ABC of Turkish cuisine's main ingredients


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There are some ingredients found in Turkish culinary culture that are flagships. Spices, fruits and vegetables along with flour products that give away a food's origins. Turkish cuisine is multi-layered and multi-colored. There are many ingredients that are keys to recipes across the land. Whilst these ingredients may vary across the country and be regionally specific, many are ubiquitous. Here is some of the ingredients that make Turkish cuisine - Turkish.

Bulgur (bulgur)
Large (kalın) and small (ince) grain bulgur have been staples in Anatolian cuisine for centuries. Partially cooked and dried before grinding, this wheat behaves in a similar way to rice or couscous when cooked. The larger grains are used for pilafs while the smaller grains for mixing with minced meat to make the outside casing of içli köfte, a specialty that takes that same shape as an American football. Both varieties of bulgur can be found in supermarkets, smaller shops and markets.

Cumin (kimyon)
Cumin is an ingredient that many people associate with curries and sauces from the Indian subcontinent, yet cumin is one of the key ingredients on many köfte recipes across Turkey. The use of cumin becomes more diverse as you move towards south and eastern Turkey where it will be added to vegetable dishes and salads as well as meat and fish dishes. Seeds and ground cumin are readily available in markets.

Dill (Dereotu)
With its distinctive flavor and aroma, dill is used in a range of dishes from salads to fillings for dolma and börek (savory pastry). Also a popular garnish, chopped dill is usually found sprinkled on fava (broad) bean paste (fava) or artichokes cooked in olive oil. It is one of the most traditional herbs used in Turkish cuisine and was known in the Ottoman kitchen in the 15th century.

Cinnamon (tarçın)
Most “cinnamon” available in Turkish markets is in fact cassia. Cassia “bastard” or “Indonesian cinnamon” has a harder, tougher bark than cinnamon and is made from the whole bark of the tree. Real or Ceylon cinnamon comes from the immature shoots that sprout from the roots of the tree after it is coppiced. Cinnamon rolls into a single scroll upon drying and can be easily ground with a mortar and pestle whereas cassia generally rolls into a double quill and is very difficult to grind. Cassia has a stronger flavor than cinnamon and is ideal for baking and meat stews. “Cinnamon” was one of the main condiments in Ottoman cuisine. Added to in a variety of dishes from rice to milk puddings, “cinnamon” is one of the most versatile spices in Turkish cuisine.

Clotted cream (kaymak)
Kaymak is a rich, thick cream that can be rolled and sliced. It comes from water buffalo or cow’s milk. Many references cite “clotted cream” as a suitable alternative. Homemade “kaymak”-style cream can be made by bringing equal parts of full-fat milk and thickened cream to the boil then very gently simmering for two hours or until a skin forms. Leave to cool and refrigerate over night (for at least 12 hours) them skim off the skin and thick cream. You should be able to slice the cream and mould it between two spoons. Kaymak is about 60 percent fat. It is a key ingredient in desserts such as “ekmek kadayıfı” (dried, bread-style cake soaked in sugar syrup which has clotted cream spread between two layers) or “kaymaklı kadayıf” (dried shredded wheat pastry soaked in syrup with clotted cream).

Chickpea (nohut)
This edible legume is known as garbanzo bean, ceci bean, Bengal gram, hummus or chana in other cuisines. High in both protein and carbohydrate, many Westerners outside of Turkey will more than likely associate this small yellow pulse as a vegetarians’ meat alternative. In Turkey in addition to their use in soups, stews and rice dishes, they take the place of roasted nuts as a favorite snack. Leblebi, as they are called, come in a variety of forms. Partially cooking and roasting them turn chickpeas into a crunchy snack that has a slight smoky flavor. Left to dry after partially cooking, white-colored leblebi are more “nutty” in flavor. Alongside these two common leblebi are sugar and soy coated varieties.

