Turkey and All The Trimmings – Diving into Culinary Istanbul

I’m thankful that I had the chance to live and work in Turkey for several years. On this Thanksgiving, I am in Hawaii, but I look back at Turkey…and all the Trimmings. Happy Thanksgiving from Vagobond!

The Blue Mosque Spiritual Center of Istanbul

I love Istanbul. It’s big, it’s ancient, it’s filled with people from all over the world, but most of all – it’s delicious. Like the city, the food of Istanbul is a mixture of the large, the old, the international and, well, deliciousness. To help explain what I mean by that – here’s a very brief history of Turkey.

Turkey was the birthplace of the founder of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It was the greater part of Alexander the Great’s Empire, it was the Eastern Roman Empire, and it controlled Egypt, the Middle East, and North Africa as part of the Ottoman Empire. After World War I, Turkey was split into regions controlled by different European powers and after Attaturks’ war of Independence it became modern Turkey. The Western part of Turkey is in Europe, the Eastern part of Turkey is in Asia. If you’re looking for the center of the world – Turkey is it. If you’re looking for a world cuisine, go no further than Istanbul.

Peacock was a delicacy served in Ottoman Palaces for a different kind of Thanksgiving

Italy may be the birthplace of pizza, but when you go to Turkey you get something more magical. Pide. Cooked in wood fired brick ovens and served on long wooden planks, pide is essentially a large pizza stretched out until it is often more than a meter long and a hand wide. This is the ultimate Turkish fast food and it’s a great place to start when you want to eat Turkey with all the trimmings. Pide isn’t the real Turkish Pizza though, that distinction belongs to lahmahcun.

Pide in Turkey

Pide is the longest pizza in the world!

Lahmahcun is a thin oval shaped Turkish pizza on a very thin pita crust. You can get a cheese lahmahcun or the traditional which is finely chopped meat and herbs baked until crispy. To eat it in the true traditional style, squeeze a bit of lemon on it, put a small bunch of parsley or sorrel on it, and then sprinkle it with sumac. North Americans invariably ask “Isn’t that poison?” and while there is indeed a poison sumac (similar to poison ivy) the Turkish version is a slightly sour purple condiment that goes perfect with lahmahcun. Now, just roll your lahmahcun up and eat it like a burrito.

This next is a statement that can cause some controversey. Turkish home food is very similar to Greek home food. The controversey comes because any Turk will twist that statement on it’s head and say that Greek home food is like Turkish home food. I sat in a cafe on Kos and watched a Turkish man try to order a Turkish coffee and refuse the Greek coffee that the Greek waiter kept offering him – was it possible that only I knew that they are exactly the same thing?

The Turkish Home is the Culinary Center of the Country

Stuffed grape leaves. Dolmates in Greek, dolmades in Turkish. I took a cooking class in Istanbul recently. A New Yorker in the class learned that we were going to be making stuffed grape leaves and said to me behind her hand “I thought this was a Turkish cooking class, not a Greek one.” The truth is more complex. Dolma means stuffed in Turkish but has no meaning in Greek. As one Turkish pundit put it “in Greek dolmates means ‘stolen’.“

That brings up a good point. Watching foreigners interact with Turkish food is one of the great Turksih delights. Americans say that kifte is like hamburger, Mexicans say that a donor durum is like a burrito, Greeks say that everything is like the Greek version, Italians raise their nose at pide and lahmahcun but then eat it with simple smiles. One of my favorite reactions was when an older English lady was eating a bowl of iskembe chorbasi (chorba, by the way is a generic word for soup in Turkish, though it is often used to describe a minestrone type soup – which makes sense when you realize that shorba is an Arabic word that is used to describe a minestrone like soup.) The English lady was obviously enjoying her chorba and asked me what it was made from. The name iskembe is derived from a Persian word – shikamba. Shikamba and iskembe both mean – tripe. Tripe soup. When I told her, she wouldn’t eat any more despite her earlier enjoyment. “I won’t eat cow stomach,” she said, “Even if it is delicious.”

For Turks, iskembe is the perfect cure after a night of hard drinking. Hard drinking usually involves drinking raki, the Turkish national liquor. An anise flavored hard liquor that typically is served with fish. For Turks the word fish always goes with raki. So, raki balik, liquor and fish. My kind of country.

In a way – with the drinking, the fishing, and the tripe – Turks are the masters of feasting. if you don’t believe me, you can look at one of the most famous of the Ottoman palace foods – a quail cooked inside of a chicken, cooked inside of a duck, cooked inside of a peacock. The North American redneck Thanksgiving version is a chicken inside a duck inside a turkey – suitably called Turkdukin. I’ve no idea what the Ottoman/Turkish version is called – but one thing you can be sure of, it’s going to be delicious.