Mediterranean cooking is at home over a wide geographic area. The Mediterranean Sea is surrounded by 22 countries, sharing a coastline of 28,600 miles. While they share the overall pattern of eating that we call the Mediterranean Diet, each country’s (and each region’s) cuisine reﬂects distinct historical, agricultural, and cultural traditions.
Turkey and countries of the Levant, a historical geographical term referring to a large area in the Eastern Mediterranean region of Western Asia, have much in common when it comes to food. The term levant is from the French lever, “to rise,” as in sunrise, meaning the east, and the area generally corresponds to current-day Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and Syria.
To examine the cuisines of the Eastern Mediterranean, we’ve looked to the cookbook authors who have studied and written about the food and cooking of the region.
Renowned cookbook author and food writer Claudia Roden’s A Book of Middle Eastern Food was originally published in 1974 (and then updated in 2000), and she writes that “the history of this food is that of the Middle East. Dishes carry the triumphs and glories, the defeats, the loves and sorrows of the past.” (NOTE: The New York Times’ Melissa Clark wrote about Claudia on November 1, announcing that her newest book, Claudia Roden’s Mediterranean: Treasured Recipes From a Lifetime of Travel, will be published on November 9, 2021 in the US. This wonderfully interesting article tells Claudia’s story and highlights the important inﬂuence she has had. Yotam Ottolenghi credits Claudia Roden for laying the foundation for chefs like him, and says, “‘A Book of Middle Eastern Food’ has been around for so long it feels like prehistory, it was really revelatory for its time.”)
This is, of course, a very long history, so here we’ll move to the 21st century and focus on the features that deﬁne today’s Eastern Mediterranean Diet. Remember that this Mediterranean Diet has the same foundation as the Italian, French or Spanish Mediterranean Diet—lots of plant foods prepared with extra virgin olive oil, some ﬁsh, as well as smaller amounts of dairy, poultry, red meat and sweets—and brought to the table thanks to delicious culinary traditions.
In that same vein, writing in Jerusalem, one of his many stunning cookbooks, Yotam Ottolenghi, with Sami Taminimi, make the point that Jerusalem, like much of the Eastern Mediterranean, is a melting pot. They write, “Jerusalem is an intricate convoluted mosaic of peoples. It is therefore very tempting to say there isn’t such a thing as local cuisine. However, if you take a step back and look at the greater picture, there are some typical elements that are easily identiﬁable in most local cuisines. Everybody, absolutely everybody, uses chopped cucumber and tomatoes to create an Arab salad or an Israeli salad, depending on point of view. Stuﬀed vegetables with rice or rice and meat also appear on almost every dinner table, as does an array of pickled vegetables. Extensive use of olive oil, lemon juice, and olives is also commonplace.”
Meze (or mezze) are becoming a more familiar alternative to hors d’oeuvres for Americans—Whether they are simple or fancy, Claudia Roden calls them “one of the most delightful features of Middle Eastern food—indeed they are almost a way of life.” She describes them as “myriads of miniature foods.” Examples of simple meze are not unlike what Americans would serve as hors d’oeurves before dinner—nuts, olives, cheese. Salads, pickles, and sauces served with pita bread are common, as are stuﬀed vine leaves and falafel.
Equally renowned cookbook author Paula Wolfert writes of mezze in The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean, “I don’t think there is an hors d’oeurves table in the world that can match one with Middle Eastern mezze at their best. For all its honest simplicity, it is extremely elegant food, full of honest simplicity, full of exotic aromas and vibrant colors, fragrant with sweet spices and pungent ﬂavors. Dishes refreshed by yogurt, soothing creamy purees, and the tantalizing smokiness of grilled eggplant provide a variety of tastes and textures that contract and entwine like the intricate motifs in a Turkish carpet.”
Another start to a meal, soup, can also be made into a full meal when served with pita bread. Vegetables, beans, whole grains and sometimes smaller amounts of meat or poultry come together in unending combinations to become comforting, extremely nutritious meals in a bowl. In fact, for a few of us at Oldways, Turkish Red Lentil soup is the ultimate comfort dish on a cold wintery day.
