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The Environment which Gave Rise to Turkish Culinary Culture

Ali Abbas Çınar

Turkish cuisine has a significant place in world civilization. The settlement of the Turks in various regions, their establishment of states and civilizations, their adoption of a variety of religious systems, their proximity to different ethnic communities, and adaptation  of new dishes by the use of local vegetation of the areas they settled, have been the chief sources of the wide variety observed in their cuisine. Animal husbandry is the most important economic basis on which Turks have depended since the earliest times. Wheat constitutes the second most significant source of nutrition in the Turkish economy. The diet of the Central Asian Turks was restricted to a fatty pastry made of wheat flour, milk and dairy products, horse meat and mutton, and a drink made of mare’s milk (kumiss or kımız). “The cultivation and harvest of crops such as wheat and barley, and the production of flour and bread from these crops points to an advanced level of civilization.” The foods and drinks cited in Divanü Lügati’t-Türk (the earliest known Turkish dictionary) bear witness to the well-established agricultural and culinary activities of Turks mentioned above; apparently, Turks had long been involved in growing crops and making bread, desserts and drinks. This, in turn, suggests the existence of mills, ovens and other cooking devices, constituting evidence for the highly developed urban life among Turks. Urbanized without developed culinary cultures are unimaginable. It has also been determined also by foreign scientists that in addition to animal husbandry, the Turks of Asia had great agricultural knowledge.

It would be unwise to think of the culinary culture of the Anatolian Turks as totally independent from the cultural environment of Central Asia. The view that the existence of a long tradition of agriculture, food and drink in Anatolia is explicable only in terms of the Anatolian civilizations preceding the Turks is not sound. Studies reveal that the Turks had already made the transition into sedentary life before they came to Anatolia. In addition, their culinary culture dates back to earliest times in human history. It is quite normal that some alterations should occur in a culinary culture parallel to changes in manner of production and geography. On the other hand, it is also a fact that some Turkish tribes have preferred a nomadic life. It is apparent that, when compared with tribes and ethnic groups leading a sedantary life, this type of life style has an equally rich repertoire of rituals and customs pertaining to food and drink. The fact that the foods and drinks listed in Divanü Lügati’t- Türk still exist with their original names and preparation methods in present day Anatolia is proof of the far-reaching roots of Turkish culinary traditions.

The World of Food and Drink as Depicted in Turkish Folk Poetry

Several studies have been conducted on the epic poems of the Turkish folk poets; however, most of these studies consist either of anthologies of works by several poets, or collected works of individual poets with accompanying commentary.
Epics on food and beverages are products of the oral cultural tradition, and usually containing humorous anecdotes. That said, the element of humor is restricted to only a small portion of these works; it is not their focus. While stating his preferences for certain dishes or food items, the poet also expresses his feelings and wishes and provokes critical thinking as well as laughter and thus, the invited guests, the narrator, and the poet himself often eat “a pilaff of dreams,” as depicted in a poem by Aşık Veysel.

The farther we go into history, the more we see an emphasis on the religious and mystical elements in such epics. The word sofra (lit. the cloth spread out for eating, the dining table) has long been an expression of union, togetherness, friendship, happiness, and peace. To open (spread) a sofra is synonymous with sharing and togetherness. To hold a sofra has been used in historical sources with a meaning of “settling in a place, making it one’s home.” This religious connotation attached to the sofra, and hence to eating and food, has naturally included fruits:

Kırklar ceminde engür ezildi
Ezen de ezdiren de Ali’dir Ali (Bosnevi)
Kırkların ezdiği engür suyundan
Bir sen iç sevdiğim
bir de bana ver
(Sefil Hüseyin)

Grapes were pressed in the court of the forty saints
It is Ali himself who presses them and gets them pressed (Bosnevi)
Of the must pressed in the court of the holy forty
Take one sip yourself, my beloved,
and give me one sip as well
(Sefil Hüseyin)

The prophets, religious leaders, sultans or heroes whose names appear in these epics are:

Adem (Adam), Ali, Hacı Bektaş Veli, Hasan, Hüseyin (Hussein), Havva (Eve), Hızır (Khidir or St. George), İsa (Jesus Christ), Lokman Hekim (A mythical physician believed able to cure all ailments, very similar to Asclepius), Muhammed (Mohammad), Murad Khan, Musa (Moses), Nuh Nebi (Noah), Zaloğlu Rüstem, Ebu Süfyan (Abu Sufian), Süleyman (Solomon).

