15 Aug 2009

Turkish: Traveling Caravanserais

Turkish_BeytiMy fondness of Turkish food started when I lived in Germany. I befriended many Turkish immigrants in southern Germany and they often invited me over to their house for dinner.  Their mothers always spoiled me with the original Turkish home cooking. Not to mention Döner Kebab was in every corner next to the fresh baked Pretzeln and mouth-watering Schnitzel. Döner Kebab is the equivalent of MacDonald except it tastes better and healthier. It’s a perfect meal during my college years in Baden-Württemberg when money was scarce and the daily options were either a DK or a lunch tray at the campus cafetaria, each for less than DM 5.

Turkish cuisine is inherited from the cuisine of the Ottoman Empire, which is a fusion and refinement of influence from Central Asia, Middle East, and the Balkan. The most prominent Turk element from Central Asia is yogurt that you can find in almost every Turkish dish. The Ottoman Empire essentially shaped up the foundation of Turkish cuisine, infused various culinary traditions of their realm with Middle Eastern techniques. Turkish cuisine is not homogeneous, hence there are many regional specialties and ingredients throughout.

The importance of food was evident in the structure of the Ottoman military elite, the Janissaries. The commanders of the main divisions were known as the Soupmen, other high ranking officers were the Chief Cook, Scullion, Baker, and Pancake Maker, though their function had little to do with these titles. The huge cauldron used to make pilaf had a special symbolic significance for the Janissaries, as the central focus of each division. The kitchen was also the center of politics, for whenever the Janissaries demanded a change in the Sultan’s Cabinet, or the head of a grand vizier, they would overturn their pilaf cauldron. “Overturning the cauldron,” is an expression still used today to indicate a rebellion in the ranks.

Ispanak Borani

It was in this environment that hundreds of the Sultans’ chefs, who dedicated their lives to their profession, developed and perfected the dishes of the Turkish Cuisine, which was then adopted by the kitchens of the provinces ranging from the Balkans to Southern Russia, and reaching North Africa. Istanbul was the capital of the world and owned the prestige, and it was supported by an enormous organization and infrastructure, which enabled all the treasures of the world to flow into it. The provinces of the vast Empire were integrated by a system of trade routes with refreshing caravanserais for the weary merchants and security forces. The Spice Road, the most important factor in culinary history was under the full control of the Sultan. Only the best ingredients were allowed to be traded under the strict standards established by the courts.

Sharing food with families, friends, neighbors, and weary travelers were a common practice then. In fact, in each neighborhood, at least one household would open its doors to anyone who happened to stop by for dinner during the holy month of Ramadan, or during other festive occasions. This is how the traditional cuisine evolved and spread, even to the most modest and forgotten corners of the country.

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