By far, the most important room in a Turkish household is the kitchen. Turks place great emphasis on food. Not only does it fuel the body but it is also an important bond between friends, families, and strangers. Hospitality is one of the strongest pillars of Turkish society. Indeed many holidaymakers and travellers to Turkey often receive random invites to dinner from Turks they have only just met. But, it all starts and end in the kitchen, the ruling centre of any Turkish home.
The Role of Turkish Women in the Kitchen
Many famous Turkish chefs are male, but traditionally, women take charge in the kitchen. Some couples from younger generations, now share the responsibility, but, among elders, male Turks in the home rarely cook up a feast, and enjoy devouring it instead.
In rural and conservative areas, young females learn off by heart, the many traditional recipes handed down through generations of their families. Amazingly, not many use recipe books, instead preferring to stick to the tried and tested meals that their families so heartedly enjoy.
A Turkish woman who enjoys time in the kitchen takes immense pride in her workplace, and it will be immaculately clean with pots and pans in order. In the south-eastern region of Gaziantep, the focal point of Turkish kitchen culture is summed up in the age-old saying that “every woman is a chef from birth.”
Food Never Goes to Waste
Many Turks believe food is a gift from Allah and waste is a sin, so every ingredient is used to its full potential, whether it goes into a salad, soup or as a snack dish. For this reason, Turkish cuisine makes great use of offal, even in the south-east where they go as far to use the spleen (dalak.) In some towns, locals put leftovers and waste from dinner by the bins for street dogs and cats, while bread hangs from railings in plastic bags for anyone to make use of it.
Leftover meat like lamb or chicken combined with rice and chickpeas form a flavoured pilav, that is a favourite dish for many Turks, and likewise, the chicken or fish carcass produces a delicious stock for soup or rice. Turks rarely waste food unnecessarily.
Hand-Made, Fresh Food is Always Best
Slowly, Turkish kitchen culture is shifting from its traditional roots. These days, as more women from the younger generation enter the workforce, they find themselves with less time and buy ready-made items such as soup and bread. Fast food is also making an impact in large cities and convenience meals, although expensive, are an ideal solution for working families strapped for time.
However, if time allows, Turks always choose hand-made, fresh food made from scratch. In some rural areas, fired-up bread ovens in the garden are an essential kitchen tool for producing the staple ingredient of most meals. Likewise, Turks say the best soup is homemade using only the freshest of ingredients. Any Turkish woman who enjoys time in the kitchen will also have freshly made batches of pastries, and biscuits for guests and families.
In the plateaus of the northeast, where cows roam the landscapes, dairy products are fresh, as are most vegetables because locals still farm the land. Turks even make brine to pickle the annual olive harvest of the Aegean coast, and visitors to traditional Turkish households always receive a healthy dose of vitamins and minerals for dinner thanks to the abundance of fresh ingredients used.
Staple Ingredients of the Turkish Kitchen
Turkish kitchen culture is predictable in that any good pantry consists of the core ingredients used in most savoury and sweet dishes. A time-honoured tradition says that towards the end of autumn; fill your pantry ready for winter when bad weather and a cold climate keeps you housebound.
1. Salca is a dried tomato or red pepper paste found in most Turkish pantries. Some women make it themselves by leaving the tomatoes or peppers out to dry in the sun; otherwise, supermarket shelves brim over with branded choices. Used in many savoury dishes as a base flavouring, any good Turkish woman who knows how to cook believes strongly in the power of salca.
2. Tursu (pickles) include beetroot, gherkins, peppers, onions and much more. Turks surprisingly pickle just about anything. Small green pickled peppers, eaten with salads, soups, or main meals kick the roof of your mouth with their intense heat and if a pickle suits the main dish, it will most certainly be on the table. Pancar Tursusu, the Turkish version of pickled beetroot is boiled fresh with herbs, but the delicious twist to the final pickling is lots of garlic.
3. Grape molasses (pekmez) have been a focal point of Turkish kitchen culture for centuries. Widely used as a natural sweetener, antidote to illness and key ingredient for a healthy body, some Turkish women use it as a substitute for Turkish desserts.
4. We have yet to meet a Turk who eats plain salads. Traditionally, they sprinkle a light dressing of olive oil and fresh lemon juice over the top. Olive oil is also a primary ingredient in the preparation of most dishes and an essential ingredient for Turkish mezes, which are appetisers or starters, however; they also make a great summer time snack.
5. Rice, cooked in the traditional Turkish way with butter and stock, appears on the table at most evening meals. The flavour is entirely different from western versions. Another alternative is bulger that is cracked durum wheat. Sometimes served with finely chopped onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, and parsley, as a salad, it is surprisingly tasty.
6. Sumac is traditionally a Middle Eastern spice made from berries with a slight lemony taste. Its versatility is amazing, but it is mainly used as salad garnish or sprinkled over finely chopped onions with parsley. Sometimes also added to kebabs or Turkish pides (slight variation of a pizza,) its flavour entirely alters a dish.
7. Chilli flakes are also versatile in that they add flavour to salads or main dishes. However, we particularly like them to give a kick to our homemade soups. In most Turkish restaurants, called lokantas, a small jar of chilli flakes sits on all the tables.
Further Reading: You may also like to read our beginners guide to Turkish food customs and traditions. Including dining etiquette, and what to expect when you eat a traditional Turkish meal, first-time visitors to Turkey will especially find it helpful.
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