I admit it. I am having an affair. Except that it isn’t what you think.
My love affair is of the culinary and cultural sorts. You see, I have fallen in love with Turkish food (and culture). I feel a bit like I have cheated on my Italian roots, ignoring my adoration of risotto and Aperol Spritz for spicy gazpacho-like soups, Ayran (yogurt drink), juicy Kofte kebabs and the rituals and stories that surround Turkish coffee. Oh and how could I forget the melt in your mouth baklava and sweet nutty Turkish delight?
Actually…if I am being completely honest – my infidelity started with an earlier flirtation with all things Moroccan after my trip to Marrakech. And although the temptation of tagine still has a strong pull over me, I found myself lost when it came to resisting the attraction to all things Turkey.
And lest you be concerned about my everyday wellness given that I seem to be engaging in this duplicitous and torrid affair – fear not. Not only is my Turkish love affair sanctioned by my husband but the freshness of ingredients and mindfulness that came during my escapades balanced out the perhaps over-indulgence in baklava and Turkish delight.
The Three Stages of My Turkish Love Affair
Just like any love affair (not that I am skilled or even versed in the stages of a love affair, but if I was, I assume it would go something like this), there were three stages to my infidelity: anticipation, exploration and the eventual “uh-oh,now what.”
First came anticipation
Learning that I would be traveling to Turkey with Turkish Airlines, I quickly developed a one-track mind. Researching the regions, culture and history and the lucky fact that I had access to a thriving American-Turkish community in Washington DC – my indoctrination was swift. Before I knew what was happening, I had been swept up in the excitement and initial attraction and registered for Turkish cooking classes.
Over the course of two sessions, Muge Karsli – our expert chef instructor – introduced our small group of eager students to olive oil infused (read “dripping”) Turkish culinary classics like Imam bayildi (eggplant sauteed in olive oil), dolmas, Ottoman rice, Spoon Salad and Kofte (Turkish meatballs). We learned that the basis of all Turkish cooking – according to Karsli – is olive oil, tomato and onion – and every time I thought I had added enough of this good-for-you-in-small-quantities oil, Muge was there to help me add an extra drizzle. In fact, throughout the classes, Muge infused her cooking tips with legends associated with the recipe – like the one for Imam bayildi where it is told that the Sultan fainted over the use of so much olive oil (or the taste depending which story you hear).
As Muge spoke of the recipes and shared her tips, one thing was clear – every ingredient and every stir of the spoon was made with love. Little did I know how important this would be as I continued to fall deeper and deeper in love with all things Turkey.
(See the recipe for Imam bayildi below.)
Then came exploration
After all of that anticipation, exploring the real thing was inevitable. To say that I lost my heart in Turkey would be an understatement. I probably should have expected the epic nature of this love affair from the simple hashtag that our group of 30 bloggers used while traveling to Istanbul and the four corners of Turkey with Turkish Airlines. #LoveFromTurkey was our mating call, but it was the people, the traditions and oh yes – the food captured my imagination. Because more than just a series of ingredients, Turkish food feels like it is all about connection – between tastes and between individuals.
I knew that I was in trouble when I first tasted midye-dolma (stuffed mussels) one evening on the shore of the Bosphorus. I could have made a meal of these rice stuffed molluscs, served to me by the young Sasha – giving new life to my definition of street food. His broad smile and the way that he so delicately sprinkled lemon over each mussel was a gift. Like a warm embrace – showering his attention over these small but tasty treats and the people who would enjoy them.
After several days of Turkish delight and baklava, my healthy tastebuds learned to appreciate a slightly more sour yogurt than I usually eat at home, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. Crossing the ferry from the European side of Istanbul to the Asian side, we were side by side with locals going to an fro. As we sat down in the outdoor cafe for our Kanlica yogurt treat and Turkish coffee, the conversations of friends and family wafted through the air. There was laughter. There was intimacy. There was joy as people came together to take in the fresh air with a view. Bite after bite, I wished I could have this yogurt at home with a cup of frozen blueberries for my afternoon snack each day.
But when dissecting where the true nature of my affair took shape – the magical moment happened in Urfa – in southeastern Turkey with an introduction to Turkish brunch and a memorable Sira Gecesi feast.
First off, let’s talk about brunch. Forget what you think you know about Sunday brunch. The Turks are the real deal with a spread of Van Kahvaltisi (tapas style plates) that can be overwhelming to newcomers from honey to cheese to egg and fresh fruit jam. It was as if each new plate was designed to stimulate conversation as it was passed from one person to the next. As if the tastes and flavors were meant to be enjoyed in company – because not being able to ooh and ahh over a dish would be an injustice. Had I known better, I would not have eaten the day before our brunch, but under the guise of “experimentation” I went all in when it came to tasting (and going back for seconds) during our brunch at the Melodi Cafe in Urfa.
I am not sure how I managed to eat again several hours later for a lunch of kebabs and soft, warm bread but even harder to believe was the evening feast that I made room for. My guess is that all the Aryan cleaned out my insides during each meal, so that I could take my love affair to the next level.
