Ten spices to travel to Istanbul in your kitchen – World Meanderings (n°85)
By Annick Dournes & Frédéric de Poligny
Champing at the bit and feeling more and more frustrated not to be able to get on a plane for a well deserved escape abroad? Nowadays we unfortunately all have to settle for imaginary trips… Scents and spices have this great power to help us achieve such exotic journeys. Let’s go to Istanbul spice market and cook with the ten staple spices of Turkish cuisine.
For centuries Istanbul has been at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and the Middle East and a major stop on the famous Silk Road. Among the colossal variety of goods going in and out of the city spices were an essential part of that trade both in variety and quantity. Istanbul not only was a bridge in the global spice trade, it also was the place where Turkish culinary culture and heritage was born.
Unlike many foreign cuisines where spices are the main ingredients pushing in the background the other produce of the dish, Turkish recipes recommend to use them in small quantities but in an extensive variety. Spices are thus indispensible but subtly used. At the meeting point of East and West Istanbul’s cuisine is a true cultural melting pot. From meze and salads to dolma and sarma, from kebab and döner to Köfte and kumpir, this Ottoman cuisine never ceases to amaze. Here are the ten most favoured spices in Turkish recipes that you can easily buy in the UK.
Thyme, famous since Antiquity
Thyme naturally grows in Aegean and Mediterranean regions and is a staple herb of many “sunny” cuisines. The one we buy in our grocery stores is produced drying and crumbling the plant’s leaves but if you can grow some in your garden or on your balcony it will be even better. In Turkey it is widely used to marinate red or lean meat, fish and of course in salads and soups. Simply putting a pinch of thyme in a bowl of olive oil to dip into with a piece of bread is also very popular. You can also place a small twig of fresh thyme in an olive oil container to add further zest to an entire bottle of olive oil with the aroma of thyme. Feeling queasy? Why not try “thyme water” obtained by boiling fresh thyme in water and consumed after being cooled to relieve the stomach.
Red pepper flakes, hot and crunchy
Being flaked makes all the difference with red pepper powder since you can of course actually see the flakes on the food and also get a unique texture. Hot red pepper are grown, dried and ground in South-eastern Anatolia and is widely used all over Turkey. In many Istanbul restaurants, it is readily available in small containers right next to the salt and pepper shaker-set on the table. It may either be added while cooking meat sauces, soups, legumes such as beans and chickpeas, and stews or sprinkled on the food at the table.
Mint for salad, yogurt, soup or dessert
As for thyme the fresh mint picked up in your garden will be much better. In Turkish cuisine it is widely used in soups, mantı (Turkish dumplings or very small pockets of dough filled with minced meat and boiled in water), and on cacık –a yoghurt-based side dish. It is one of the most popular spices thanks to the strong flavour it adds to stuffing and traditional Turkish dishes.
Caraway seeds, tasty and healthy
Caraway belongs to the same family as parsley with a much stronger aroma and is added in stuffing, meatballs and various soup recipes. It also is an essential flavouring agent used in meat sauces. Chefs love to sprinkle it on grilled meats and kebab just like you would do with black pepper. It also has been used as a medicinal herb since ancient times. Black caraway seeds contain close to 100 different active ingredients with medicinal properties, including carbohydrates, minerals, proteins and fatty acids. A real gift from nature!
Sumac, an absolute must
Little known in European cuisine sumac nevertheless is a staple spice in Turkey. It is made from the dark red dried berries of a small tree, Rhuss Coriaria that belongs to the same plant family as pistachio. It has a slightly acid and fruity flavour and can be used in place of lemon or vinegar. You can purchase it in Oriental delicatessen stores or on line. Chefs add it to their hot dishes just before serving. It can also be blended with red onions and parsley and mixed in a salad or yogurt as side dishes for grilled meat or liver.
Rosemary, so good and super detoxifying
As in other countries worldwide rosemary is mainly cooked with meat, poultry and stew in Turkish cuisine. But here it also is frequently used in soups, omelettes, mashed potatoes and even bread and pastries. This wonderful herb can actually be found in any dish you’ll have in Turkey!
Clove and cinnamon, a perfect combination
Turkish people love to taste clove in desserts blended with cinnamon. It also is used in stuffing, with seafood, seasoned rice or chicken stew. Both clove and cinnamon are sweet spices and allow reducing the amount of added sugar in desserts. Clove essential oil is also known as a good treatment for toothache and plain clove is also chewed to prevent foul breath. In many Turkish restaurants especially in meat and kebab restaurants, clove is served after having dishes with onions and garlic that could cause foul breath.
Cinnamon is the star of many recipes of cakes and traditional Turkish puddings such as sütlaç (rice pudding), kazandibi (white pudding with caramel base), and muhallebi (milk pudding). Turkish people also use cinnamon sticks to sweeten their cup of tea and thus lower their sugar intake. In wintertime they also put a little cinnamon powder on top of their boza and sahlep drink. These are very popular traditional drinks served in coffee shops, tearooms and on board the ferries that cross the Bosphorus in Istanbul. Sahlep is made from the root of a wild orchid that is said to strengthen the body. Boza is a thick fermented drink made with cereals, mostly millet. Being a low-alcohol drink Boza has been forbidden for many years in Turkey but is now tolerated and much appreciated!
Saffron, expensive but essential
Saffron has been grown in Turkey for centuries in the Asian part of the country. Its trade was and still is the main activity of a lovely town close to the Black Sea that has been named… Safranbolu, the “saffron city”. Saffron was already extensively used in Ottoman cuisine mixed in rose water or vinegar. Today Turkish cooks use it in rice pilaf, meat and fish dishes and of course in dessert such as milk pudding.
Bay leaf, last but not least
The leaves of the laurel tree are used dried in many recipes all over Turkey. You can actually taste this herb from appetizer to dessert and even in fruit juice.
Spices and herbs are essential in Turkish cuisine. It seems that each and every Turkish recipe must contain at least one. Omnipresent but used in moderation they give Turkish food a uniqueness that never ceases to delight the palate. Not to forget their health benefits!
More info at www.goturkey.com
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny and courtesy of TGA