My father, a native-born Turk turned U.S. Army doctor, shared his world with us through food. We, my mother, sister and I learned about the country’s history through dishes like imam bayildi, stuffed eggplant, a dish that had made a sultan swoon, and swordfish shish on the grill, which he told us reminded him on his childhood summers on the seaside in Isparta. We could almost pretend we were there, eating like a sultan ourselves, or sitting by the sea, the smell of charred fish and vegetables swirling in the air. It makes me think of a quote in a wonderful article by Frances Lam in the New York Times, “You taste food and understand a people.”
This is what Turkish food tastes like: peppers, onions, tomatoes, eggplant and leeks - grilled, stuffed, fried and stewed, spiced with garlic, coriander, dill, mint, parsley, cinnamon, and currents. Meat and fish are mostly grilled served with salad, a drizzle of olive oil and big squeeze of bright lemon. Breakfast is the crunch of fresh cucumbers, olives, fruit, and sigara böreği; a dough called yufka , similar to phyllo, wrapped around a mixture of feta and parsley and then baked to a perfect crisp. Take a bite and the soft tangy cheese melts inside your mouth.
My father was a great cook, creatively adapting his skills to American appliances and ingredients. He kept notes on index cards as to how to prepare certain dishes. Written in his somewhat broken English he explained how to make stuffed peppers and tomatoes, dolma; pilaf with tomatoes, dolmates pilav; leeks and carrots in olive oil, zeytinyağli pirasa; and his favorite, swordfish shish, big fresh chunks of fish layered with red and green peppers, onions and tomatoes. You can read about Turkish food on All About Turkey, The Istanbul Insider, or in one of my favorite Turkish cookbooks, Classic Turkish Cooking, by by Ghillie Başan.
He loved to grill. At their condo in Florida Dad used to light it up on the balcony, even though open flames were not permitted. Rules never applied to him anyway, not where food was concerned and the importance of getting the fish just right. I imagine he preferred the grill because it reminded him of the little boats along the Bosporus, vendors selling fresh fish, fried, and served with bread, balik ekmek. Like the photo above, which I took when we were in Istanbul visiting my aunt and her family the summer of 1970.
But two of Turkey’s best known specialties send me into ecstasy. One is Lokum, otherwise known as Turkish delight, is a dessert made with cornstarch and sugar. Each little square, perfectly dusted with powdered sugar, is a color that reveals its flavor: green for pistachio, pink for rosewater, yellow for honey and walnuts, and so many more. One of the best known stores in Istanbul is Hafiz Mustafa. And the other is Turkish pistachios. Their dull brown sheen belies the incredibly bright green and buttery nut. They taste no other nut you have ever had. I have been known to hide them and eat one at a time when Dad brought them home (illegally of course) from Turkey. Now I have found them in a gourmet store in Rockland, Maine, which is just further evidence that Maine is heaven on earth.
Eating Turkish food always makes me happy. It reminds me of my father, the wonderful dishes he used to prepare and our visits to see family in Istanbul. I grieve for Turkey now and wish the beautiful country where I was born could be more like it used to be. I miss my father terribly, but I’m glad he’s not alive to see what is happening to his country.