Wild Herbs of Turkey
Anywhere you look in a country with such natural diversity as Turkey, you can become acquainted with plant you’ve never seen before. Let’s say you’ve gone to the market, and are looking at a salesmen with his bunches of wild greens. The gözleme you ate, made with wild plants he either weeded from his garden or gathered along the roadside, was better than anything you’d ever eaten before.
There are more than ten thousand plant species in Turkey, more than in all the countries of Europe combined. Many these are edible, and many are endemic, meaning that they grow only in Turkey. It’s a great treasure that should be appreciated. While some of these are well known throughout the country such as nettles, mallow, sage and thyme, others are only used in a very small area, such as sarıot (Opopanax hispidus), baldıran (Black lovage, Smyrnium olusatrum) and mendek. While some are used more medicinally, others add fragrance to our food, others increase the food value of cheese, and yet others add variety to the table during winter when other vegetables are lacking. It would be difficult to include all the wild herbs of Turkey in one article, so here we will deal with the best known of them, their uses and characteristics.
Arapsaçı (Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare): This “anise” scented herb looks like dill at first glance, but its flavor and aroma are completely different. Its seeds, leaves, stems and roots are used. In the same family as carrots and parsley, fennel grows in northern Anatolia as well as the Aegean and Mediterranean regions. Its tender shoots, buds and leaves are used in cooking. According to immigrants from Crete, it is best cooked with lamb, while in the Aegean and Mediterranean it is used in sautés of mixed greens, and in böreks. It is also used with fish and other meat dishes, and goes well with legumes.
Bambul (Bittersweet, Solanum nigrum):This herb, found in markets in the Aegean region during the summer, is called istifno (<Gr. stifnos) in Ayvalık. In the same family as tomatoes, it is an annual with small white flowers and tiny red fruits. It is lightly aromatic and has a slightly bitter flavor. Some related species have poisonous fruits. It is boiled together with zucchini or alone as greens, cooked like spinach.
Çiğdem (Crocus, Crocus): With over forty different species occurring naturally in Anatolia, crocus are one of the harbingers of spring. Their roots contain starch and sugar, and can be eaten raw or cooked in savory dishes as well as sweets. The best known dishes are crocus stew, crocus pilaf and crocus with milk (a dessert). It is also cooked plain on coals. In the Black Sea region, it is rolled in flour and fried.
Çiriş (Foxtail Lily, Eremurus spectabilis). The çiriş which shows up in the markets of Istanbul in April are the leaves of a plant in the lily family with hundreds of yellow flowers. It grows in the mountains of Eastern and Southeastern Anatolia as well as Central Anatolia. It is most commonly made into pilaf and cooked with eggs. In Sivas it is cooked together with sorrel and is delicious. In Bingöl it is used in soup.
Deniz Börülcesi (Samphire or Glasswort, Salicornia europea): Glasswort, with its salty, succulent knotted stems, grows in saline environments. If its roots are not pulled up when collecting it, it can live for years. In Turkey, glasswort is best known in the Aegean region, but recently it has come into vogue in fish restaurants for its elegant appearance and unique flavor. It is mostly simmered and served cold with lemon and oil, but it goes well with all types of seafood.
Ebegümeci (Mallow, Malva sylvestris): Pink flowered mallow, which grows almost everywhere in Turkey, prefers dry and sunny areas. It is used in a wide variety of dishes. It’s large leaves are made into sarma, everyone loves it cooked with rice; it also finds its way into börek fillings and sautés. Its tender young leaves are boiled and served cold with yogurt, and are also eaten raw in salads after being lightly kneaded with salt. In Central Anatolia it is cooked with meat as well as with okra. In Adana, a mallow salad with pomegranate molasses is common.
Eşek Dikeni (Illyrian thistle, Onopordum illyricum): This wickedly thorny plant with striking, large pink-violet flowers is common throughout Western Anatolia, growing in tall, upright stands along roadsides. Inland it is less common but does occur in some areas. Under the formidable thorns are tender stems which are cooked and served with an egg lemon sauce, or with lemon and olive oil.
Eşek Marulu (Wild Lettuce, Sonchus oleraceus): This biennial plant has a rosette the first year, and the second year grows up to bloom with long, lightly veined, medium green toothed leaves. When the crisp stems are cooked, they retain their crunchiness and are delicious served with olive oil and lemon. It can also be used in sautés and in börek. It is sometimes cooked with eggs, with ground meat, or cooked in either bulgur or rice pilaf.
Gelincik (Corn Poppy, Papaver rhoeas): Cousin to the more (in)famous opium poppy, Corn poppy is a more delicate, slightly fuzzy plant with brilliant red flowers. It is common in spring in both wild and cultivated fields. It likes moist and rich soils. Its greens go very well with legumes, and can be combined with lentils or blackeyed peas, added to sautees, cooked with bulgur or used to fill various böreks. It is gathered before the flower buds form, and can be used any way chard can. Of course the brilliant red syrup made from its flowers must also not be forgotten. In Bursa, this syrup was once used to lend color to white milk puddings.
Hardalotu (Wild Mustard, Sinapis arvensis): An herbaceous plant with yellow flowers, wild mustard grows in many locations in Turkey. With a slightly bitter flavor and mustard aroma, it is very popular in many regions. It has slightly fuzzy stems and dark green leaves. Because of its bitter flavor, it is parboiled first and then drained, and is generally served as a traditional Aegean “boiled salad,” with olive oil and lemon. It can also be sautéed without parboiling and mixed with eggs. In Denizli it is used to fill sac böreği, in İcel, it is cooked with bulgur and in Adana, with ground meat.
