Women make traditional Turkish breads in an Istanbul restaurant.
Turkey is one of those places where there seems to be almost too much history. This is where the Trojan War and the Battle of Gallipoli took place, where the Byzantine Empire rose and fell, where the apostle Paul was born, where Hittites, Bythinians, Thracians, Greeks, Romans, Turkomans, and Ottomans built cities and empires. It was once called Asia Minor, and it has long been a crossroads for the world.
When I visited Turkey, I was on my own. A friend had recommended a great little hotel in the Sultanahmet section of town. The Hotel Tashkonak (www.tashkonak.com, if you want to see it—see particularly Rooms and Facilities) was lovely and incredibly well located—a five-minute walk from the Blue Mosque, 8 minutes from Haggia Sophia, and 15 minutes from the Topkapi Palace. It is a refurbished, 250-year-old Ottoman mansion, with Byzantine ruins in the garden and a view from the roof of the Sea of Marmara. And the reasonable room rate included breakfast (Turkish breakfast—yogurt, cheese, bread, olives, tomatoes, coffee—yum).
Though I managed to slip on wet marble at the Blue Mosque my first day in town (tore my quadriceps tendon—ouch—but it swelled up so badly it actually kind of immobilized itself), I still managed to see an incredible amount in the two weeks I had in Turkey. I spent the most time in Istanbul, a magnificent, cosmopolitan city that sits on two continents, with the beautiful Bosphorus separating European Istanbul from Asian Istanbul. Old palaces and modern mansions line the waterway, and red tile-roofed houses climb the surrounding green hills. It’s the kind of place you’d expect to see in Architectural Digest—very elegant, very sophisticated, very upscale, at least along the water. In Sultanahmet, where I stayed, the town is a delightful rabbit warren of narrow, winding streets lined with shops, old houses, and small restaurants.
As I hobbled about town, though I loved the big stuff tourists are supposed to see, I came to delight even more in the “little” moments, chatting with locals at a coffee shop, buying bread rings from street vendors, talking with students who wanted me to show them where in the states I lived. But the “big” stuff was pretty amazing, and is not to be missed. The obscene wealth of the Ottomans can still be witnessed in the treasury of Topkapi Palace or the completely over-the-top Dolma Bahçe Palace. Haggia Sophia was wonderful and amazing. When it was constructed, it was the largest building that had ever been built anywhere. Even now, at 1,500 years old, it’s mighty impressive. I was almost giddy in the Spice Bazaar, where the abundance and variety of spices is exceeded only by the number of other things for sale, from Turkish delight to Caspian Sea caviar. I also loved the Grand Bazaar, a glorious, vault-roofed, 4,000-shop “mall” that predates Columbus. The archeological museum, tile museum (Turkey is famous for its tiles, and in fact, it was on tiles that the world first saw the famous “Turkish blue”—or in French, “bleu turquoise”), and history museums were also intoxicating for someone with a passion for antiquity.
I spent a few days on the Mediterranean coast, visiting Ephesus, Priene, Miletus, and Didima. A combination of church history, world history, Turkish culture, and abundant Greek and Roman ruins made this area a joy to explore. (It is said that Turkey has more Greek ruins than Greece and more Roman ruins than Rome.) Cappadocia, which is well inland, was my next stop. Here, Turkey seems far more Middle Eastern than European, with small farms, old Caravanseries (“motels” for camel trains traveling the Silk Road), donkey carts, and more conservative dress. The people in Istanbul are friendly, but the people here practically want to adopt you. In fact, the region is widely known for its hospitality. However, the main reason people go to Cappadocia is the combination of geological phenomenon (the area has been described as being like the Grand Canyon on acid) and early church history (people lived in the myriad caves and literally dug cities underground to escape persecution).
As much as Turkey is a crossroads of history, it is also a crossroads for culinary influences. Turkey was the main route for the spice trade before the area fell to the Ottoman Turks, and spices are used generously. The Turks came from next door to Mongolia, introducing something of that “let’s eat meat” focus of Central Asia, and Turkey’s national drink, ayran, is a yogurt-based drink that isn’t so far from airag (Mongolia’s fermented mare’s milk) in either taste or name to make the connection hard to see. Between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, getting good fish and seafood is no problem. You’ll also find pretty much everything from the Middle East through to Greece—Turkish versions of everything from hummus to baklava. Shared borders with Georgia and Armenia add another spin to the food mix. And Turkey is one of the few Muslim countries to produce wine.
I learned in Turkey that “kebap” means anything that is grilled. Among my favorite dishes were adana kebap (grilled minced beef), döner kebap (Turkish gyros), the white bean salad and green beans with tomatoes and onion that appeared at most meals, hunkar begendi (roasted eggplant purée topped with lamb stew), cheese pidé (often called Turkish pizza), and çaçik (pronounced “jajik,” a popular yogurt, cucumber and dill salad). Virtually every meal except breakfast is accompanied by a long, thin, green, grilled pepper, which may be mild or hot, but you won’t know until you taste it. There were many other wonderful dishes that I tried and loved. Turkey has great food. And as a bonus, it’s usually a bargain.
The Turkish dish below is a traditional side dish with meats, particularly roasted lamb or shish kabob. You can also serve it with plain yogurt (about 1/3 cup per person) for a nice, light lunch. Enjoy.
1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
2 medium onions, finely chopped
2 medium tomatoes, finely chopped
2 cups uncooked bulgur
2-1/2 cups broth
Melt the butter in a large frying pan that has a cover. Sauté the onions in the butter until they are golden brown. Stir in the bulgur and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the tomatoes and broth. Bring to a boil, stir, reduce hit, cover, and let simmer for about 20 minutes, or until broth is absorbed. Remove from heat and let sit for 10 minutes.
Note: You can alter this dish to go with whatever it will accompany by changing the broth you use. Beef or lamb broth would be the most traditional, but chicken broth makes a nice change, especially if you want to serve this with poultry. Alternatively, you could use a vegetable broth for a vegetarian dish.
Bulgur is now available in most grocery stores, though you may need to look in the organic aisle or in the aisle with flour and corn meal. Bulgar may also be identified as burghul.
Copyright ©2008 Cynthia Clampitt