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Eating Habits of the Turks and their Associated Behaviors

Dr. Mahmut Tezcan

“The soul comes through the throat.”

Introduction

Nutrition is a central fact of existence for all living things, it is something we must achieve in order to remain alive. We may approach the subject of nutrition in Turkey, and Turkish cuisine, from a variety of standpoints. Here, I will examine it chiefly from the standpoint of social anthropology, and support my statements both with examples from literature and my own observations.

Different societies have different cultures, and among these cultural differences is the element of eating habits. All people must eat to live. But what a person eats depends on both geographical conditions, and upon his culture.

What a person chooses in the way of food, how he acquires it, how he cooks it, and how, when and where he eats it, all change according to the habits of his society. Turkish society exhibits considerable differences from other cultures in terms of types of food and flavors.

Throughout our country, eating habits exhibit variety according to history, region, and even among various sections of society such as urban or village dwellers. In addition, we can speak of common features despite these differences. Here I would like to concentrate mostly on the common features. In other words, these common features are expressions of behavioral patterns.

With a long history, the Turks have a rich culinary culture. This wealth is evident in the rich variety of foods. In addition, patterns of behavior have developed in relation to all foods and drinks.

To give a few examples of this culinary wealth: in the Black Sea region alone there are over twenty different dishes incorporating corn. Also in the Black Sea region the many different ways of preparing hamsi, a sardine-like fish, indicates the richness of our cuisine: Fried hamsi, hamsi bread, pilaf, kaygana (a sort of crepe), köfte, dible, boiled, grilled, in börek, steamed with onions and tomatoes...the list goes on.

In Kayseri, there are twenty different varieties of pastırma, the ancestor of the pastrami of the west. One writer says: Every one of the twenty varieties of pastırma has a separate character, a separate flavor. If we tell someone from Kayseri, ‘Count twenty kinds of pastırma,’ he will begin counting: Sırt, kuşgömü, kenar mehle, eğrice, omuz, dilme, şekerpare, kürek, kapak, döş, etek, bacak, orta bez, kavrama, meme, kelle, kanlı bez, arka bas, tütünlük.. (Gümüşkayak, 1966)

We also have a great variety of eggplant dishes, salads and types of kebab (roast meats). Bıldırcın kebabı, çevirme kebabı, kuzu çevirme, çöp kebabı, çubuk kebabı, şiş kebabı, deri kebabı, pideli kebap, Adana kebap, saç kebabı, tas kebabı and tandır kebabı are just a few of the many examples.

We observe that foods of Anatolia generally fall into three groups: plant/vegetables, meats, and bread/doughs. Most of these have been used since antiquity. There is actually a tie between civilization and types of food. Criteria such as the quality, number, type and array of tools used in food preparation, the materials cooked themselves, the way they are cooked, and whether or not they are eaten directly as they occur in nature, all give an idea as to that country’s level of civilization and taste. In anthropological terms, eating habits comprise a cultural complex. In other words, the act of eating is a combination of several different cultural features. The kitchen is an indication of civilization. Generally we can characterize societies who do not use agricultural products and eat mostly meat and game as primitive. The Turks have made various types of food at various stages of civilization, and each stage of civilization has had its effect on today’s eating habits.

In generally, we observe the following characteristics in Turkish foods:

  • Nomadism and the agricultural economic structure have affected Turkish food.
  • Foods exhibit variety according to our country’s geographical regions.
  • Foods generally exhibit differentiation according to families’ socioeconomic level.
  • The variety of foods is indicative of reciprocal influence with other cultures.
  • Our cuisine is influenced by our religious structure, norms and values.
  • Eating habits display a certain degree of differentiation according to gender.

It is within this context that we shall address the subject.

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