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Neighboring Cuisines on Ottoman Lands

The Ottoman Empire was notable for it’s multicultural structure, both in terms of population and political structure. The various peoples with their different cultures who lived within the political borders of the Empire lived under the principle of the continuity of the state. But this attitude was not an obstacle to the survival of their own cultures.

This unique model of government which allowed such a cultural freedom brought with it the initiative to maintain one’s cultural identity. Thanks to this policy of cultural autonomy maintained by the state without oppression, we see the cultural life of people living within the empire continuing to the present day. However, here we must also note that living on the same lands under the same official identity, the various cultures over time came to share more and more common points and increasingly resemble each other. This resemblance, with the exception of religion and the elements it brought with it, is a natural result of cultural assimilation. Visible in language, music, clothing and cuisine, this cultural assimilation is a common phenomenon in societies united under a common official identity.

Actually, the cultural elements mentioned here are not elements that can be determined and changed by political and social conditions, to be accepted  and adopted. Without a doubt, the influences of nature (geography and climate), environment and social structure (behaviors, preferences) are of greater importance in the emergency of this culture.

Addressed within this context, there were two different cuisines within the Ottoman Empire. One of these is the cuisine which was shaped under the influence of the capitol. This cuisine, though shaped by the palace and its environs, was also always influenced by a yet older cuisine, and was in a state of cultural interaction with other cultures. The other is the cuisines of the various peoples living within the borders of the Empire, which are directly related to the surrounding cultures and environment. The natural flora and animal products of a region are the natural ingredients of the area’s cuisine. Thus one may find the same repertoire of dishes among all the peoples living in the region. The fundamental differences distinguishing the cuisines of these peoples are the influences of taste and religious factors upon their foods. Keşkek (a thick porridge of whole wheat berries and meat) for example, is a food found throughout nearly all of Anatolia. Whether one group makes this dish at weddings and another at funerals, and yet another at festivals, has to do with their socio-cultural character. Of course the ingredients used are another influence on differences between foods. For example, that Christians avoid this dish (because it contains meat) during fast days; and Muslims do not use pork in its preparation are not coincidental; they are the result of determining cultural factors on that groups cuisine.

These similarities food cultures of Ottoman peoples is a phenomenon present among many other peoples around the globe. Of course the great extent of the Ottoman lands, the cultural richness of the peoples living on these lands and the extreme wealth of available ingredients make the Ottoman cuisines exceptional. Within the context of all these characteristics, we will attempt to address the main features of the cuisines of these peoples who once lived within the borders of the Empire, most of whom are now neighbors of modern Turkey. Just as a great many of these peoples maintain social ties with Turkey, some became Turkish citizens upon the founding of the Republic. Consequently these food cultures have become part of Turkish cuisine as a whole.

Most of the dishes included here may be found in various parts of Turkey, by the same name. Even when the names of the dishes are different (because of different languages), they are very similar because of similar cooking techniques and cultural features. These common features, seen in many dishes, may vary according to details of preparation, serving or occasions for which they are prepared. Despite this some of them still have the same name. Here I present a few such dishes.

Aşure

If the story of Noah making this dish out of all the ingredients left over in the ark after the flood is true, then aşure could be called the “oldest known dish on earth.” Without a doubt, aşure has had a special place in the cuisines not only of Christians and Muslims, but of all the peoples who have come and gone through the lands of Noah, if with variations of ingredients and methods. Everybody has a different way to make it. Some put 40 different ingredients into it, some eat it warm and others cold; the Armenians never use beans or chickpeas, and call it “anooshabour.”

Ingredients (For 10 people)

400 gr hulled wheat berries
125 gr small white beans
125 gr chickpeas
150 gr dried apricots
200 gr raisins
150 gr dried figs
1 T grated orange peel
800 gr granulated sugar
5 litres water
1 T sunflower oil
1 c milk
1 t rosewater (optional)

For garnish:
Pine nuts, currants, walnuts, chopped dried apricots, chopped dried figs, pomegranate kernels, hazelnuts

The night before, soak the wheat in warm water, the beans in cold water and the chick peas in warm salted water. The next day drain and wash the beans and chickpeas, boil them separately until done, drain. Remove the skins from the chickpeas. Chop the dried apricots and figs into hazelnut size pieces. Wash the wheat and drain. Clean and wash the raisins, and boil for ten minutes in their own saucepan, drain.

