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Cuisine of the Cretan Turks: Wild Greens and Olive Oil

Eren Akçiçek*

The Turks of Crete

Crete is an 8,379 km2 island in the eastern Aegean Sea, today part of Greece. Crete became part of the Ottoman Empire on September 6, 1669. From 1820 on, the Greeks of the Island began frequent revolts and struggled to win the island for Greece. From the time the Cretan problem began, local Greeks as well as Greek militias supported by Greece proper used every means and opportunity, sometimes tragic, to abolish Ottoman rule on the island and eliminate the presence of the Turks. This resulted in the eventual annex of the island to Greece in 1913, and the later expulsion of the island’s 120,000-strong Turkish population.1 Because of these events the Turks who emigrated and settled mainly along the shores of the Aegean and Mediterranean are known as Giritli (Cretans). They are easily distinguished by their customs, foods, language and hospitality. Some families still speak the Cretan dialect of Greek. Because of their language, the local people dubbed them “half gâvur” (infidels); in response the Cretans said “and you are complete infidels.”

The Cretans tend to be tall, handsome, well-built and white-skinned. The Cretan families generally tried to live close to each other in the same neighborhoods. They have a strong family structure and divorce is uncommon. They show extreme love for children, as well as value for their elderly, and love sharing happy events and joy with the entire family.

Cretan housewives are hard working, meticulous and disciplined; obedient to their husbands. They tend to be skilled at handicrafts, and would prepare all their own dowries. The Cretan husband is extremely devoted to his family, his home and his children. The local people preferred to marry their daughters to Cretan men because, they said, “the Cretan man knows her value.” Cretans are hospitable and like to go all-out for their guests. They are generous but do not like waste, and are very patriotic. They love nature; for this reason their homes are like gardens for the large number of plants and flowers they raise.

Cuisine of the Cretan Turks

If we were to sum up Cretan cooking in a single phrase, that phrase would be “natural foods,” because it is based on wild greens and olive oil. Cretans tend to be healthy and long-lived, and attribute this to their use of wild greens and olive oil. One could characterize the Cretan table as a “green table,” because there are always greens. They have a saying, “If there are no greens at the table, we don’t sit down.”6

Their meals are well-organized and rich in variety. They love to welcome guests at meals. Cretans do not begin a meal without deferring to the old members of the family, male or female. They buy the best of everything, and say “eat little, but eat well,” and prefer to eat fresh foods. For this reason food is cooked for the day only. Food is never thrown out; even stale bread is oven-dried for use as rusk.

At the meatless olive oil dishes, the local Turks would say “can you have a meal without meat?!” The Cretans haven’t much use for beef, preferring lamb. One of their best known dishes is elbasan tava. They love fish and prepare it in a variety of ways; steamed with onions and tomatoes is a very popular cooking method. They also love various salt-preserved fish. Pilaf is made with olive oil, and their tomato-olive oil pilaf is delicious. There is also a type of pilaf, which resembles perde pilaf (pilaf in yufka) called çullama); this is prepared with simmered chicken and a stuffing style pilaf inside of yufka. They also frequently make fish and flour-based soups.

They make both vegetarian (with olive oil) and meat dolmas; there is no kavurma dolma; and the rice in the stuffing is raw rather than half-cooked. Their stuffed vine leaves and squash flowers are delicious, and are even eaten and served as a snack.

Their love for vegetables and olive oil has given rise to a wide variety of such olive oil dishes including okra with tomatoes, blackeyed peas, green beans, spinach, celeriac and artichokes. The dish known as “Cretan kebab” is made with lamb, artichokes and olive oil. The green Cretan squash (zucchini) is boiled whole and served as a salad; there is also a zucchini and cheese dish with olive oil.

Böreks may be stuffed with spinach, poppy greens, cheese or ground meat. There are also delicious zucchini and çullama böreks, and zucchini fritters (mücver) and fava, a cold appetizer made from dry hulled fava beans, is popular. It is boiled to a thick paste with a onions, allowed to cool and set, then cut into diamonds and topped with a generous amount of olive oil. This is served with salted fish and cucumber and tomato salad.

They prefer milk-based desserts, and make a dish called ıstaka by sautéing flour, sugar and cream. Baked sweets include very good kalburabasma (a cookie pressed against a screen for its pattern, then baked and dipped in syrup), pita with fresh curd, and a dessert made from winter squash.

Women generally make a variety of sherbets and cookies, and make a production of entertaining guests. Various macun (pastes made of herbs and spices) and preserves are served on silver service especially for that purpose. Their quince paste, and mastic, bitter orange and fig jams are famous. Heavy silver macun sets with the seal of the sultan were made in Istanbul and sent to Crete.9 They love fruits, and are especially fond of grapes and figs, and eat cold figs from the refrigerator in the morning before breakfast.

Wild Greens

The greens most commonly consumed by the Cretan Turks are wild chicory, wild radish, yellow thistle, fennel, wild asparagus, dock, wild mustard, mallow, black nightshade, poppy and wild amaranth. The greens are gathered fresh and boiled, and served either as a boiled salad or as an olive oil dish. One of the Cretan’s most famous dishes is made from a green called “chipohorta” (kipohorta – garden weed). Various fresh greens are gathered in season and cooked with olive oil, for dishes that smell and taste of nature. Boiled greens are topped with olive oil and lemon. Arugula, parsley, cress and scallions are eaten as salads by themselves, added to other salads for flavor, or served plain to accompany meals. Edible wild plants are very nutritious, with little fat. Though poor in carbohydrates and protein, they are rich in vitamins and minerals. They are also useful from the standpoint of their aromas. They feed man and help maintain health, and at the same time, preserve man’s bond with nature. 1,4,10

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