Food, Family, Friends and the Tree of Life

From heart to Hearth there is a Path - Turkish Proverb

 
Here we are at Sultanahmet Kofecisi in Istanbul with our dear friend, Mustafa Ozdemir whom we met many years ago on a street in the beautiful city of Mardin.  He stopped to give two lost strangers directions and from there fed us and acted as a guide and interpreter.  Nearly 10 years later, he saw a post on Facebook that we would be in Istanbul where we happily reunited.

Here we are at Sultanahmet Kofecisi in Istanbul with our dear friend, Mustafa Ozdemir whom we met many years ago on a street in the beautiful city of Mardin.  He stopped to give two lost strangers directions and from there fed us and acted as a guide and interpreter.  Nearly 10 years later, he saw a post on Facebook that we would be in Istanbul where we happily reunited.

Hosgeldeniz – Welcome! We can’t imagine a better way to share beautiful and delicious Turkish-inspired recipes than by inviting you into our kitchens. We’ll lend you an apron and a knife so you can join us as we chop garlic and cucumbers for the classic yogurt sauce, cacik; or invite you to mix bulgur wheat with onions, dill, basil and mint for pilaf while we prepare a chicken we’ve bought from a neighbor’s farm, infusing it with the scent of cumin and preserved lemon before tucking the bird into a roasting pan and into the oven.

Our kitchen fills with aromas, at once familiar and perhaps exotic, the tangy sweet scent of nar-pomegranate molasses, a hint of dried mint, lemon and Aleppo pepper mingling with pan juices of the now golden roast chicken. In these pages, we’ll share recipes we’ve learned from home cooks and experts as we roll dough until it becomes a translucent sheet to be cut into squares for manti, ravioli’s Anatolian cousin; and add rice flour and rosewater to simmering milk, stirring until a lovely pudding coats our spoons.

Historians say the Garden of Eden and its Tree of Life may have very well been located in what is now Turkey. With an abundance of fresh water - the headwaters of two great rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, originate in the mountains of eastern Anatolia - a climate that varies from Mediterranean to temperate; and volcanic soil ideal for growing fruit, flowers, herbs, vegetables, cereal grains and pulses, some of the world’s first settlements flourished within Turkey’s borders domesticating wheat and lentils and cultivating grape vines that were later grown and harvested by third century monks in Cappadocia.

Our love affair with Anatolian cooking has, at first glance, an unlikely beginning. We grew up in the Midwest – Angie in Michigan and Joy in Wisconsin - cooking at the knees of our grandmothers, mothers, and aunts who taught us how to peel potatoes and how to turn a chicken carcass into hearty soup. The dishes these women prepared – often with vegetables they grew in their own gardens, eggs and milk delivered to their doors, and roasts from the local butcher ­– became a connection to the “old world,” inspiring stories and the sharing of recipes when friends and family gathered together for Sunday dinners and holidays.

Like the tree of life itself, Anatolian food has branches that reach beyond ancient trade routes and into dishes found in homes around the world (including our own), continuing the east/west and back again food migration with every diaspora. Joy’s Grandmother’s creamed kale with béchamel sauce and a secret ingredient, with roots from the Ottoman Empire, found its way to Milwaukee. Our childhoods were in an era when children were expected to be “seen and not heard,” so we listened, absorbing accents and dialects and learned the family’s stories, and the recipes passed down, each generation adding or subtracting ingredients to suit lifestyles and food availability.

In our teens, we left the Midwest. Angie moved to Southern California where she was captivated by the light, landscape and the flavors of a Mediterranean climate – lemon, olive oil, bay leaf, oregano. Meanwhile, Joy and her family moved East to New Jersey. There, Joy met a friend whose mother’s Greek family had emigrated from the Princes’ Islands in Istanbul and who introduced Joy to herb-infused roast lamb and flaky baklava.

