkish. There are large, central markets in all Turkish cities, each featuring stalls with local vendors selling their family’s specialty. Many markets will also include a small cafe-bar where you can enjoy traditional Turkish coffee, another Turkish product on the UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List, while enjoying the endless assortment of foods available.

Food names directly cognate with mantı are also found in Chinese (mantou or steamed bun) and Korean cuisine (mandu) and it is generally considered to have originated in Mongolia during the 13th century. Specialty foods are often named for places, and may refer to different styles of preparation. 

Although meat-based foods such as kebabs are common in Turkish cuisine abroad, meals in Türkiye largely center around rice, vegetables, and bread. Did you know there are at least 110 different kebabs only in Türkiye, and each one has its unique taste?

Şiş Kebab: The most common variety of kebab is marinated lamb or beef cooked on a skewer called a “shish,” or written in Turkish as şiş.  Vegetables are sometimes cooked along with them, wherein typical vegetables include eggplant, tomato, bell pepper, onions, pickles and mushrooms.

This cookery book will take you on a culinary journey the length and breadth of Türkiye and introduce you to foods that you may not have cooked with previously.  However, my advice is to embrace what this wonderful culture and cuisine has to offer and let your taste buds enjoy the explosion of flavors with friends and most importantly family.   

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