Time for a new house

Time for a new house
Time for a new house

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Eating and politics in Turkey

One of the interesting parts of this tour is our guide Suleyman. He is Turkish, and we found out yesterday, part Kurd, and Muslim. We get a view of his country from the inside. His knowledge of the history and politics of Turkey is truly impressive, and yet in no way is he any kind of intellectual. He’s really down to earth, and often very funny, with a dry wit that makes us laugh a lot. He also demands respect, standing at the front of the bus talking about one thing or another, if someone is chatting away he will clear his throat, look incredibly displeased, and say, “Excuse me, excuse me!!” before he will continue his stories.

One of his stories is regarding Turkey and the European Union. Its one thing to read in the guidebook and quite another to hear his version. Turkey has been in conversation with the EU for several years, with many people thinking that it would be a great thing to be part of the EU. However, it seems that the population of Turkey is about 75 million, and unlike many other European countries, Turkey still has a positive population growth. And of course, Turkey is 95 percent Islamic. This seems to make a lot of Europeans very uncomfortable, since Turkey would become the largest country in the EU in population, and would make the EU dominantly Islamic. Suleyman thought this was somewhat insulting, and said basically he didn’t want to be part of anything that didn’t want him for stupid reasons, aka “I don’t want to go to a party where I am not invited”. So the jury is still out on Turkey becoming part of the EU, but Suleyman thinks its not likely to happen in the next 10 years at least.

Another of Suleyman’s political discussion has to do with the Turks and the Kurds. He insists that Kurds are not a particular ethnic group, they are simply people who live in a particular part of the geography of Turkey, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East. He says most Turks are Kurdish in some way or another, since people from the Kurdish part of Turkey have migrated to other parts of Turkey, especially Istanbul. He said his grandmother was Kurdish. Then he discussed the fundamentalist terrorist group in Eastern Turkey who is attempted to create a Kurdish state, and he dismissed this with a harrumph, and then under his breath in a very rapid comment mentioned that Turkey, with the support of the US, recently bombed some Kurdish outposts in western Iraq. He then changed the subject.

Television. All the big hotels boast cable TV. We think that is great, because it will give us a bit of something in English to help keep track of the world. Cable TV consists of the BBC, and sometimes the international version of CNN, and so far there has been very little news of anything at all except the terrorist attack in Mumbai, so we check in occasionally to get some news from the US. Here we have the BBC and 2 other channels in Turkish. Haven’t watched them much, although we aren’t in our room much either. I’m glad for the internet, since its great to be able to have a note from my kids to keep me connected and a bit grounded.

Food. I need to try to talk about the food. We have been eating fairly traditional Turkish food at the large buffets that are offered at our hotels for the evening meal most of the time. Of course, some versions are better than others and last night’s meal was really impressive. It is very nearly impossible to remember everything, but I am going to try to at least describe what it’s like to be eating here.

One thing that is a big part of Turkish meals are the cold salads, what Suleyman calls the “beginnings”. These often seem to be my favorite choices for the meals anyway, and the one thing always present is eggplant. The eggplant is thinly sliced lengthwise and grilled so it looks like a roasted pepper and served with cool tangy yogurt. There are long huge green beans seasoned with lots of olive oil. A fava bean salad with some onions and olive oil. A tomato salad that looks a bit like pica de gallo without the cilantro, lots of chopped tomatoes, some cucumbers, onions, and lots of broad leaf parsley. Dolmas. The dolmas last night were made of seasoned rice rolled into a softened cabbage leaf. The main seasoning in the rice is lemon and I think cumin, but I couldn’t identify it, even though it was really good. Then some kind of deep fried cauliflower, but not crisp, soft and lumpy, also served with yogurt. Shredded carrots and shredded beats drenched in vinegar, many kinds of olives and triangular cuts of goat cheese, some with red pepper, some with dill, others with more olive oil. Piles of diced very dark green lettuce and spinach that is really good. Huge red radish slices as big as a baseball if it were sliced, covered with chopped dark parsley. Cold boiled potatoes with mild seasonings that need a lot of salt to be good. Some kind of potato salad that has yogurt as the dressing with little cubes of potatoes, carrots, and peas.

Many kinds of bread, most of it fairly soft and not crusty, even though it looks as though it should be. The butter is usually not very good, so we use more dark green olive oil for the bread. Then the main dishes at the buffet are usually several kinds of stews, with lamb and beef and chicken and unidentifiable vegetables, often eggplant and mushrooms which I love and are the two things Mo doesn’t. Almost always are the meatballs, maybe beef, maybe lamb, and also in a tomato and eggplant stew. There is usually some kind of rice pilaf, quite dull without much flavor. Turkish flatbread, something like Indian nan, or a flour tortilla, filled with goat cheese and spinach and roasted on a hot pan like a quesadilla. In the midst of all this complicated food is a large pan of “chips”, great fat French fries that are light as a feather and perfectly cooked inside and crusty outside.

Desserts are all sorts of things with honey in common. Little cakes and madelines, soaked in honey, something like a pistachio baklava, but not as crusty, soaked in honey, little chocolate cakes, that aren’t sweet and stick to the roof of your mouth like peanut butter. Beautiful little lemon cakes that look wonderful and taste a bit like glue. Tangerines that are tart and fresh from the local trees. Once I had a pistachio vanilla custard that was to die for and a chocolate pudding that was equally wonderful. The big thing here is called “Turkish Delight” and is in all the stores. It is the present that you take when you go visiting, and Suleyman insists that whomever has the front seat in the bus is required to bring a box of pistachio Turkish delight. Now I know where Washington State’s applets and cotlets came from. They are nothing more than Turkish Delight Wenatchee style.

I am sure that the buffets are not the best to be found in Turkey, but no matter where we go this seems to be the style of food that we find. Even when we stop at “real” Turkish restaurants they have this buffet style of eating. The first day in Istanbul, when we ate at the Pudding CafĂ©, I think I had the best food I have had so far.