Food and food culture is influenced by the diversity of cultures, ethnicities, religions, geographical features, and climate of the region. All those have made the experience of visitors to Turkey one-of-a-kind, with an unforgettable flavor. Yes, flavor! I want to take you to a dream world of flavors and cuisines where everyone is enchanted by the fragrant scent of spices and the delectable aroma of well-prepared meat and vegetable dishes. This article is not simply another recipe or a pamphlet designed to lure tourists; it is a gripping tale.
Turkey, this large peninsula surrounded by the Mediterranean, the Aegean and the Black Sea, has been ranked among the top-ten tourist attractions1 due to its unique location, which acts as a bridge to connect Asia and Europe. Thanks to its excellent geographical position, the nation enjoys climate diversity ranging from arid cold in the east and center, to pleasantly humid in the north and coastlines, and scorching hot in the south and west. Due to its wonderful diverse weather pattern, the country has grown to become one of the most prosperous countries producing livestock and agricultural products. A wide variety of regional ingredients has resulted in an extensive list of the most colorful and palatable dishes known around the entire world.
Furthermore, Turkey has been the home of many religions and cultures since time immemorial. Turkic, Indo-Europeans, Semitics, and Caucasians cohabit harmoniously in this country, demonstrating people’s hospitality. Turkish cuisine is inspired by the ethnic variety and people’s generosity and bounteousness. One will never experience going to a restaurant and not being greeted with a table set with several varieties of complimentary Meze, a light appetizer, or salad while they wait for their order to be prepared, and may never leave the restaurant without having a cup of well-brewed tea or delicious Turkish coffee on the house!
However, besides Turkey’s unique position on the map and the influence of different cultures on its cuisine, it is the story and moral behind dishes that distinguish them: ranging from a tragic love story, to a mother’s care or a pair of yearning eyes open to words of wisdom.
No one would believe that this delectable and pleasantly creamy lamb stew served on mashed eggplant has a passionate yet moving and unfortunate love story. It all started in Constantinople in 1867. On opening the International Paris Industrial Exhibition, Napoleon III the Emperor of France invited Sultan Abdülaziz to France2. Napoleon and his wife, Empress Eugenie, welcomed Sultan Abdülaziz at their palace, where Sultan and Empress Eugenie became caught up in the whirlwind of impossıble love. On his trip back to Istanbul after the exhibition, Sultan Abdulaziz had only one thought: Eugenie and her pining love. Eugenie, on the other hand, was filled with the same fervent devotion. Eugenie could also not forget Sultan Abdülaziz. However, they did not know that fate would eventually bring them together.
Years later, Napoleon III and his wife Eugenie were invited to the inauguration of the Suez Canal. Napoleon sent Empress Eugenie to Egypt on his behalf. On the voyage to Egypt, the ship anchored in Istanbul, and she went to visit Sultan in his palace. Eugenie’s and Sultan’s chefs' collaboration on a unique meal enhanced their romantic evening. Eugenie requested that her cook make bechamel sauce for Sultan Abdülaziz. The royal head chef added grilled mashed eggplant to the French chef’s béchamel sauce and put Sultan’s favorite meat dish on top of the puree. Sultan, who is reported to have disliked all meals during those years, adored the cuisine. It is said that Sultan and Eugenie spent that night together and she decided to stay with him in his palace. Yet the pleasant taste and happiness of that night did not last long. Valide Sultan Pertevniyal expelled Eugenie from the palace, convicting Eugenie with adultery. Eugenie was exiled by her husband when she returned to her country. Sultan Abdülaziz was also overthrown and executed shortly after. Despite the lovers’ tragic fate, the flavor of that dish and their love story will never be forgotten.
This dish with crispy dough on the outside and rice and nuts inside gives everyone, especially newlywed women, a life lesson. The ingredients of this originally central Asian dish have a symbolic meaning.
On the wedding day, the mother-in-law offers this dish to her daughter-in-law. It is meant to symbolize that from now on, the bride is a family member, and should not divulge the family’s troubles and secrets, exactly as the dough covers the rice within. Furthermore, rice, nuts and seeds represent abundance and fertility. Nuts also represent a longing for grandchildren: almonds represent a grandson, while pine nuts represent a granddaughter. Currents signify a wish for health, and the bitter and sweet spices reflect the bitter and sweet days and the ups and downs of life.
This 500-year-old creamy and savory dessert depicts the separation of many couples throughout the war and their desire to reunite. Rumor has it that Fadime, who had just married the love of her life, was soon separated from him because of the war. Her spouse enlisted in the military to serve his nation. Years passed without anyone hearing anything from him. Fadime was heartbroken and horrified by the prospect of losing him forever. Her life was harsh, and the only thing she could do was make cheese from the milk of the only goat she had. One day, hearing a knock on the door, she looked up in complete disbelief and speechlessness to see her husband standing there. He had returned!
Following the reminiscing, the bride went to the kitchen to feed her husband, but there was nothing to eat. She began cooking with any ingredients she could find. She mixed some cheese she had just fermented, along with semolina, eggs and a little sugar, took it to the table, presented it to her husband and asked him, "Is it good, husband?". The question the bride asked to learn about her husband's satisfaction with the food has changed in time from ‘hoş mu, erim’ (a word-for-word translation of ‘good is it, my husband’), shortened to Höşmerim?
As one of the most popular specialties, this soup, a word-for-word translation of ‘mother-daughter,’ is a dish made in many regions but with subtle changes. The story is based on the unconditional love of a mother for her only daughter.
The story is about a mother who had seven sons but longed for a daughter until God blessed her with a baby girl. She raised her daughter tenderly and lovingly, and when the time came for the girl to marry, her mother refused everyone who asked for her hand in marriage with a slew of lame excuses. One day, her daughter fell in love with a young man and ran off with him. Her mother, who assumed her daughter had abandoned her, became sick in bed. When her daughter learned that her mother was gravely ill, she rushed with her husband to comfort and apologize to her mother. Seeing her daughter return home, her mother, who had forgiven them and regained her health, wanted to throw a feast. It is said that the feast spanned seven days and seven nights, and the guests enjoyed the sumptuous meal the mother had cooked herself: Analı kızlı soup. It is made by wrapping small meatballs in a dough made with broken rice, semolina, and some other ingredients and boiling it in a meat stock with some tomato paste. There are big balls filled with meat and small ones that are just round-shaped dough. Big balls represent the mother and small ones represent her daughter.
These are just some examples of numerous Turkish recipes and their stories. The first cookbook in Turkey is Melce’üt Tabbâh’in (The Cooks’ Refuge) dating back to 1844, a voluminous book of many starters, soups, main dishes, vegetable dishes, side orders, and desserts. It features 887 instructive articles on topics ranging from table settings and culinary utensils to preserving and curing fruit and vegetables, smoking fish and spit roasting meat3. I have also added the recipe of the dishes on my website for food lovers and cooking enthusiasts. Bon appetit!