Turkish Comfort Food
Mention Turkey and the dishes most likely to come to mind are meaty kebabs, olive oil-stewed vegetables and Ottoman-influenced restaurant standards such as imam bayildi, meat-stuffed eggplant with tomato sauce, and hunkar begendi, chunks of lamb nestled in bechamel-enriched eggplant puree.
Move east of Istanbul, away from the country’s well-traveled Aegean and Mediterranean coasts, and a more complex picture emerges. Turkey, a country of regional tastes and fiercely local cooks, is still markedly tied to the land. Nearly one-third of the population was employed in agriculture in 2009. Outside of the country’s western urban centers, meals remain tightly tethered to place and season.
Locavorism is a traditional way of life
Turkish locavorism is most evident at the once- and twice-weekly markets held in towns and cities throughout the country where entire sections are given over to koy urunleri, or village products. Primarily female vendors sell foods they’ve grown, foraged and made by hand: fresh fruits and vegetables from family farms and kitchen gardens, breads baked in backyard wood-fired ovens, sun-dried fruit leather and tomato and pepper pastes, yogurt, cheese, milk and butter made from sheep, goats and cows grazed in open pasture.
Display signage informs buyers of prices and provenance — with the names of villages or simply the word yerli, “local” — but never “artisan” or “seasonal,” simply because everything is.
In October, the koy sections of markets in the fishing towns of Inebolu and Sinop and in Erfelik, an overgrown village set in a bucolic river-shot valley 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the coast, showcased the eastern Black Sea’s autumn bounty. There were deep russet apples, black and green figs, Bartlett-like pears, black grapes, tiny red sweet-sour fruit called kizilcik and last-gasp mulberries, plus tubs of syrupy pekmez, a fruit molasses, and spreadable recer made from the same fruits.
What from a distance appeared to be chunky beaded necklaces turned out to be strings of alic, crab apple-like fruits eaten so ripe and mushy they’re almost applesauce. Vendors used handsaws to quarter big dusty olive pumpkins, revealing nasturtium-orange flesh. “Tursuluk” (“for pickling”), advised hand-lettered cardboard notices balanced atop mounds of long slender yellow-green chilies with curled tips, knobby finger-length cucumbers, green tomatoes and fleshy broad beans. Sacks held coffee-brown bulgur and wheat berries from the previous month’s harvest, a rainbow of dried beans, dried corn for soup and pilav and corn flour — plain and wood oven-toasted — to turn into bread and coat the region’s beloved anchovies before frying.
At least a quarter of each market’s koy section was given over to the area’s biggest autumn vegetable harvest after wheat and corn: nuts. Chestnuts are graded according to size; one vendor displayed nine grades, from kuzu kestane (small “lamb” chestnuts, surprisingly sweet and reminiscent of fresh coconut) to kebablik kestane (chestnuts to be boiled or roasted). There were baskets of hazelnuts, shelled specimens dear at about $24 per kilo (about 2 pounds), and ceviz or walnuts, brown and black, raw and roasted, shell on and off. Perhaps the region’s most beloved nuts, ceviz are baked into breads and added to pilav. This early in the season, freshly harvested and so oily they verge on juicy, Kara Denizli (Black Sea-ites) love to eat them out of hand or lightly crushed and sprinkled atop autumnal desserts such as candied pumpkin. They also add them to savory foods like the wickedly delicious dish islama, whose recipe is below.
Islama (Broth-Soaked Yufka or Lavash) With Shredded Chicken or Turkey and Walnuts)
In this dish from Sinop province sheets of day-old yufka (thin sheets of unleavened bread similar to lavash, which you can use as a substitute) are rolled, sliced and moistened with hot broth. The pastry/bread becomes tender and fluffy, a perfect bed for buttery caramelized onions, shredded chicken and crushed walnuts. Turkey can stand in for chicken, making islama a great post-Thanksgiving dish.
Use the freshest walnuts you can find and homemade, or homemade-quality store-bought broth. A salad is the only accompaniment this rich dish needs.
- Working with two or three sheets of yufka or lavash at a time, stack and roll them into a reasonably tight cigar and cut into 1-inch pieces. As you finish cutting each roll, arrange the pieces side by side (cut side up) in a large (13-by-9-by-2-inch, for example) baking or serving dish. Arrange the pastry or bread pieces close enough to each other that they don’t unroll, but not so tightly that they don’t have room to expand as they absorb the broth. Set aside.
- Heat the oil and butter in a large skillet over medium heat. When the foam subsides add the onions and sprinkle them with salt. Cook the onions over medium-low heat, stirring often, until they go from golden to tinged with brown (do not let them burn!) then remove them from the heat, cover to keep warm, and set aside.
- While you’re cooking the onions bring the broth to a gentle simmer.
- Pour or ladle the hot broth over the yufka or lavash until the pieces are three-quarters submerged. Transfer the rest of the broth to a small pitcher for the table. Spoon over the onions and drizzle over any remaining butter-oil. Arrange the chicken on top of the onions, and sprinkle walnuts on top.
- Serve immediately in shallow bowls. Let diners add additional hot broth to taste at the table.
Variation: Banduma or bandirma, a preparation from neighboring Kastamonu province, omits the onions. The yufka sheets are dipped into hot broth, torn into strips, and layered with melted butter, sliced turkey or chicken and crushed walnuts.
Zester Daily contributor David Hagerman shoots for the New York Times, Travel+Leisure and Saveur, among other publications. To view more of his slide shows, go to davidhagerman.photoshelter.com. Robyn Eckhardt is a food and travel journalist based in Penang, Malaysia. She also is a contributor to Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia and has been published in Saveur, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal Asia. Her last article for Zester was a double book review, Veggies and Grains Deluxe.
Photo and slide show credits: David Hagerman