The millennia-old Turkish culinary has consequently led to the birth and development of certain manners and behaviors expected at the table. Starting each meal with the holy besmele, and finishing it with a prayer are customs that have left their mark on Turkish culture after the Turks’ conversion to Islam. However, it must also be noted that this particular behavior might also be influenced by pre-Islamic rituals. Such behavior patterns are reflected in the epics as well:

Besmeleyle başlar yemek
Verilür sofraya emek
Tazece pişer mercimek
Ya Hacı Bektaşı Veli
(Korkusuz  Abdal)

The meal starts with the besmele
Effort and care is given to table
The lentil is freshly cooked
Oh, Hacı Bektaşı Veli
(Korkusuz  Abdal)

 

 

Bismillahla edin niyet
Otlu peynir açar davet
Tandır paça cana kuvvet
Doslar gelin soframıza


(Âşık Ahmet Poyrazoğlu)

With the holy words (bismillah) make your wish
Cheese with herbs is a good starter for an invitation
Tanduri and paça (trotters) strengthen the soul (heart)
Friends come and gather around our table
(Poet Ahmet Poyrazoğlu)

 

 

Doyunca şükür ya Rab diyesin
Halil bereketi var soframızın

(Feymanî)

When you are full, you should give thanks to the Lord
Our table has the bounty of Halil
(Feymani)

When listing the meals he dreams of, the poet says “bismillah” as if he is going to eat them in real life. Likewise, he finishes off the poem by reminding the readers to say grace. This thinking is reflected also in other poets’ works:

Şeref der ki
soframız da var olsun
Hak yetirsin Yaradanım yâr olsun
Herkes çok çocukla beraber olsun
Allah’a şükredip doymak isterim
(Âşık Şeref Taşlıova).

Şeref (the poet) says “may our table have bounty”
May God satisfy us and be our companion
May everyone have many children
I wish to be sated as I say grace
(Poet Şeref Taşlıova).

 

 

Bütün nimetleri saydım adıyla
Yemek kısmet olsun ağız tadıyla
(Rüştü Büngül)

I listed all of God’s gifts
May God give us the good fortune to enjoy them
(Rüştü Büngül)

Praying at the end of the meal is a common folk tradition, especially if the gathering is for some specific occasion such as a funeral, a wedding etc., and is considered a holy deed. The prayers reserved for this purpose are in verse form:

“Bismillahirrahmanirrahim
Bu sofra nur olsun
Gada bela dur olsun
Yiyene afiyet olsun
Gazanıp getirene
beytullah nasip olsun


Daşa dökülmeye
Arta eksilmeye
Bu eve yoksulluk girmeye
Lillahil fatiha”

Bismillahirrahmanirrahim
May this table be filled with holy light
May illness and calamity remain far from it
May the food be palatable to the one who is eating it
May beytullah (God’s house = Kaaba) be home for those who earned it by the sweat of his brow
May the food be bountiful without waste
May it become more and not less
May this house remain free of poverty Lillahil fatiha (calling for a recitation of the sura Fatiha from the Koran)

Other small samples of such prayers in verse include:

“Allah Allah
Lokmalar kabul ola
Muratlar hasıl ola
Yiyene helal ola
Yedirene delil ola
Cennet taamı ola”

God oh God
May each bite be taken with your permission
May great wishes be fulfilled
May the food be halal to (deserved by) the ones eating it
May it be evidence of Him who provides it
May this become the food of Heaven

 

Another pattern of behavior observed after the meal is cleaning up the dish with a piece of bread and eating that so as to leave nothing behind. This custom has both societal and economic reasons as well as religious ones. Finishing the food on one’s dish to the last bit and wasting none of it is considered a sunna (a preferable or customary act according to the Islamic religion). Conversely, leaving food on the dish is considered a sin.

