In a journey that covered more than 15,000 miles traversing the backroads and byways of Turkey, Robyn Eckhardt and David Hagerman, author and photographer of the award-winning Eating Asia blog, went anywhere and everywhere food was being sold or made. In Hatay, the husband and wife team breakfasted on spicy cheese drenched in freshly pressed olive oil, fresh hot chiles, arugula and mint spritzed with lemon juice, preserves of bitter orange peel and green olive salad drizzled with pomegranate molasses.
Invited to dine in a home in Silvas, they ate a hearty lamb stew served with pickled beet stems and crispy flatbreads. Along the way they visited farmers’ markets, watched cheesemakers in Kars, saw how pestil (fruit leather) and pekmex (fruit molasses) were made in Diyarbakir, picked pomegranates in orchards centuries old and stopped in kitchens on land and in boats. They were there when villagers brought dishes from home to cook in the community ovens where bread was also baked. Throughout their travels, Eckhardt collected recipes and Hagerman snapped photos, some 100,000 in all.
Compiling their photos and recipes, the couple created "Istanbul and Beyond: Exploring the Diverse Cuisines of Turkey" (Rux Martin/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2017; $35), a lovely cookbook that beckons into parts of Turkey many of us didn’t know existed.
"When we started out the idea was to get beyond this idea that Turkish food is baklava, doner, kebab, Turkish delight, olive oil-based meze, and the conception of Turkey residents as huge meat, particularly lamb eaters and sugar-crazy sweets consumers," says Eckhardt who will be in Chicago doing cooking demonstrations and talking about her book on October 28 & 29.
The couple, who at the time were making their home Penang, Malaysia, visited parts of
Turkey often are overlooked by foreign visitors.
"Foreigners travelling to Turkey tend to focus on Istanbul, the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts, Cappadocia and to a growing degree, Gaziantep--the home of baklava," says Eckhardt. "The briefest of travels along the Black Sea, into mostly Kurdish parts of Turkey — Diyarbakir and Van provinces for instance and to the far northeast — told us that these areas are goldmines of surprising and delicious dishes. We wanted to shine a spotlight on parts of culinary Turkey that previous works had ignored or insufficiently investigated."
Turkey has a tradition of hospitality, but Eckhardt says she was truly blown away the first time a villager invited them to stay for dinner less than half an hour after first meeting. That became the norm during their travels — to be invited in for tea, for a meal, to have kitchens and food workshops opened to them.
When deciding which recipes to use (she whittled the number down to about 130), Eckhardt says she made decisions based upon ease of execution and availability of ingredients. Many of the recipes in the book don't require special ingredients.
Did she have a standout among all her excellent adventures I asked Eckhardt.
Indeed, she did. It was when they finally made it to Hakkari, a mostly Kurdish province bordering Iran and Iraq.
"We'd wanted to visit for years, but it hadn't felt safe to drive there," she says. “In the spring of 2015, at the height of the peace process between the Turkish government and the PKK, things were very calm, so we drove from neighboring Van province. We were bowled over by the physical beauty of Hakkari — soaring jagged snow-covered peaks and brilliant emerald valleys — and the enthusiastic reception we received everywhere we went. In five short days, we were invited to a wedding, ate in several homes, watched women making a special filled bread in in-the-ground tandir ovens, hung out in bread bakeries, met shepherds walking sheep to high pastures, met cheesemakers, went foraging for the region's renowned ottar (wild vegetables and herbs). That visit was an incredible experience. I'd love to return.”
Robyn Eckhardt recommends
For readers who aren't familiar with some of the ingredients or dishes in Istanbul and Beyond, Robyn recommends the following "beginner" recipes for them to try first.
Fish lovers should try the weeknight-friendly Fish Baked in Tomato Sauce with Green Chiles, which has a nice kick from apple cider. (Black Sea).
For meat lovers, the Easy Baked Pan Kebab from Hatay Province) and/or Slow-Cooked Beef & Vegetables (North east); the latter is one of the most hands-off dishes you'll ever make.
A few recipes that testers were surprised by and loved are the Mushrooms with Yogurt Cream and Dill from the Black Sea; Meatballs with Pumpkin and Spice Butter (Van/Hakkari); and the Corn Salad with Eggplant & Dill (Black Sea).
