10 May, 2010

For Christopher: mealtime in Turkiye

My nephew Christopher asks. "How do Turkish people eat, forks, knives, etc.? Or do they eat other ways? What do they like to eat for a main dish a lot?" So Christopolous, this post is for you.

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One of the first things you realize when you come to Turkiye is that there are a lot of different ways to live here. Mall food courts look exactly the same as the ones you know, though the foods there are a little different. Next to Pizza Hut and Burger King you'll find lamahcun and the traditional fermented yogurt drink ayran. If you go a little farther afield to a traditional kebap joint you might end up trying şalgam, which is the fermented juice of purple carrots.

In the cities, people sit at familiar tables and eat with silverware. But in rural villages, meals are eaten around a low table or no table at all, just a big copper tray set on the floor. People kneel or sit cross-legged on carpets or sheepskin, drawing a tablecloth placed beneath the tray up over their knees. They might use their hands, or they might have forks, but usually there is only one plate of each food and everyone eats from it. For breakfast there might be menemen, which is a dish like scrambled eggs with sauteed veggies, and there is always sliced Turkish bread (like Italian bread), olives, and several kinds of cheese, and tea. In the village we drank hot milk with breakfast; at lunchtime we had a kind of bread called bisi that is like fried dough, and i was surprised to find that the grated-carrot-minced-garlic-and-yogurt salad sorts of things i make at home are actually traditional fare here. Maybe i have a Turkish soul.

Then there is dinner time. The question about what they like to eat for a main dish a lot is a tough one...In the seaside cities especially, fresh fish is plentiful. Things like hamburger and steaks are not common; instead there's köfte (meatballs) and kebap (grill) which come in many shapes and sizes. Different kinds of köfte or kebap are often named for the city they came from, such as Adana kebap which is served with a thin wrap and little sides of sliced onions and domates and mydonos (parsley) for you to arrange as you like. Rice pilav or bulgur - sometimes both - are often served as side dishes.

Another main dish is Iskender, which is meat served over little pieces of pita bread, with a red teriyaki-sort-of-sauce. For fast food, one of the fun things to eat is Lamahcun - kind of like a thin sauceless pizza. Then there's doner (meat on a spinning stick, shaved off and put in sandwiches) and pide. Çorbalar (soups) are also common here. My favorites so far are mercimek (lentil) and Ezogelin çorbası. There's another, yogurt-based soup similar to Ezogelin that is really tasty.

And of course we can't forget fruit, because the fruit here is really fresh. Ankara is a little like Boston, but just six hours away by bus is Antalya, which is like Florida. Because Turkiye has a diversity of climates and a very strong agricultural sector (which you'll see about ten meters outside of any city), native produce is available year-round. In January the oranges were outrageous. Now we've been eating fresh strawberries for a month. Another common fruit this time of year is green plums, which are a little smaller than golf balls and taste like a sour apple.

At mealtime there's one other thing you should know. Remember to tell your friends afiyet olsun. You can say it before you start, or if you meet some friends eating in the dormitory kitchen. Waiters will say it even after you've finished your meal. So don't forget - afiyet olsun. It means "bon apetit".