Many in the food world believe the three great cuisines are French, Chinese and Turkish. Weekend Edition food commentator Bonny Wolf has visited all three countries and says she now knows why Turkish cuisine has been designated among the best.
LIANE HANSEN, (Host):
If you want to start a food fight, just ask people what are the worlds great cuisines? Culinary lore identifies three. Two seem obvious. The third is a bit of a puzzle. WEEKEND EDITION's food commentator Bonny Wolf explains.
BONNY WOLF: Chinese and French, right? Right. Whats the third great cuisine? Its not Indian, Japanese or even Italian. Its Turkish. Think about it: the Ottoman Empire covered three continents for 600 years. They controlled the spice trade.
In Istanbul, the sultans huge palace kitchens at Topkapi housed up to 1,300 staff preparing - sometimes for thousands - poached chicken with walnut sauce, rice pilaf with eggplant and meatballs, salads with rose petals.
Ottoman rule extended from Budapest to Baghdad and much of the Mediterranean basin. Turkish nomads had been moving through central Asia toward the Middle East for a few thousand years. Then, at the end of the 13th century, one group the Ottomans set up permanent camp in what was then Constantinople, now Istanbul.
By then, there had been culinary cross-fertilization from Asia, the Islamic world and bits of Europe. Talk about fusion cuisine. For example, the Turkish Uyghur started a kingdom in the 8th century in what is now China. Turkish mantı, lamb-filled dumplings, are probably an adaptation of some kind of Chinese pot sticker. I tried them 1,300 years later on a recent trip and theyre still delicious, served in a garlicky yogurt sauce.
The Turks are natural locavores. Everything is fresh and in season. Fish is cooked the day its caught. The simplest restaurant serves a fresh salad of olives, cucumbers, tomatoes and bitter greens sprinkled with powdered sumac. Street vendors carry on their heads piles of freshly baked, sesame-covered simits a cross between a bagel and a soft pretzel. Carts are loaded with glossy black mussels served with a squirt of lemon. Women sit in restaurant windows making crepes to be filled with spinach, cheese or meat.
Meyhanes are like dim sum houses where waiters come to the table with platters of small plates - pickled sea bass, bulgur salad with red pepper paste, Albanian fried lamb livers, zucchini fritters. Its all washed down with anise-flavored raki, the Turkish national drink. Everything, all day, is accompanied by tea oceans of tea served in tiny glass cups.
French and Chinese cooking deserve to be worshipped. So does the eclectic, habit-forming cuisine of Turkey.
HANSEN: Bonny Wolf is the author of "Talking with My Mouth Full." She's working on a book about the foods of Marylands Eastern Shore.