The regional cuisines of Turkey

In America it is hard for us to imagine to what extent people’s food in the eastern half of Turkey is tied to where they live and to the topography and climate.

CABBAGE ROLLS in tomato and sumac sauce. (photo credit: DAVID HAGERMAN)
CABBAGE ROLLS in tomato and sumac sauce.
(photo credit: DAVID HAGERMAN)
Last week we went to see Robyn Eckhardt’s presentation of her new cookbook, Istanbul & Beyond – Exploring Turkey’s Diverse Cuisines.
We should get “beyond the idea of Turkish cuisine,” said Eckhardt. We spoke of Italian food 25 years ago, but now we think of the food of Sicily, Rome or Tuscany; similarly, there is not one Turkish cuisine.
In America it is hard for us to imagine to what extent people’s food in the eastern half of Turkey is tied to where they live and to the topography and climate, said Eckhardt.
For example, in Van, the province near Turkey’s border with Iran, villagers use foraged herbs to flavor cheese made with the milk from their sheep and goats. In this predominantly Kurdish area, cooks use sumac rather than lemon juice to give a tangy flavor to such dishes as cabbage rolls in tomato and sumac sauce. (See recipe.) 
Fish and cooked leafy greens are important to the diet in the Black Sea area of northern Turkey. In contrast to other parts of the country, people in this region eat beef rather than lamb; as in neighboring Georgia, their diet includes a lot of corn.
With its location between Syria and the Mediterranean, Hatay, which just won an award from UNESCO for its gastronomy, has Levantine cuisine, with vibrant flavors of chilies, fresh herbs, tomatoes, olive oil and pomegranate molasses. Eckhardt’s spicy egg salad is from this region. (See recipe.)
On the plane on our way home after our first visit to Turkey, we felt that what we would miss the most is the delicious, widely available handmade flatbread that is marked with squares. We are glad Eckhardt included a detailed recipe for this “fingerprint flatbread” in her book. (See recipe.)
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.
This simple egg salad from Hatay is breakfast fare, wrote Robyn Eckhardt, served with olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese, tehina eggplant dip and bread. “Don’t skimp on the parsley; one of the delights of this dish is the textural contrast of fresh, crunchy leaves with soft egg.”
Serves 4
8 hard boiled eggs, cut lengthwise in quarters and then in half crosswise
2½ tsp. Turkish or other crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
1 tsp. coarse salt
1 loosely packed cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 to 2 Tbsp. olive oil
Place eggs in a small bowl and sprinkle with pepper flakes and salt. Add parsley and olive oil. Toss gently to coat the eggs and moisten the parsley with the oil.
Serve cold or at room temperature.
This dish is a Kurdish twist on a comfort food favorite, wrote Eckhardt. The spicy filling of this stuffed cabbage is flavored with chiles, pepper flakes, garlic and dried mint.
Serves 8 to 10 (34 to 40 rolls)
For the filling:
1 cup short or medium-grain rice
225 gr. ground beef or lamb
1 small-medium onion, minced (about ½ cup)
5 garlic cloves minced
¾ packed cup minced flat-leaf parsley
1 medium-large tomato (about 170 gr.), halved crosswise and grated
2 Tbsp. sweet or hot Turkish red pepper paste or a combination (optional)
3 mild or hot green chilies, such as jalapeño, halved lengthwise, seeded and thinly sliced
1 Tbsp. plus
1 tsp. dried mint
1 Tbsp. Turkish or other crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
1½ tsp. fine sea salt
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
For sauce and cabbage:
¼ cup ground sumac
1 Tbsp. coarse salt
1 large or 2 small green cabbage (about 1.8 kg.)
2 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. tomato paste
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. fine sea salt
Filling: Put rice in a medium bowl, add water, and swish with your fingers to remove excess starch. Carefully drain off water and repeat two or three times, until water runs clear. Set aside.
Begin sauce: Place ground sumac in a small bowl and pour two cups of hot water over it. Set aside to infuse.
Cook cabbage:
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add the coarse salt. Remove any torn or damaged outer leaves from cabbage. Cut a 1-cm.- deep X in stem end(s) and add cabbage to water. (If using two cabbages, you may need to cook them one by one.) Bring water back to boil, partially cover, and cook cabbage until a knife inserted into core meets no resistance, about 15 minutes, depending on size of cabbage. Do not let it become mushy.
Meanwhile, prepare an ice bath. Plunge the cooked cabbage into the cold water. When cool enough to handle, remove it from water, core it, and carefully separate leaves, stacking them on a plate. Line bottom of a wide three-liter lidded pot with a layer of small and/or torn leaves.
Make filling:
Place drained rice in a large bowl. Add meat, onion, garlic, parsley, tomato, pepper paste and chilies and mix with your hands or a fork. Sprinkle with mint, pepper flakes, salt and black pepper and mix again.