Eating together as a large group is another characteristic of the Turks. Particularly on occasions such as festivals, weddings, deaths, and other special days (“yuğ” or funeral rituals of pre-Islamic times) banquets were held. This fact of life finds its expression also in poems:

Bir davet tertibi kurduk bir vakit
Onbeş kadar ehl-i irfanımız var
Hepimiz bir yere cem olduk amma
İçimizde çok yer yaranımız var
(Âşık Nahifi)

We held a banquet once
We had about fifteen men of wisdom
All of us were gathered in one place
Among us there were many who split the world*
(Âşık Nahifi)

 

 

Misafire aluçalı eşgili
Çoh mahbula geçtiğini büliyem 

(Aleattin Sağ)

That sour plums
are much preferred by the guests is
known to me
(Aleattin Sağ)

(*the phrase “yer yaran” literally means someone who splits open the earth but the saying is used for someone who performs the Alevi - Bektashi ritual dance.)

The epic poet makes an introduction to the epic either by talking about the table manners or listing the dishes special to his locality and region—or some dishes known countrywide— and in particular, by expressing his preference for food. The fact that one starts the meal by eating a soup, continues with the main dish, and finishes off with a dessert, tea or coffee is stated at this stage as a general rule. Folk /epic poet Murat Çobanoğlu, starts his epic with the following quatrain:

Yemeklerin tarifini edeyim
Allah’ın sayısız nimetine bak
Evvel ayran aşı gelir ortaya
Doldur kaşığını
lezzetine bak
(Âşık Murat Çobanoğlu)

Let me give a description of the dishes
Behold the countless graces of God
First the “ayran aşı” (a cooling soup made with husked wheat and yogurt) comes to the table
Fill your spoon with it and enjoy yourself
(Poet Murat Çobanoğlu)

The same poet expresses his gratitude to God and asks His blessings in the last quatrain:

Murat Çobanoğlu söyledi destan
Baklava kadayıf son oldu nişan

Bizlere bunları verdi Yaradan
Yüce Hakk’ın sonsuz kudretine bak
(Âşık Murat Çobanoğlu)

Murat Çobanoğlu has recited his epic
Baklava and kadayıf (syrupy pastry sweets) have sealed the meal off
The Creator has given us these
See how endless God’s might is
(Poet Murat Çobanoğlu)

 

A similar cultural heritage is observed in other poets as well:

İlkin çorbalardan başlayıp söze
Birer birer tarif edeyim size
Misafir olmaya gelseniz bize
Sizin arzunuza uymak isterim
(Âşık Şeref Taşlıova)

Let me start by talking about the soups
And describe them one by one
If you come to us and be our guests
I would like to comply with your wishes
(Poet Şeref Taşlıova)

 

 

Türlü  nanı niğmet suyu yanında
Evvelâ sofrada aştı dediler
(Âşık Murat Yıldız)

All sorts of blessed bread and water
They say these were the first food at the table
(Poet  Murat Yıldız)

 

 

Çok meşhurdur bizim yemeklerimiz
Size adlarını saymak isterim
İnşallâh boş olmaz emeklerimiz
Hüneri sofraya koymak isterim
(Âşık Şeref Taşlıova)

Our dishes are very well known
I would like to recite their names to you
May God not let our efforts go wasted
I would like to show skill at the table
(Poet Şeref Taşlıova)

 

 

Kanmıyasın bol çeşidin kastına
Az yemeyi öğüt eyle dostuna
Kahve gelsin yemeklerin üstüne
İçen ahbaplara afiyet olsun
(Şemsi Yastıman)

Don’t be taken in by the ample variety of the dishes
Advise your friends to eat with moderation
Have coffee after meals
May my greetings be received by all friends
(Şemsi Yastıman)

 

 

Poyrazoğlu kur sofrayı
Dua ile an Mevlâyı
Hazırdır semaver çayı
Dostlar gelin soframıza
(Âşık Ahmet Poyrazoğlu)

Poyrazoğlu, set the table
Invoke God’s name with prayers
Tea is ready in a samovar
Friends come to our table
(Poet Ahmet Poyrazoğlu)