Sira Gecesi are not just a normal dinner party. These traditional evenings are filled with food, music, dancing and conversation. Originally, these nights consisted of a gathering of a group of male friends at one of their homes to catch up on life, business and community with a lively backdrop of live music. Nowadays, travelers to Urfa can recreate the feel restaurants and guest houses like Turkmen Konagi – where guests sit around a low table (sofra) for a dinner performance that is both interactive and delicious. The live music that serenaded our small group of newcomers connected us and danced through the air until it took hold and caused me to sway and dance in my seat without even knowing it. Sitting on the floor around an expansive table, surrounded by rich red and gold hues, plate after plate was served – offering a sensual feast where time seemed to stand still.
If I had not fallen in love hard enough, the chef appeared to make Çiğ köfte in front of us – with only a (massive) copper pan and the heat of his own hands working the ground meat, spices and onions together. Taking my turn to work the ingredients into a meatball, this act of coming together as one around the plates was my ultimate undoing.
Ritual of Mirra
Coffee and tea are a big deal in Turkey. The entire presentation is quite extraordinary and the stories of telling fortunes from the shapes of the leftover coffee grounds. But in Urfa and Mardin, the ceremonial coffee “Mirra” holds its own court over a meal or special event. The bitter Mirra is ceremoniously served to the oldest person (or the one that is deemed “in charge” with each cup (filled only to half, trust me – half is enough) served individually by the waiter. One at a time, the cup is served to guests who – when they finish – must return the cup to be refilled for the next person without putting the cup down. Forgetting this important step is seen as disrespectful – and more importantly, if the waiter was single the tradition told that the person who had put the cup down would have to arrange their marriage. If the waiter was already married, the Mirra-rule-breaker was required to fill the cup with gold.
Taking part in the drinking of Mirra elicited joyful anticipation – the kind you feel when getting to know your partner at the very beginning of a courtship. As each of our group members watched the other, we hoped that no one would accidentally place the cup down on the table. Of course, it was even funnier when one person did put the cup down and started to wonder how real this tradition really was! We discovered that in fact, it is very real and we left a few coins in lieu of gold.
Lastly came the uh-oh, now what stage
After realizing that I was head over heels in love with all things Turkey, what was I to do when I came back to my real life? Yes, I can try recreating recipes in my kitchen. Yes, I can plan future travel back to Turkey. But for a quick and decadent fix of all things Turkey, I make my way into Washington DC for a meal at Ankara DC – a restaurant that is about as authentically Turkish as I can get without my passport.
In two months, I have been to Ankara DC twice – once for lunch and once for brunch. If I lived in the city, I would probably be there once a week because it tastes like “home” (even if my homeland-by-birth cuisine revolves around pasta and risotto) making meals out of hummus, flatbreads and kebabs.
The Aslanturk family – who own Ankara DC – have gone to great lengths bringing Turkey to Washington DC – with ingredients and even tableware that tells of the restaurant’s roots. Walking through the door of this Dupont Circle restaurant you cannot help but feel like you are stepping into a portal that transports you across the ocean and into a local restaurant in Turkey, protected by the Turkish evil eyes that hang on the bar. (In case I thought about putting an end to my love affair, a few sips of Ayran lull me into a state of wellness before the desire is rekindled with a plate of baklava to end the meal.) Here too, the warm Turkish hospitality greets you like a warm embrace – making sure that at every moment, everything is to your liking.
So yes, I am having an affair with Turkish food (and lifestyle…because oh right, I have not even started on my deep affection for Turkish baths!)…and I don’t plan on ending it anytime soon.
Want to try your hand at Turkish cooking? Here is one of my favorite recipes from Muge Karsli. Though I warn you, you might just find yourself falling head over heels in love.
Recipe for Imam bayildi
- 3-4 baby eggplant
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 onions, sliced into thin strips
- 5 garlic cloves
- 2 peel and diced tomatoes (or 1 can)
- 1/2 cup chopped parsley
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 1/2 cup water
- 2 tbsp lemon juice
- salt to taste
Cut each eggplant in half lengthwise. Salt and set aside for about 15 minutes.
In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over high heat and fry the eggplant until golden brown. Remove and drain on a paper towel.
Cook the garlic and onions in the same skillet (with more oil) until soft and glazed. Stir regularly. Mix in the tomatoes, parsley, sugar and salt to taste for one minute and remove from heat.
Arrange the eggplant halves in a pyrex dish with the open sides up. Fill the eggplant with the mixture of onions, tomatoes, garlic and parsley. Drizzle the lemon juice over the eggplant as well as the remaining oil and water. Cover with foil and bake for 20- 50 minutes at 350 degrees.
*I was a guest of Turkish Airlines during my trip to Turkey and was invited to lunch at Ankara DC – but I take full responsibility for this love affair. It goes without saying that all opinions are my own (and that no compensation was received because love affairs are not love affairs when there is money involved).