Hindiba (Wild chicory, Cichorium intybus): Although the spring leaves resemble those of dandelion, the branching plant and blue flowers set it apart. The beautiful blue flowers may occur singly or in groups, and open only in the morning. Its roots may be roasted and ground as a coffee substitute, while the buds are made into pickles. It may be added to kavurma with mushrooms, borani, potato salad, or made into köfte, and its tender leaves may be added to salads.
Hodan (Borage, Borago officinalis): An herbaceous plant with succulent stems, thick wrinkled and hairy leaves, and flowers that open pink and mature to a deep blue. Borage is most often sautéed with eggs; ask any seller at the market and that is the recipe he’ll give you. But it also may be cooked with meat or chicken, or made into börek.
Isırgan (Stinging Nettle, Urtica dioica): A somewhat weedy plant that doesn’t take kindly to handling, stinging nettle grows in many different soil types and in every region of the country. It is the young branches and especially the upper shoots that are used in food. These may be made into soup, salad, börek, köfte and other dishes. It is often used in mixed green dishes, and bulgur or rice pilaf with nettles is one of our very popular dishes. In the Black Sea region, a corn meal soup with nettles is made, and in the Aegean region, it is a main ingredient in böreks.
Işkın (Wild Rhubarb, Rheum ribes): A wild relative of the rhubarb used in Europe and America, this plant is distinct with its mostly green, very rough stems. Its sour, astringent leaf stems are collected during the spring in the mountains of Eastern Anatolia, where they are both eaten raw as a snack and cooked in a variety of dishes. One example is eggs with ışkın and kapuska.
İğnelik (Cranesbill, Erodium and Geranium spp): Named for its long, pointed seed heads, cranesbill catches our eye in the spring with its lovely pink flowers along the roadsides. The leaves have a strong aroma and for this reason I used it in moderation or mixed with other vegetables. It can be added to börek fillings or bulgur pilaf, or cooked with eggs as well.
Karahindiba (Dandelion, Taraxacum türleri): Dandelion appears in the spring with bright yellow flowers. With either toothed or entire green leaves and a bitter flavor, it grows throughout Turkey. Although the tender new shoots are edible raw, they become bitter when mature and must be boiled. It can then be served with olive oil and lemon, or with tarator. If you like, you can use it to add flavor to a salad of onion, tomatoes, other wild herbs and boiled potatoes.
Kaya Koruğu (Rock Samphire, Crithmum maritimum): If you find yourself in a rocky area along the seashore where the sea water wets the rocks, take a look for plant with thick, succulent finely divided leaves. Especially common on the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts, Rock Samphire, with its iodine-like scent, is an herb you will either love or hate. Its tender leaves and stems are made into a pickle in the same way as capers. In some areas its leaves, flowers and stems are cooked in omelets, and it also makes a good salad with yogurt.
Kazayağı (Sicle Weed, Falcaria vulgaris): Sicle weed is a spreading plant reminiscent of parsley, with pinkish stems. Although in some areas the tender new leaves are eaten raw, it is usually cooked. In the Aegean it is cooked alone or along with other herbs. It can be added to böreks, to bulgur or rice pilafs and to meat dishes. It can also be simmered, then mixed with yogurt and garlic.
Kenker (No English common name, Gundelia tournefortii): Kenker is a spiny plant up to a meter high, with a milky juice. It’s tender shoots are eaten after the spines are removed; the root yields a sort of local chewing gum. In Eastern Anatolia, where it is a very popular food plant, one can find a host of recipes for it. In the old days, Kenker was used to curdle milk for cheese. Its root, stems and seeds are edible; it is also pickled.
Kuş Ekmeği (Shepherd’s Purse, Capsella Bursa-pastoris): This plant has a rosette of broad leaves close to the ground and an ascending stem with flowers and seeds from 40-50 cm at the most. The tender shoots can be eaten raw but it is usually cooked with other herbs, or lightly boiled and made into a salad. It is also put into soup, meat dishes, bulgur or rice pilaf. It also has medicinal properties.
Kuş Otu (Chickweed, Stellaria media): This plant has small tender leaves and tiny white flowers. In spring, it is very common in the markets. It is edible raw, but also is cooked like spinach and purslane, and is put into böreks.
Kuş Yüreği (Dog’s Cabbage, Theligonum cynocrambe): This herb with small heart-shaped leaves is sure to show up in the markets of Bodrum during the winter. It is one of the first herbs to emerge following fall rains, and makes a good salad. Its Turkish name means “bird’s heart,” due to the shape of its leaves. It is used in börek, and can be cooked like spinach. In Muğla, it is indispensable in wild green sautés.
Kuzukulağı (Sorrel, Rumex acetosella): This herb has long narrow leaves with pink stems. It flavor is more sour than lemon. Sorrel likes shady, cool places, and is much used in salads for its tart flavor. It also is used in soups and mixtures of herbs for börek, and cooked with rice. In Samsun, it is used in a dish with blackeyed peas; in Adana as a salad and in Gebze, is cooked together with fennel and dock. If you are looking for a tart flavor for your cooking and salads, sorrel is just the thing during its season.