At the beginning of these epics, the poets prepare their audience for the atmosphere of a dream world presented in the poem. This resembles the riddle-introductions encountered in fairy tales and stories. Some examples of this are as follows:

Yemeğin hayali geçti gönlümden
Bütün çeşitleri nur soframızın
(Feymanî)

The dream of food has appeared in my heart
All the varieties on our table are lights of God
(Feymanî)

 

 

Takdir tecelliden erzak diledik
Vardık çar köşeyi
devran eyledik
Bir mezat açıldı yemek içinde
Vardık ol mezatta cevlan eyledik
(Bayburtlu Celalî)

We asked for provisions from God
We have come and turned around the four corners of the place
An auction has been opened in the meal
We have come and whirled at that auction
(Celalî of Bayburt)

 

 

Ya İlahi
kapundan birkaç dilek dilerem
Hele şindüki sözüm cengüm var
bogazile
(Kaygusuz Abdal)

Oh Holy God, I would like to make a few wishes from your gate
Particularly this one word of mine; I have a battle with my throat
(Kaygusuz Abdal)

 

 

Olur mürde iken yeniden ihya
Bağlar şükufesi olmaya peyda
Budur Kudretullah
destan-ı meyva
Daim yoktan verir Yezdanımız var
(Konyalı Şem’î)

It rises from the dead
It appears as the flower of the vineyard
This is the fruit of the epic, Kudretullah (The might of God)
God almighty always creates out of nothingness
(Konyalı Şem’î)

In the couplets and quatrains used at the end of these epics, a technique that is frequently used in some narratives is employed; the audience is awakened from a dream world and reintroduced to the real world:

Cümle kelam hep fani vefası yok dünyanın
Ey Kaygusuz fenaya aldanmagıl lağ ile
(Kaygusuz)

All the words are transient and the world errant
Oh Kaygusuz, don’t be fooled by words
(Kaygusuz)

 

 

Reyhanî’ye rüya görmüş diyerler
Haşıl yapar ortasını oyarlar

Sofranın sonuna pilav sayarlar
Bizim Erzurum’un hoş yemekleri
(Âşık Reyhanî)

They say Reyhani has seen a dream
They make buttered wheat pilaf and
make a well in it
They bring pilaf to the table as the last dish
The lovely dishes of our city, Erzurum
(Poet Reyhanî)

 

 

Mışıl mışıl uyurdu
minderinde Mestan’ım
Tazelendi dertlerim
burda bitsin destanım
(İhsan Coşkun Atılcan)

My dear cat Mestan used to sleep soundly on my pillow
My pain has welled up again, so let’s bring my epic to an end
(İhsan Coşkun Atılcan)

 

 

Rençberlik dediğin
helal nafaka
Gel Ruhsatî
çöreği çek kırağa
(Ruhsatî)

Working as a farmhand raises well-deserved money
Come Ruhsati, keep the çörek (a savory dough pastry) at bay
(Ruhsatî)

Some of the poets complain about not being able to find food or eat whatever they whish to eat:

Gönül kahvaltıyı irtikap eder
Üzerinde şeker kaymak bulunmaz
Elli gündür perhiz altmışa gider
Allâh'a şükür dedik doymak bulunmaz

(Âşık Fahrî)

The heart desires breakfast
It has no sugar or sweet cream
Its fast has surpassed fifty days now and is nearing sixty
We thanked God that the stomach is empty
(Poet Fahrî)

 

 

İhsan Coşkun bu bolluk
destanlara sığar mı,
Al fileyi gir kuyruğa
bak bakalım yağ var mı
(İhsan Coşkun Atılcan)

İhsan Coşkun, is any epic sufficient to contain all this bounty?
Pick up the shopping bag, get into line and see if there is any oil
(İhsan Coşkun Atılcan)

 

 

Biraz unumuz olsa
börek, çörek çok güzel
Yağ lazım, peynir lazım,
nerde bulak müptezel

(Âşık Reyhanî)

If we had some flour we would have some nice pastry and pies
Then there would be a need for butter and cheese, too; where would we find them, you tramp
(Poet Reyhanî)

 
 
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