In Turkey, vegetable consumption per capita is among the highest in the world. In 2017, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, reported the Turkish people consumed 254 kilos (560 pounds) per person, compared to the 113 kilos (250 pounds) per capita in the US. As a result, there are countless recipes for vegetable dishes in Turkey. In her book, Classical Turkish Cooking, culinary historian Ayla Algar lists vegetable dishes that range from vegetables and dolmas (see below) cooked in olive oil, to vegetable stews and casseroles, to salads, pickles and relishes and ending with vegetable pastes (also see below). Similarly, in her book on Eastern Mediterranean cooking, Paula Wolfert details a wide variety of vegetable cooking—uncooked salads; small, cooked vegetable dishes; vegetables; and stuﬀed vegetables.
Speaking of stuﬀed vegetables, in Middle Eastern cuisines, stuﬀed vegetables are called dolmas. Most familiar are cooked vine leaves stuﬀed with vegetables, grains and meat. They can be served cold or hot. Cold dolmas usually have no meat, and meats are often stuﬀed into vegetables or vine leaves when dolmas are served warm.
This leads to yogurt. Dolmas are commonly served with yogurt or some variety of yogurt sauce. Chef Greg and writer Lucy Malouf, in Turquoise, their beautiful book on Turkey and Turkish food, wrote that “Turkey is a nation of yogurt lovers. Most of the country’s milk production goes towards making yogurt. Yogurt is one of the most ancient foods known to man. Evidence exists of fermented milk products being produced almost 4500 years ago, and the Turks are just one of many peoples who like to claim responsibility for its creation.” Look for more information about yogurt and the Mediterranean Diet in the November 19, 2021 Fresh Friday, or in the Fresh Friday archives.
Cookbook author Sarah Woodward explains in her book The Ottoman Kitchen, “that in Turkey and the Middle East, the yogurt drink ayran is popular,” and is sometimes served to accompany meat dishes, and also served cold at breakfast. To make it in a tall glass, Sarah ﬁlls half the glass with thick yogurt and then tops with iced water, adds ice cubes and a little salt and some mint. It’s ready to drink in 5 minutes.
Grains, both whole grains and reﬁned, are important in Turkish and Eastern Mediterranean cooking. Turkish cookbook author Engin Akin writing as a contributor in The Oldways Table notes that “rice is one ingredient that has been carried to Anatolia, and it appears snugly in dolma or within the warmth of a chicken soup, or as an incredibly tasty duet with sugar and spices, such as saﬀron and mastic in numerous desserts. Our love (The Turk’s love) of rice is, however, crowned by the ﬂaky rice pilav that appears nearly every day on family tables and always on festive tables.”
She continues that “as rice comes in many disguises, so does the unleavened bread of the nomadic Turkish tribes. Countless pastries, savory and sweet, including the boreks, the ﬂaky baklava, and others are all made from yufka, the see-through muslin thin sheet of pastry made with a rolling pin.”
Bulgur is a whole grain that is an essential part of Middle Eastern cuisines for many, many years. In Oldways 12 Great Ways to Use Bulgur, we explain that bulgur wheat is one of the world’s original fast foods, and because the bulgur has been precooked and dried, it only needs to be boiled for about 10 minutes to be ready to eat—about the same time as dry pasta. In Turkish and Middle Eastern cooking, bulgur is often combined with lentils and other beans, such as chickpeas, in soups, stews, main dishes or salads. The most common Middle Eastern dish with bulgur is tabouli, a refreshing salad of bulgur, parsley, mint, ﬁnely chopped tomatoes and vegetables, mixed together with an olive oil dressing.
Like all cultures, the cuisines of the Eastern Mediterranean feature beans, as well as various combinations of aﬀordable and nutritious rice and beans. In this part of the world, Mujaddara, lentils and rice, cooked with onions and spices, and Fasooli, white beans and brown rice, prepared by cooking beans with onions, tomato paste and spices, and served on top of brown rice are two examples. In Turkey, a similar dish is called Fasulye, and in Greece it is Fasolada. Vegetables and meat can be added to the stew as well.
