Other countries may claim similar honors, but yogurt, that mainstay of twenty-first century dieters and dairy lovers everywhere, is regarded by Turkey as one of its most famous and ancient culinary contributions to the world.
Whether it was in the area of Turkey or elsewhere, food historians say the first yogurt was probably discovered accidentally by Central Asian peoples some 4,500 years ago. The serendipity we know as yogurt may have occurred in the sheep-stomach bag of a fierce nomadic tribesman or woman, used to hold rich mare's or goat's milk. Time, temperature and rennet from the sheep's stomach may have each happily contributed to the formation of a delightfully creamy clotted milk.
The tasty curd's ascendancy in Turkish food culture was well in place long before the birth of the Ottoman Empire in 1299. By 1520, when the illustrious reign of Suleiman the Magnificent began, the palace boasted multiple kitchens with hundreds of chefs who dedicated themselves to codifying classic Turkish foods. Thousands were fed from these opulent kitchens, and yogurt was an important ingredient in soups, stews, marinades, dips, vegetable dishes, baked delicacies, desserts and beverages. Huge quantities were provide by professional yogurt makers, members of one among many guilds dedicated to their craft under the patronage of saints and holy men. Suleiman's vast table was resplendant with yogurt in its many guises.
Not long after mighty Suleiman's rise a young girl of Ukranian descent was captured by Crimean Tatars and taken from her native Kingdom of Poland, now part of the Ukraine. She was carried overland all the way to Constantinople, destined to become a slave. Such were the unfelitious beginnings of Roxelana, later Hürrem Sultan, arguably one of the most powerful and influential women in the world.
The captive soon found herself part of the Imperial harem. She may have been a slave but she was beautiful, intelligent and lively, willing to do whatever it took to better her position.The lowly foreign-born girl quickly enthralled the Sultan. The exquisite Roxelana became known as "Hürrem" or "The Laughing One" after her induction into the seraglio. She was high spirited and a gifted needlewoman who aroused jealously in the other women of the harem.
She was also gifted at keeping Suleiman intrigued and indulgent. She became the Sultan's confidant, then his advisor, involved in local and international affairs of state. She bore him five children and was eventually freed from slavery and became the Sultan's legal wife, an almost unbelievable accomplishment that was the talk the Ottoman world and beyond.
Roxelana was a textbook case of a powerful woman using her wiles to further her own causes. Her ambitions and intrigues ultimately led to the murders of Suleiman's rightful heir, the child of another woman, so her own son could succeed to the throne, and of the Grand Vizier, who sought to curtail her power.
Hürrem's contribution to life in the Ottoman Empire extended beyond conspiracy and deception. It was probably due to her influence that relations with Poland were largely peaceful throughout her life. She was noted for her gifts of public buildings, including a mosque, a bathhouse and a women's hospital.
Her slave-girl-to-Sultana story has facinated Westerns for centuries and she has been the subject on numerous plays, novels, artworks and musical compositions. She died in 1558, preceding Suliman by eight years. Suleiman's legacy is as the Magnificent, the Lawgiver. Roxalana remains "The Laughing One." Their son, Selim II, then succeeded his father to the throne of the Ottoman Empire, exactly as his mother wished.
Turks have long refreshed themselves with this unexpectedly salty drink. Roxelana might have offered ayran to the Sultan on his arrival in her chambers.
- 3 c plain yogurt
- 3 c water or to taste
- Salt to taste
- 3 to 4 tablespoons finely minced fresh mint
Stir the yogurt with a whisk until very creamy. Add the water in very small amounts, whisking to blend completely after each addition. To make a frothy version whisk vigorously or use a submersion blender. Add salt and mint and pour over crushed ice.
Turkish Zucchini Fritters
These succulent morsels have a hint of dill, long a favorite partner of yogurt, base of the accompanying dip.
- 1/2 pound zucchini
- 1/3 cup chopped scallions
- 1/2 small yellow onion, grated
- 1/4 cup fresh dill, chopped or 2 tablespoons dried
- 3 tablespoons fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
- 1/4 cup feta cheese, crumbled
- 2 tablespoons yogurt
- 2 eggs, slightly beaten
- 1/2 cup flour
- fresh ground pepper
- oil for frying
Grate the zucchini and place in a colander lined with a clean dish towel. Sprinkle with salt and let drain for 30 minutes. Gather up the cloth and squeeze out moisture.
Place the zucchini in a bowl. Add the green and yellow onions, dill, parsley, flour and salt and pepper to taste; mix well. Add yogurt, cheese and eggs and blend thoroughly.
In a large sauté pan over medium-high heat, pour in oil to a depth of ¼ inch. When the oil is hot, drop the batter by heaping tablespoonfuls into the pan and pat with the back of spoon to form small patties. Allow space in between fritters and fry for 2 minutes on the first side, then turn to brown on the second side for about 3 minutes. Use a slotted spatula to transfer to paper towels to drain; repeat with remaining batter. Serve with Mint and Coriander Yogurt Dip. (Recipe follows)
MINT AND CORIANDER YOGURT DIP
(NANE VE CORIADER YOGHURT DIP)
To be traditional, use the mortar and pestle. Or blend all ingredients except the yogurt in a blender or food processor. DO NOT blend the yogurt or it will thin out too much.