Cheese (peynir)
Cheese and Turkish cuisine is really a topic all by itself. First-time visitors to Turkey will become well accustomed to the feta and cheddar-style cheese (beyaz and taze kaşar, respectively) served at hotel breakfasts each morning. These are two of the major classes of cheese produced in Turkey along with ricotta-style (lor) and cheese traditionally matured in animal hides (tulum), although often in special PVC bags. Styles of cheese vary across the country, and in real terms there are literally dozens of different types of cheese made. Cow’s milk cheese is the most common; however both sheep’s and goat’s milk are used.

Allspice (yenibahar)
Allspice, known by several other names, including Jamaica pepper, Myrtle pepper and pimento, is called new spice, “yeni bahar” in Turkish. In its whole state, it is sometimes confused with black peppercorns, although brown in color. In its ground form it is confused with a mixed blend of spices, as the aroma is a mixture of clove, nutmeg, cinnamon and a touch of ginger. In fact, allspice can be used in cooking in place of any of these or “made” by mixing one part nutmeg to two parts cinnamon and cloves. In Turkish cuisine allspice is added to fillings for dolma, be they leaf, fruit or vegetable, and suggests hints of the exotic in older Ottoman-style pilafs.


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Garlic (sarımsak)
Found in dishes across Anatolia, garlic would have to be one of the most popular and common ingredients in Turkish cuisine. Generally minced to a puree with a little salt, which acts to assist the grinding, dried garlic is then added to a multitude of dishes, from yoghurt sauces to cold olive oil mezes and stews. Fresh garlic, which has a less pungent flavor yet is more aromatic, is also used and found in markets in June and July. A fresh stem of garlic sitting in a glass of water, stem side down, will saturate a kitchen with a delicious scent for days. Fresh garlic is pickled and eaten as a side dish.

Nigella seeds (çörek otu)
Incorrectly named “black sesame,” or “black cumin,” nigella seeds are not related to the similar shaped just creamy colored seed. Nigella seeds are crunchy and have a slightly bitter, peppery flavor. Used extensively in Indian cuisine, these small black seeds are generally added to bread dough or sprinkled on breads and dough products. The Turkish name for the seeds comes from the practice of sprinkling them on çörek, a sweet bun.

Molasses (pekmez)
Pekmez is the clarified, condensed juice of grapes, dates, pomegranate, fig or mulberry. It gains its dark color from caramelization of the sugars from repeated heating. Most grapes in Turkey go into the production of pekmez or dried as sultanas. Pekmez is dark and viscous and pours very slowly from a bottle or jar. Pekmez is often mixed with tahini for breakfast or as syrup to sweeten dishes, although pomegranate is lightly sour.

Pistachio (Antep fıstığı)
Pistachios are grown around Gaziantep in the southeastern region of Turkey, hence the name “Antep” fıstık (nut). Picked when still immature, young pistachios when ground are a vibrant medium green color and it is these nuts that become the filling and grace the top of some of Turkey’s finest baklava. Fresh pistachios are found in a number of other sweetmeats and desserts, including “güllaç,” found in shops during Ramadan.

Rosewater (gülsuyu)
Rosewater is simply a solution of the essence of roses. Rosewater was more widely used in Ottoman kitchens than is generally seen in today’s Turkish cuisine. Found in the ceremonial dishes of aşüre (a dessert made of cereals, legumes, sugar, dried fruit and nuts and eaten on the 10th day of the first month of the Islamic year) and güllaç (a dessert made from thin dried pastry softened by sweetened milk and decorated with nuts.)

Walnut (ceviz)
A predominantly northern Turkish nut, the walnut is believed by some to be the favorite nut of İstanbul and in the past few weeks, fresh walnuts have hit the streets. Large, fat nuts that when cracked out of their shell and soaked in cold water overnight shed their skins to reveal milky white flesh that has a slightly sweet taste. Used to make tarator, a classic sauce to accompany fish or vegetables, fresh walnuts make a white sauce whereas as more mature, dried nuts make the sauce slightly pink. Walnuts are a favorite filling in baklava along with other sweets but equally enjoyed as a snack with dried fruits.

Sesame seeds (susam)
The base of tahini and one style of helva known in Turkey, sesame seeds are one of the oldest seeds used in the culinary world. The cream-colored, distinctly oily and flavored seeds are also sprinkled liberally over simits and other breads.

