By Sophia Brittan
This is an objective account about the way people eat in the Aegean region of Turkey. The observations were made in the Summer and are specific to that season.
Turkey’s Aegean Coast stretches from just north of Izmir down to the Southwestern corner of the Western coastline. It is flanked by the Marmara region to the North, Mediterranean region to the Southeast, and the Anatolia region to the East. Layers upon layers of diverse populations have left their mark on the culture and traditions there, as Romans, Greeks, and Ottomans (to name a few) have all occupied the land over the past five centuries. The result is a very rich culinary tradition with a wide breadth of diverse recipes.
Due to its exceptional produce, the food of the Aegean coastal region is said to be the best of the country. The most notable ingredients are the tomatoes, olives, and olive oil, which are at the base of the diet. There are also many varieties of honey, fish, and nuts, as well as a myriad of fruits and vegetables. Driving around the coast one can see the groups of women working in the fields, for which they are not paid more than 10 Yeni Turkish Lira a day. Turkey is to Europe as California is to the United States; a land brimming with a wealth and diversity of fresh fruits and vegetables and oils that has enabled less agriculturally rich areas to enjoy its bounty.
A typical breakfast for people here is bread, a selection of a few goats and sheep’s milk cheeses, hard-boiled eggs, sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, fruit preserves, and honey. The bread can either be a sliced sandwich bread, simit, or poca.
Simit is a round bread covered with sesame seeds with a hollow center. It is a staple at breakfast, but is also eaten at other times of the day as a snack. One can find men with their carts selling simit all over the towns and cities of Turkey. Simit goes very well with a soft spreadable cheese and Ayran, a popular salted yogurt drink.
Poca is a soft and moist bread, which is made with a good amount of butter and oil, and stuffed with a mixture of parsley and white cheese.
Beyaz peynir, or white cheese (often translated as feta), is always in the selection of cheeses present at breakfast, and can be accompanied by kashkaval, ezine, and Izmir tulum, as well as any other local cheese.
Sometimes there are other condiments at breakfast, including tahin (tahini), pekmez (a molasses-like syrup), and rose petal jam. In the summer, watermelon slices are also served.
As far as breakfast meat goes, sometimes people eat sucuk, a spicy sausage, with scrambled eggs. Another typical Turkish egg dish is menemen, in which many finely chopped tomatoes and vegetables are cooked down, and then beaten eggs are scrambled with them. The result is a tomato-dominated dish of scrambled eggs with a lot of vegetable juice running through.
Tea or coffee is drunken in the morning, but tea is the more popular breakfast beverage. Tea is grown in Turkey, and has a very important role in Turkish culture. They use a double-decker teapot to brew the tea, with one of the pots holding the concentrated steeped tea, and the second full of boiled water to dilute the former. It is sweetened with sugar, and never honey. Usually Nescafe is taken in the morning, not Turkish coffee, which is why it is not mentioned in this account.
Depending on the day or type of work one does, lunch can consist of anything from a salad to grilled meat or tost. A formal meal, for either lunch or dinner, consists of a variety of cold and hot appetizers, known as meze, followed by a meat or fish dish. Common cold mezes are artichoke hearts with peas and dill, grated carrots in yogurt, roasted eggplant puree, roasted eggplant with chopped tomato and peppers, purslane in yogurt with garlic, spicy pepper and tomato paste (aci ezme), and coban salatasi (Shepard’s salad). I was happy to find deniz fasulyasi, or sea beans/vegetables, which were salty and delicious. Hot appetizers include green beans cooked in olive oil with tomato, fried eggplant with yogurt, börek, fried calamari, and fried mussels. Börek is a common type of dish, but can take many different forms. It is made up of layered flaky pastry dough that is stuffed with a variety of different fillings, and is either baked or fried. For example, cigar böregi are filled with cheese, rolled up to look like a cigar, and then deep- fried. Other times rectangular layers of dough are filled with spinach and cheese and baked.
Mezes are followed by a main dish of either meat or fish. Köfte are grilled meatballs made of ground beef or lamb, or a combination of the two. Different spices and seasonings are added to the meat mixture to give the ground meat its characteristic flavor. Urfa köfte, for example, is made with ground red pepper and is spicy. Kebabs are skewered meats that are cooked on the grill. Köfte are often skewered and can also fall into this same category (i.e. köfte kebab). Cubed eggplant is often interspersed with lamb cubes on a kebab skewer for a delicious grilled combination. Fish depends upon the season, but sea bass, sea bream, shrimp, octopus, and anchovies are all quite common. Fish is simply grilled and served with lemon, olive oil, and herbs. There are rarely heavy sauces that go on top of the grilled meats and fish; the flavor is to come through with the freshness of the ingredients. Manti are little pasta dumplings filled with ground lamb and served in a yogurt sauce with spiced butter and are very popular. Quite often manti is served in restaurants that specialize in the dish.
Pides fall into their own category. They are easily described as being similar to pizza, but are quite different in shape and toppings. Pides are made with a very thin dough that is rolled out and then formed in an oblong shape with pointed tips and rolled up sides, similar to the bottom of a boat. Finely ground lamb with spices and herbs is one topping, and crumbled feta cheese with tomatoes and herbs is another one. Because they are very long, they are often served sliced into two or three pieces. Lahmacun should be mentioned here. It is made with finely rolled out circular dough that is topped with a thin layer of finely minced lamb, herbs, and spices. It is baked in an oven and then served with fresh parsley and lemon juice.
Dessert is an important aspect of Turkish cookery, and is far too wide of a topic to cover in this simple observation. The basic common desserts are baklava, mühallebi, and revani. Baklava is made of flaky pastry dough layered with syrup and ground nuts. Mühallebi is a sweet milk pudding made with rice flour that is either served in individual dishes or made large and turned out upside down to serve. Revani is a semolina cake soaked in lemon scented simple syrup. There are a myriad of sweets from the Aegean region, including a pudding that is made by boiling down chicken.
I hope this account was helpful, and we hope to continue with our What People Eat accounts as much as possible, so that we can objectively observe the habits of the people we meet.