We like to call it kismet, our destiny, when, in 1997, through a mutual friend, we met on the balcony of a pension in Kalkan, a Turkish town on the Mediterranean Sea. Over glasses of wine from Çannakale - Gallipoli, as the setting sun turned the sea rose-pink, we shared stories of our Midwestern backgrounds and learned that we both had a passion for travel and cooking.

We immediately fell in love with the social aspect of Turkish food, where, in restaurants, kitchens and at dinner tables, the ingredients of a dish and the recipe it came from are part of every conversation, and where a dish’s nuance is discussed and argued about as vigorously as the latest political scandal. Through those lively conversations, we began to see connections between foods familiar to us and foods that traveled along the trade routes. For instance, we learned how red chili peppers, common in diets ten thousand years ago traveled from the Americas with early explorers to Spain and Portugal, took root in Anatolia to become one of the world’s great spices, Aleppo pepper, named for the city in Syria. 

As our friendship blossomed, we became fascinated with Turkey’s varied cuisine. In glorious Istanbul, we eagerly embraced meze culture, sharing small plates – crisp börek filled with spinach; plump, marinated olives creamy eggplant dip; slices of white cheese and ripe melon - served with thimbles of raki to stimulate appetite and conversation. A tradition we brought home to our kitchens in California and New Jersey where we clink our glasses of wine or thimbles of raki together and say “Şerefe!”

We also discovered succulent vegetable and lamb stews simmered in olive oil and slow-cooked to fragrant tenderness, which found their way across the Anatolian Steppes and onto our dining tables. Dishes that are not only a healthy fusion of some of the world’s oldest ingredients, but filled with complex flavors.

It’s more than twenty-five years since we began our journey into the kitchens and restaurants of Anatolian friends throughout Turkey and the States who have lovingly showed us how to prepare dishes that not only nourish our bodies, but our hearts and minds, as well. From the forests of Northern Turkey along the Black Sea where cherries and hazelnuts grow, to the Mediterranean coast where lemon, orange and walnut trees grace fields and hillsides, we have been the lucky recipients of impromptu cooking lessons in all kinds of kitchens, some of them outdoors over an open fire.

You could say that we traveled across Turkey kitchen-by-kitchen, and back home again to our own kitchens. In fact, our home kitchens became our refuge during the years we wrote our memoir, Anatolian Days & Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses and Saints. Often the best insights would come while preparing a Shepherd Salad, lentil soup or kebabs after a long day of writing.

We’ve adapted recipes to fit into busy lives and to make use of available ingredients whenever possible. We include a list of sources for many of the ingredients in our recipes. And, we encourage you not to be daunted by the more detailed recipes, such as Circassian Chicken, as many of these can be broken down into “make ahead” steps. Better yet, ask friends to cook with you and your pleasure will multiply as the kitchen fills with conversation and laughter and maybe a tear or two as friends share their stories. Preparation becomes a part of the celebration when our friends are in the kitchen peeling and slicing eggplants for a rich casserole or marinating lamb chops in pomegranate sauce. The kitchen warms as lamb chops sizzle in their fragrant juices and we spoon freshly marinated olives into a bowl, setting the olives beside our American/Anatolian-inspired version of classic gougerés, cheese puffs, with feta flecked with mint, nigella seeds and Aleppo pepper.

Affiyet Olsun, enjoy this delicious meal with us.”

  Lamb Kleftico, recipe courtesy of our dear friend Deirdre Guthrie, Bellapais, Cyprus.

  Lamb Kleftico, recipe courtesy of our dear friend Deirdre Guthrie, Bellapais, Cyprus.

 

 

Armenian designed gold and Egyption turquoise bracelets from Mardin, Turkey.

Armenian designed gold and Egyption turquoise bracelets from Mardin, Turkey.

Elinize Saglik - Health to your hands.”

An expression bestowed upon the hostess or host who has prepared the meal, ensuring that they will invite you back into the warmth of their home.