Mastic (sakız)
Mastic is a transparent resin that comes from a small evergreen tree mainly cultivated on the Greek island of Chios although it is found throughout the Mediterranean. It is mostly known for its ability to reduce bacterial plaque in the mouth and was reportedly given to the women of the harem for fresh breath and white teeth by Ottoman sultans. The best quality mastic comes in small pea-sized round-ish teardrops or flattened irregular pear-shaped, oblong pieces covered in a white powder. Upon chewing mastic becomes soft, so it can be distinguished from other resins. Mastic is a key ingredient in Turkish ice cream and some puddings, drinks, some Turkish delight and Greek festival breads.

Pomegranate (nar)
Pomegranates can be found any time from June, but most often between October and February. In the latter months they will come from storage where they have been improving with age, developing flavor and juice. Whether a pomegranate is sweet or sour depends on the variety and stage of ripeness. During Ottoman times, the sour fruit was used in place of today’s lemons that were not readily available in İstanbul and thus imported from the far reaches of the Empire. Today pomegranates are juiced and found as a beverage in Turkey and throughout the Middle East. Made into syrups (sos, ekşisi) and molasses (pekmez), the individual arils are used to garnish a number of desserts.

Sumac (sumak)
Sumac is the drupes of the Genus Rhus (from the Greek for sumac, rhous). The sumac tree grows wild in Mediterranean countries and is related to poison ivy. Sumac has a sour, fruity flavor and is used in place or alongside lemon, tamarind and vinegar or pomegranate syrup. The whole fruit appears in dense clusters with each berry covered in a hairy layer. The whole berries are often referred to as “lemon pepper” in spice markets. Ground sumac is a dark red-crimson color and is found in fine or slightly coarse forms. It keeps well in an airtight container away from light. Sprinkled on meats, chicken and fish when cooking or on salads and rice dishes, restaurants serving grilled meats and salads in Turkey may provide salt, pepper and a small pot of sumac as a standard condiment.

Sour cherries (vişne)
These small dark cherries, otherwise known as morello cherries, have a very short season, usually between June and August. Looking at a box sitting at the greengrocer’s stand they look more like a mass of stems rather than cherry, but do not be fooled into thinking they are just an inferior sweet cherry. Most of the sour cherries in Turkey go into making the ubiquitous juice or syrupy jam that is available all year round. Turkish cooks use sour cherries for making their own drinks and jams along with adding to pilafs, stews and desserts. Dried sour cherries are often available all year round, but frozen are the best alternative to fresh. Fresh sour cherries can be blanched in boiling water, refreshed in icy water and then frozen in small batches.

Red pepper flakes (kırmızı [pul] biber)
Known as Maraş pepper to many, red pepper flakes come in a variety of qualities. The purest and most expensive comes from hand picked peppers that are naturally dried, hand ground without added salt. The least expensive are dried with some help and will have varying amounts of salt and oil to give them flavor and a glossy sheen. The heat of the pepper also varies so it is good to try the dozens that will be either stacked high or packed in drawers along the sides of large market shops. Red pepper flakes are used in dishes to add a layer of flavor and/or to provide heat according to regional variation. The Adana kebab is probably the hottest of Turkey’s famous kebabs and made from minced meat with a good dose of hot red pepper.

Tomato (domates)
Many people see tomato as the most popular ingredient in Turkish cuisine and are always surprised to hear that it was only introduced into the cuisine in the mid to late 1800s. Green tomatoes are predominantly used these days to make pickles while red tomatoes make an appearance at breakfast, lunch and dinner. In salads, soups, sauces and any number of slowly cooked dishes tomatoes are available all year round thanks to the vast number of greenhouses that line the Mediterranean coast.

Vine leaves (asma yaprağı)
Grape vine leaves are the most common leaf used for making the rolled leaf dishes stuffed with either rice or bulgur-based or meat and rice filling but in days gone by hazelnut and quince leaves were equally used. The best fresh leaves are thin with fine veins and are available early in the grape-growing season, usually around May. By July and August they get coarser so leaves preserved in brine, which are available all year round, are a good choice.

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