Nuts play an important role in the cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean, whether they are used in savory or sweet preparations. Most prominent are almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts, pistachios, and walnuts. Paula Wolfert notes in her Eastern Mediterranean book that “almonds contribute greatly to sauces and stuﬃngs; pine nuts are found in all kinds of Eastern Mediterranean food – pilafs, stuﬀed vegetables, meat ﬁllings, kibbeh and desserts. Walnuts are also added to sauces and used to chicken soups and stews, to stuﬀ eggplants and ﬁll pastry.” The famous baklava from Gaziantep, Turkey – made at Iman Cagdas (a place we visited in 2012 during an Oldways Culinaria) – is made almost exclusively from pistachios, something Greg and Lucy Malouf say is something that Gaziantep (or Antep) is known for.
Bringing all these ingredients together falls to the splendors of extra virgin olive oil and spices. Regarding olive oil: Ayla Algar notes “on the culinary plane, I must stress that olive oil is not at all a cooking medium, but a culinary ingredient that imparts unique and irreplaceable ﬂavor to everything with which it is cooked or combined.” Turks even have whole families of dishes that are called “olive oil dishes,” in which no meat is used. Paula Wolfert agrees and says “a Mediterranean cook is lost without olive oil. Olive oil is the backbone of the Mediterranean diet.”
In the introduction to Chef Ana Sortun’s wonderful book, Spice, Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean, she writes that “what makes each country’s food taste unique? What gives it life? In the Arabic foods around the Mediterranean and Middle East, the answer is spice. It is through the innovative and herb and spice blends that extra maximum ﬂavor in cooking.” The Appendix in Paula’s Eastern Mediterranean book details each of these spices that she believes are essential to stocking the Eastern Mediterranean larder: Aleppo pepper (or Maras pepper); allspice; caraway; coriander seeds; cumin; mahleb; mastic; Mediterranean oregano; mint leaves, dried; paprika; sweet and hot; saﬄower threats and marigold petals; za’atar; and sumac. Because spices have such high antioxidant activity, the colorful and aromatic spices at home in Eastern Mediterranean cuisine can also boost the nutrition of a meal as well.
Coﬀee and tea close this short survey of the cuisines of Turkey and the Eastern Mediterranean. When you’re in Turkey, you’ll be served tea almost everywhere. If you buy a rug, the shop owner will certainly serve you several cups of tea. Business meetings always feature someone bringing in a tea tray. Sarah Woodward writes in her book on the Ottoman Kitchen, “Turkish tea is traditionally served in small, tulip shaped glasses, with a rounded bowl at the bottom. The glass is placed on a saucer (often decorated with lurid ﬂower patterns), together with two or three sugar lumps for you to add to taste. If your taste is Turkish, then the sweeter the better. In the bazaars, the tea-carriers are a familiar sight, swinging metal trays loaded with glasses at a seemingly impossible angle.
Coﬀee has its own traditions. As Ana Sortun notes in her book, Spice, Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean, “coﬀee plays a special role in both the culture and cuisine of turkey. Beans are ground to an ultraﬁne texture, and the coﬀee itself can be served with very little – or very much – sugar. Usually served after meals, Turkish coﬀee is meant to be enjoyed with others, and the reading of fortunes in the grounds is one important part of the social ritual.”
Examples of how to read coﬀee grounds from our friend in Istanbul, Ayfer Unsal incude:
- Rectangle: you will receive some goods.
- Circle: you will receive good fortune.
- Rising Sun: your dreams will come true.
- Eye: someone is jealous of you.
- Butterﬂy; be careful of a new friend.
- A bunch of little dots: You are spending too much money.
We have only scratched the surface. There is so much more to learn about the cuisines of Turkey and the Eastern Mediterranean. One easy and fun way to do this is to sign up for the Oldways Turkey Culinaria with Chef Ana Sortun from March 20-27, 2022. We’ll spend time on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast in Antalya, Turkey, and then move onto incredible, exotic and interesting Istanbul. Click here to learn more! Join us!
To bring the ﬂavors of Turkey and the Eastern Mediterranean, be sure to try the recipes that accompany the Fresh Friday, and then use the recipe search on the Oldways website!
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