The country of Turkey straddles two continents, Europe and Asia. Its food, too, shows influences of both.
Many of its dishes and even spices would not be out of place in such countries as Greece or Bulgaria, which border it to the west. Many others would be at home in such Middle Eastern countries as Syria and Iraq, which are to its south. And perhaps the biggest influence came from Persia, the present-day Iran, which is the border to the east.
When two or more of these culinary traditions come together in the same dish, that’s when Turkish magic happens.
Inspired by the delicious diversity of dishes from this country of 80 million, I got ambitious and decided to make a few different types of Turkish food.
Put them all together, and you have a serious Eastern-Western feast.
All of the recipes came from my well-worn copy of “Classical Turkish Cooking,” by Ayla Algar. This is one of my go-to cookbooks, and I have never been disappointed in it.
I began with a bread, because it is such an integral part of Turkish life. The country is famous for two types of bread: pide, a flat pocket bread, usually filled with savory goodness, that is not dissimilar to pita; and simit, rings of sesame-covered dough that are slightly like bagels.
I made the simit, the sesame rings. These were exactly as advertised, crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside, a delightful combination that is getting harder to find these days.
They require a pretty fair amount of time and effort to make, but that is why they are so good. You begin with a very stiff dough and allow it to rise or rest a total of five times, for anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours. That, plus a pan of water in the oven as it bakes to give it a crunchy crust, is what gives the rings their big payoff.
Much of the flavor comes from the coating of sesame seeds, which gives the rings their distinctive taste. But there is also a hint of sweetness that comes from the diluted molasses that is used to hold them in place.
The molasses is an American substitution for pekmez, a syrup made from the juice of grapes, and it was a little too sweet for my taste. You could use less molasses in the solution if you don’t want it that sweet (and even so, it is only a little sweet), or leave it out altogether.
It is hard to think of Turkish cuisine without thinking of soup, so I made a Creamy Red Lentil Soup. There are few things better in this world than Turkish lentil soup.
This version surprised me. It’s lentil soup, but it has no lentils in it. You cook it with lentils and onions, but then you strain them out, pushing them against a sieve to extract the most flavor. The thin but hearty lentil broth is then given additional flavor and body from a roux, with extra richness coming from a mixture of egg yolk and milk.
It is a startlingly elegant treatment of the humble lentil. The soup is smooth and velvety and so good you’ll want to keep going back to the pot.
Salads are almost as important a part of the Turkish table as soups, so I made a White Bean Salad. It was exceptional.
White bean salads are hugely popular in Turkey, and after just one bite you will know why. The earthy taste of the beans is cut with thin slices of red onion and a sharp vinaigrette. Parsley brings it all together, as it so often does with Turkish food, and some helpful, rich glamour comes from wedges of a hard-cooked egg and black olives.
You can serve it either chilled or at room temperature. I tried it both ways, and I prefer it room temperature.
For a main course, I had to go with lamb. I love the spicy ground-meat patty called köfte, so I made Spicy Köfte Simmered with Eggplant, Tomatoes and Roasted Poblanos.
There was one problem: The recipe calls for Japanese eggplants, which are the variety that are long and thin. The store I went to did not happen to have them in stock when I was there, although you can usually find them in international markets.
So I used the smallest American eggplants I could find, and bought four instead of the specified eight. Even then, I couldn’t fit them all in the same pan, so I ended up using only three. That left me with the unintended but welcome result of leftover köfte to fry and eat.
The dish is great for any number of reasons, beginning with the always unbeatable pairing of eggplant and lamb. The fresh tomato sauce that it is cooked in, flavored enthusiastically with onion and garlic, adds a bright pop to the dish.
The köfte that is stuffed inside the eggplant is spicy — you could leave out the crushed red pepper, if you wanted — and a little bit of extra heat comes from the roasted poblano peppers that are cooked on top.
I have no idea what poblano peppers are doing in a Turkish dish, but they add a mild, umami zing that makes the meal irresistible.
I couldn’t let my culinary tour of Turkey end without an example of meze, small dishes that are like tapas. When I saw a recipe for Roasted Red Peppers With Garlic and Vinegar, I knew that was the one for me.
Basically, you roast red peppers, and then briefly marinate them in red wine vinegar, garlic, salt and a sprinkling of fresh thyme. Simple, right?
Simple, and amazingly good. The marinade ever-so-slightly pickles the peppers. And yes, you’ll want to eat them by the peck.