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The Development of Turkish Cuisine and Historical Turkish Traditions

Prof. Dr. Bahaeddin Ögel

At the mention of  Turkish cuisine, Turkish history should come to mind, because a people does not readily lose their taste in food; they do not give up foods to which they have become accustomed over thousands of years. In addition, women in the kitchen are conservative; they learn their cooking traditions from those before them. Earlier on the environment was conducive to the changing of habits and manners as it is today. But the most important element which comprises the foundation of a people’s cuisine is their economy.

Since the earliest Turkish history, one of the most important bases, and sometimes, the only base of the Turks’ economy has been animal husbandry. Whether in Central Asia or in Anatolia after the adoption of a settled lifestyle, the Turks never abandoned animal husbandry. Animal husbandry does not simply mean that everyone has a few cows in their homes. In its greater sense, that is, Turkish animal husbandry, means yayla culture, the practice of transhumance, yearly migration from the lowlands to the mountain meadows and back. The term “sheepherding” does not mean grazing a few sheep. True sheepherding begins with flocks of 200 and more. For this reason, there is little evidence for the assertions that “animal husbandry or sheepherding was practiced in Anatolia before the arrival of the Turks.” The yayla culture came to Anatolia with the Turkmen tribes. During those times in Anatolia, with no security of life or belongings, who could engage in transhumance? The Turks always practiced animal husbandry with military precision. The founder of the Ottoman state, Osman Cari, was also a sheep herder.

The second base of the Turkish economy is wheat. However it would be more correct to broaden this go grains in general, because those who were unable either to obtain or plant wheat, planted the easier-to-raise barley and millet. These can also grow in a variety of climates. But economically strong tribes such as the Oğuz in Anatolia ate wheat. The Dede Korkut book, in speaking of non-Turks in Anatolia, belittled them, calling them “infidels who ate millet bread.” This means that the cuisines of other Turks, though based on the same source, could be distinguished one from another based on peoples’ strength and the materials they used.

“Among the Turks, food is like a symbol, establishing social order.” Throughout history, Turkic societies developed within an order and discipline, because in order to protect their wealth against their surroundings, they developed as “military units.” The places where the people came together were feasts and banquets. The Khans and Beys had an obligation to feed their people and hold feasts. This has remained an indispensable tradition throughout Turkish history. The people even had the right to complain about a Khan or Bey that did not give feasts. During the incursion of the great Selçuk Sultan Melıkşah into Turkistan, the Çiğil and Yağma Turks complained about Melikşah, saying “we did not eat a single bite of his food,” and because of this, were disappointed in him. Among the Turkmens and Central Asian Kazakhs, there are “no classes.” However there is some social stratification among them, and this emerged at feasts and banquets. According to the traditional code of ethics among the Turks, caltraditional code of ethics among the Turks, which they called ülüs, in feasts everyone did not eat whatever part of a roast sheep they wanted. It was predetermined what part of the sheep everyone would eat. This was also a tradition inherited from their forefathers. In other words, the degree of service and bravery of their forefathers was recognized by the people and continued in this manner. The descendants could of course through their own service and bravery increase their ülüs, or the share to which they had a right. Those who committed an unseemly act and were punished would lose their rights to their share. At the feasts and banquets, those who had lost these rights also lost their rights to pasturage and grazing land. It becomes clear that among the Turks then, food was not simply a substance to be eaten to fill the stomach. Food became a means and a symbol of societal order, which established their honor and discipline. Otherwise everyone belonged to lineage and was at the same level. However service and honor created a stratification among the people.

The boundaries of Turkish cuisine in the world, in terms of the Turkish cultural realm:
It is most appropriate to begin in the Far East, in China: Throughout history, North China remained within the Turkish cultural realm. For this reason the North Chinese economy also is based on the foundations of animal husbandry and wheat culture. Central and South China on the other hand have a rice-based culture. This is the reason that at a North Chinese restaurant, you can find the same foods as ours, made with beef, our söğüş, our mantı, and even our meat böreks. However in a Central and Southern Chinese restaurant you will find none of these items. The reason for such a deep divide is not coincidental; it is the result of a development lasting thousands of years. In China there is a proverb:

North Chinese are afraid of dogs, because dogs are dirty and can hurt them. But dogs are afraid of the Southern Chinese, because South Chinese eat dogs. The South Chinese are afraid of the North Chinese’ mantı, made from meat and dough, because mantı make South Chinese’ stomachs hurt.

We see that both of these societies have foods to which their bodies have grown accustomed, and it is not at all easy for one to abandon these habits. The same situation is visible in the Balkans and in the Arab countries. Whatever positive ethnic elements came of the wealth of the Turkish state was adopted by the people under their power. The issue should be examined from just such a simple logic.

The adaptation of new ingredients and vegetables into Turkish cuisine:
The Turks should be credited for their technique at making dolma with vegetables that entered their cuisine later; or other stuffed foods such as dürüm or sucuk. When our landlady in Germany made stuffed cabbage, she had to tie them shut with a string. Earlier on, there was no such dolma tradition in German cuisine, and Turkish cuisine is widespread in Iran, because there is a Turkic majority in Iran. However the names of these foods have been Persianized, with the exception of dolma of course. The Persian word for dolma has remained “dolmeh.”

Eggplant became available to the Turks very late; it arrived in Europe before it came to us. However in Europe there is no karnıyarık, no imam bayıldı, söğürtme or hünkar beğendi. This difference is the result of a cooking technique. That is, the Turks, who made pide with meat and many similar foods, applied this same technique to the preparation of eggplant and came up with dishes such as karnıyarık and imam bayıldı. Some of the words having to do with the cooking of eggplant are Central Asian in origin, for example söğürtme or patlıcan söğürtmesi.

In this paper I could only address, within the context of Turkish culture, the “bounds and criteria that set Turkish cuisine apart from other cuisines.” The dishes made with milk and yogurt are heirlooms which have come down to us from the herdsman transhumant Turks who formed the first Turkish state. The dishes with meat and dough are a second cuisine, invented and developed by Turks living in the villages and yaylas, and have their own special flavors. Now kebab shops, which have entered our large cities with a millennia-old cooking tradition, have reduced the numbers of our classic restaurants nearly to the point of eliminating them. This means that Anatolian Turkish cuisine was like a representative of a higher civilization and taste. Intentionally or otherwise, they are taking our tastes back towards our old Turkish traditions.

Source: Bulletins of the Symposium on Turkish Cuisine, Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Bureau of National Folklore Research Publications: 41. Seminar congress bulletin series: 12, Ankara University Press, Ankara, 1982.
 
 
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