The Creamy Fig Pudding (North Central Anatolia) is another deceptively easy dish and the figs lend a fabulous butterscotchy richness to the milky pudding.
The Sun-Dried Tomato and Pomegranate Salad and/or the Green Olive Salad (both from Hatay) are great vehicles by which to explore the versatility of pomegranate molasses.
With the holidays coming, there is still time to put up a quart or two of Sour Cherry Liqueur (use frozen sour or regular cherries), which tastes really festive.
Syriac Spice Bread, a yeasted bread from Diyarbakir province, is not at all difficult to make and features all of those wonderful warm-spice flavors that we associate with the holiday season.
The following recipes are excerpted from ISTANBUL AND BEYOND © 2017 by Robyn Eckhardt and were recommended by her for those first beginning to cook Turkish foods.
Fish Baked in Tomato Sauce with Green Chiles
Makes 2 generous servings.
3 medium large ripe, juicy tomatoes, chopped (about 21⁄2 cups), or one 28-ounce can diced tomatoes, with juice, broken up with your fingers
1 small onion, finely chopped (about 1⁄3 cup)
1 medium green, red, or yellow bell pepper, cored, seeded, and finely chopped (about 2⁄3 cup)
1 or 2 green jalapeños or 1 Anaheim chile, halved lengthwise, seeded if desired, and sliced as thin as possible
3⁄4 teaspoon fine sea salt Freshly ground black pepper
3⁄4 cup water
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
1 pound salmon, mackerel, or other fillets or steaks
1 tablespoon olive oil or unsalted butter (optional)
1 medium tomato, very thinly sliced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat leaf parsley (optional)
Directions: Combine the tomatoes, onion, bell pepper, chiles, salt, and a few grinds of black pepper in a 10-inch oven proof skillet, add the water, and place over high heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a steady simmer and stir in the vinegar. Cook, uncovered, until the mixture is reduced to a semi-thick sauce, about 20 minutes if using canned tomatoes, 25 to 30 minutes if using fresh tomatoes.
Place a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 375°F.
When the sauce is done, lay the fish fillets or steaks on top of it. Divide the oil or butter, if using, between the fillets or steaks. Arrange the tomato slices over the fish.
Bake the fish for 10 minutes per inch of thickness for medium to well done, or to your preferred doneness. Sprinkle the parsley, if using, over the fish and serve immediately.
Easy Pan Baked Beef Kebab
For the sauce:
1¼ cups hot water
2 tablespoons tomato paste
For the kebab:
1½ pounds ground beef
¾ packed cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 small onion, finely chopped (about ½ cup)
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon Turkish or other crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
1¾ teaspoons fine sea salt
1¼ teaspoons ground cumin
4 or 5 small ripe but firm tomatoes, cut into quarters
4 Anaheim or other long mild or hot green chiles, such as poblanos, left whole if thin, stemmed, seeded, and cut lengthwise in half if thick
Directions: Place a rack in the upper third of the oven and heat the oven to 400°F.
Stir together the hot water and tomato paste in a medium bowl until the paste is dissolved. Set aside.
Spread the ground beef in a rough rectangle on a cutting board. Scatter over the parsley, onion, and garlic and sprinkle over the red pepper flakes, salt, and cumin. Using a large chef ’s knife, rocking the knife as you go, mince across the rectangle left to right and then mince again top to bottom. Slide the knife beneath one side of the rectangle and fold it over toward the middle.
Repeat from the opposite side of the rectangle. Repeat the mincing and folding at least two more times.
Lightly oil an 8 or 9-inch cake pan or pie plate and a baking sheet or baking pan that is at least 1 inch wider than the cake (or pie) pan. Use your knife to scrape the meat mixture into the cake pan. Gently
pat it over the bottom of the pan, making it as even as you can. Invert the pan onto the baking sheet.
The meat patty should fall right out; if it doesn’t, hit the bottom of the pan to loosen it. Arrange the tomato wedges and chiles around the meat.
Pour the sauce over the meat and vegetables and bake the beef to the desired doneness, about 30 minutes for well done. Serve hot.