Place a cabbage leaf on work surface with interior of leaf facing up and bottom of leaf toward you. With a sharp knife cut out the thick rib, making an inverted V. (Discard rib.) Place a mounded tablespoon of filling at tip of V and shape into a log, leaving at least 2.5 cm between it and edges of leaf. Fold left and right edges of leaf over filling, then fold bottom flaps of leaf up and over and roll it away from you to make a parcel. Don’t roll too tightly; leave room for rice to expand. Place cabbage roll seam side down in the pot and repeat until filling is used up, laying rolls side by side when possible and close together but not snug. Make two layers if necessary, laying rolls in second layer in opposite direction from those in first.
Line a sieve with cheesecloth or a damp large paper coffee filter, set it over a medium bowl, and pour in the sumac water. Gather cheesecloth around sumac and squeeze our as much liquid as possible. Discard sumac. Pour 1¾ cups sumac water into a small bowl; add water if necessary to make 1¾ cups. (Set aside any extra sumac water to add during cooking if needed or for reheating leftovers.) Mix in tomato paste, olive oil and fine salt, stirring to eliminate lumps. Pour sauce over cabbage rolls.
Set pot over high heat and bring sauce to boil. Cover rolls with a piece of parchment paper and a heatproof plate on top of paper. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 30 minutes, checking after 15 minutes (use tongs to lift plate and paper) to make sure there is still some liquid; add ½ cup sumac water or plain water if bottom is nearly dry. You want to end up with just enough reduced sauce to lightly coat the cabbage rolls.
Let cabbage rolls rest, covered, for at least 10 minutes. Serve hot or warm.
When marking the shaped bread, be sure your fingerprints are deep and clearly visible, advises Eckhardt; otherwise they will disappear during baking.
Makes 2 loaves
For the dough:
1¾ cups plus 1 Tbsp. room-temperature water
1 Tbsp. instant yeast
4¼ cups plus 1 Tbsp. (570 gr.) bread flour
1½ tsp. fine sea salt
For the wash:
¼ cup all-purpose or bread flour
1¼ cups boiling water
1 egg
Wheat bran or whole wheat flour (for shaping)
2 tsp. sesame or nigella seeds, or a mixture (for sprinkling, optional)
Put water in a large bowl and sprinkle with yeast. In another bowl whisk flour with salt. Pour flour over water and use your hands or a dough scraper to mix and cut ingredients together. When they begin to come together, lightly flour a work surface, turn the dough out, and knead, using a dough scraper to remove bits of dough from work surface and returning them to the mass. In 8 to 10 minutes dough should be smooth and elastic.
Transfer dough to a lightly oiled large bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise for 1½ to 2 hours or until doubled in size. Fold dough over itself three times while it is proofing, after 30, 60, and 90 minutes.
Meanwhile, make wash: Put flour in a medium deep bowl and add boiling water in a slow stream, whisking. Continue to whisk to eliminate as many lumps as possible. Let cool completely; then beat in egg and set aside.
One hour before baking, place a baking stone or heavy baking sheet on middle oven rack. Heat oven to 220º.
To shape bread:
Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide it in half. Form each half into a loose ball. Cover with plastic wrap and let dough relax for 15 minutes.
Gently pat each ball of dough into a 15- to 18- cm. disk about 2.5 cm. thick. Cover and let relax another 15 minutes.
Whisk wash again. It should have consistency of heavy cream; if it is too thick, whisk in room temperature water 1 tablespoon at a time, to achieve the right consistency. Pour into a shallow bowl big enough to dip your hand into.
Liberally dust a baker’s peel or upside-down baking sheet with bran. Transfer one of the disks to peel or sheet. Dip your palms and fingers in the wash and gently pat disk to a circle about 2 cm. thick, washing its surface as you go.
To score the bread, dip sides of your hands in wash and use them to score outer edge of dough in an approximate circle, leaving a 1.3- to 1.9-cm.- wide border. Start by positioning your hands at opposite sides of dough, palms facing each other. As you push the sides of your hands into the dough to score it, gently move them outward to stretch the dough 1.3 cm. or so. Dough will now be a rough oval. Work your way around the bread, dipping your hands in the wash as needed to keep them from sticking, until dough is roughly circular again. Don’t worry about creating a perfectly scored circle but be sure that the scores join to make a continuous line around edge of bread. When you’re finished, bread should be 22 or 23 cm. in diameter.
Dip your fingertips in the wash and place your hands side by side on the dough, about 2.5 cm. from the circular score along bottom edge of dough. Push your fingers deeply into dough (don’t tear it) and then repeat, moving your hands apart to create a score in a single line that does not extend beyond outer scored border. Repeat to create parallel scores about 2.5 cm. apart on dough, dipping your fingers in wash as needed. Use same technique to create roughly parallel cross-hatch scores at about 45 degrees to the first set. Your scores needn’t be perfect, but they should be deep – fingerprints clearly visible – or they’ll disappear during baking.
Sprinkle loaf with half the seeds and slide onto baking stone. Bake until golden with pale spots, 25 to 30 minutes, rotating it once at the halfway point. Transfer to a wire rack to cool or serve hot after allowing bread to rest for a few minutes. Brush excess bran from bottom of loaf with a kitchen towel or stiff brush after it has cooled for a few minutes, if you wish. Shape and bake remaining dough.