- 1/2 cup fresh coriander leaves, washed and roughly chopped
- 1/4 cut fresh mint leaves, washed and roughly chopped
- 1 clove of garlic, peeled
- 1 small green chili pepper or to taste, seeded, ribbed and chopped fine, or to taste
- 1/2 teaspoons of sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt and more to taste
- 4 ounces thick (Greek or Turkish) yogurt
Place all ingredients except yogurt into food processor bowl and pulse until you have a thick paste. Remove to a bowl and gradually blend in yogurt with a spoon, stirring to blend in completely. Adjust seasonings to your taste.
Traditional preparation: In a mortar, combine all the ingredients except the yogurt. Pound till leaves darken and ingredients form a wet paste. Stir with a spoon or pound further to ensure no large lumps of chili remain. Then add the yogurt and combine well. Adjust seasonings to your taste.
CHICKEN SHISH KABAB
tavuk ÅŸiÅŸ kabab
The seasonings for the chicken create a za'atar, traditional seasoning blend through out Central Asia. The basic ingredients are toasted sesame seeds, thyme and sumac. Additions vary from country to country. A common Turkish mixture adds dill, mint and allspice.The sumac turns food a lovely hue, so don't be alarmed when your chicken starts looking pink.
- 8 chicken tenderloins
- Juice of 1/2 lemon
- 1/2 cup thick yogurt (Greek or Turkish)
- Spice mixture: 1/2 teaspoon each toasted sesame seeds, dried thyme, dried dill, dried mint, dried sumac
- 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds (in addition to those used in spice mixture
- 8 skewers (if using wood skewers soak in water for at least 20 minutes to prevent burning
Lay tenderloins in a shallow dish wide enough to hold them with space to spare. Squeeze the lemon over the chicken. Spread the yogurt to cover all the pieces evenly. Turn and sprinkle evenly with spice mixture. Allow to marinate 20 minutes. Grill over medium-high heat until done, turning once. Or broil for 2-3 minutes per side or until done. 4 servings.
Next comes the cake. While you're waiting for it to bake, take a beauty tip from Roxalana and whip up a batch of yogurt face mask to suit your complexion. Then lay around the seraglio planning intrigues for 10 to 30 minutes before rinsing, depending on your skin type and your taste for scheming.
Semolina, more usually known for its use to make pasta, provides a heavier cake than most Westerners are used to. Lemon syrup gives the cake a delicate tang and its dense texture. It is beautiful cut into small squares, diamonds or triangles and topped with a dusting of very finely chopped pistachios. Serve with Turkish coffee or tea.
The syrup needs to cool before it is poured onto the still-warm cake so plan your timing accordingly. If you can make it ahead and refrigerate it, so much the better. You will need a whole lemon for the cake and syrup. Cut a 3-inch long strip of lemon peel, about 1/2 inch wide, with a vegetable parer to use in the syrup before zesting the rest of the peel for the cake. Half the lemon is juiced into the finished syrup.
- 2 cups of granulated sugar
- 2-1/2 cups of water
- 3-inch x 1/2 inch long strip of lemon peel
- Juice of 1/2 lemon
Combine sugar and water in a medium saucepan. Bring it to the boil over medium heat. Boil for ten minutes. Turn off the heat and add the lemon juice. Set aside to cool completely. Refrigerate once it reaches room temperature.
- 1-/2 cups of semolina flour
- 2 cups of all purpose flour
- 1/2 tsp of baking powder
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup of granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup of vegetable oil
- 1 cup of thick plain yogurt
- 1/2 tsp of vanilla
- zest of 1 lemon
- 2-3 tablespoons very finely chopped pistachio nuts
Prepare a 9-inch by 13-inch pyrex baking dish with baking spray. Pour mixture into prepared pan and bake until it is golden brown, approximately 50 minutes.
Take the cake from oven. Let it cool for 5 minutes and pierce several holes in the top with a toothpick or a skewer. Remove the lemon peel from the cold syrup and spoon the liquid over the cake. Allow to cool before cutting into squares, diamonds or triangles. Garnish each piece with a sprinkle of chopped pistachio nuts. Serve with Turkish coffee or tea if desired.
Life is half delicious yogurt, half crap, and your job is to keep the plastic spoon in the yogurt. ~ Scott Adams
Let's dip our ever-ready plastic spoons into the deliciousness of Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio finale, from the movie Amadeus. What fun to see the 1980s Hollywood version of the 18th century Viennese version of 18th century Turkish costume and music. Gotta love that pink wig, Wolfie!
Abduction from the Seraglio video courtesy of YouTube
All historical images in the public domain
Aryan image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
All other text and images © 2011 Theresa Rice