In a large pot, put the 5 litres of water, the wheat and 1 T of sunflower oil, and bring to a boil, then reduce to a slow simmer and cover, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. When the wheat has softened completely, remove the cover, add the raisins and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the orange peel, the cooked chickpeas and the beans, and cook for 5 minutes more, stirring constantly. Then add the dried apricots and sugar, stirring constantly until the mixture boils again, and add the milk.

While the aşure is cooking, it should not become too thick; if necessary add a bit more water. Add the dried figs last, cook for around 5 minutes more and remove from the heat. Cover partially and allow to cool, stirring occasionally to prevent the formation of a skin. If it is thick, add a bit of milk and stir. At this stage, water must not be added. Ladle into serving bowls and when completely cool, add the garnish.

Keşkek

Keşkek is a typical dish of central Anatolia. It is a ceremonial dish of festivals, where lots of meat is consumed, enjoyed by Turks, Kurds and Armenians and other Anatolian peoples. Not only is it eaten at weddings; it is also the most filling and sustaining “morning stew,” eaten before long days in the fields. The most characteristic feature of this dish is its homogenous nature, the meat and wheat berries being completely mixed with each other. The Armenians do not put chickpeas or onion into this dish, which the call “harisa;” they and they prefer the meat from the lower part of the sheep’s belly (pancetta).

Ingredients (For 8 people)

1 kg cubed meat
3 c hulled wheat berries (döğme)
1.5 c chickpeas
2 medium onions
1 T salt
Red flake pepper
Cumin
Black pepper
3 T butter

The night before, wash and soak the wheat and chickpeas. The next day, chop the onion finely. Put the meat, chickpeas, wheat, onion and salt in a pot and add water to cover plus some, and bring to a boil. Remove any scum, and continue to boil until the meat and chickpeas have started to fall apart. If all the water is absorbed before it is completely cooked, add boiling water. When the water is mostly absorbed, add the pepper, cumin and black pepper to taste, and beat with masher until it comes to the consistency of a thick porridge. Melt the butter pour a little over the keşkek when serving.

Dolmeyen Parsuyan (Kaburga Dolması – Stuffed Ribs)
(Serves 6)

Ingredients
Ribs of a 1 year-old kid or lamb
250 gr shank meat
2 c rice
4 T butter
1 t black pepper
1 t salt
1 t allspice
3 c water
1 c almonds
1 finely chopped parsley or basil
Pepper paste

Wash rice well and soak in warm salted water, leave till cool. Cube the shank meat, and cook with one cup of water until the water is gone. Add salt and pepper. Add some more hot water and leave to simmer.

In another pot, melt 2 T of butter. Drain rice and add, fry in the butter. Add the fried dry rice to the boiling meat and cook till half done. In another saucepan boil the almonds in water and remove their skins, then brown lightly in butter. Add the almonds and chopped parsley or basil to the half-cooked rice, add allspice and mix.

Open a space between the rib meat and the bone and stuff with the rice mixture. Take care to fill with the right amount of stuffing; too much and the rib will split and the filling will scatter in the cooking pot; too little and the filling will be watery. Spread a bit of pepper paste (optional) over the meat and sauté in one T of butter. Arrange in the pot with the bone side down, add 3 cups of hot water, add salt, and cover. Simmer for 1 hour, then turn to put the meat side down and continue cooking on a very light flame for 4-5 hours, until the meat is very tender.

The pepper paste is optional; if you prepare it without the pepper paste, then brown in the oven before serving.

Mehir (Lebeniye Çorbası – Yogurt Soup)

It is nearly impossible to imagine an Anatolian meal without a bowl of hot soup. Mehir, otherwise known as lebeniye çorbası is a traditional holiday dish which various peoples of Southeast Anatolia, especially the Kurds, serve to guests. Found over a wide area and with local variation, this satisfying soup brings two staples of Anatolian food, ayran and hulled wheat, together in the same dish, along with white beans and chickpeas, two more staples.

Ingredients (For 6 people)

6 c ayran (yogurt thinned with water to the consistency of light buttermilk)
2 c hulled whole wheat berries (döğme)
1 c chickpeas
1 c dry white beans
1 c meat broth
1 T butter
1 t salt
1 T dry mint
1 bunch parsley, minced
1 T cracked corn
1 T Red flake pepper

The night before, soak the wheat, chickpeas, beans and corn. Without draining, boil all the ingredients together. After the wheat has swollen, add the meat broth and salt. Take some of the boiling water and add to the ayran, then pour the ayran into the boiling water, boil a bit longer and remove from the heat. Just before serving, heat the mint and pepper in the butter, and add to the soup, followed by the finely chopped parsley.

 
 
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