`Classical Turkish Cooking' by Ayla Algar is a great exemplar of what a cookbook describing an important national cuisine should be, if there are few or no other books on the subject in English. At the outset, it is important to point out that the author makes an excellent case for the historical fact that Turkish cuisine, based on a long history of cuisine from the Ottoman empire, which inherited much from the equally important Persian / Iranian cuisine, is a truly interesting food culture, distinctive in enough different ways from the general Eastern Mediterranean milieu to make it worthy of study and emulation.
The Turkish / Ottoman cuisine is in every way a confirmation of the thesis stated most firmly by Paula Wolfert in `Cous Cous and Other Good Food from Morocco' that one of the four requirements for the creation of an important, interesting cuisine is the presence of a sizable nobility and wealthy court in which chefs are well paid to create interesting dishes for the court and for entertaining diplomats to the court. Conspicuous consumption was not invented in the United States. Ms. Algar does us a great service by presenting a very nice thumbnail sketch of the history of the Turkish people who migrated to Asia Minor from central Asia and, on the way, picked up lots of culinary influences from the Iranians in the centuries following the rise of Islam throughout central Asia and the Middle East. Happily, unlike several other historical sketches I have seen recently in books on purportedly important cuisines, Ms. Algar ties her story in with actual culinary information, including linguistic and historical evidence for the origins of many different culinary trends in Turkey. I will not pretend to recount all of this. It is important, however, for your appreciation of this book to realize that this cuisine, and the material in this book reflects food influenced by the full range of the Ottoman empire which, at its peak, stretched from the gates of Vienna to the bottom of the Basra on the Persian Gulf to the outskirts of Fez in Morocco.
The book is subtitled `Traditional Turkish Food for the American Kitchen', however, I do not see a lot of effort devoted to making the recipes friendly to amateur American cooks. In many ways, this may be a good thing in that the author does not loose the `traditional Turkish' of the recipes in deference to what may be easy for the average American household. If it did, it would be much less valuable in our collection of books about traditional cuisines.
Turkish cuisine shares much with the other cuisines of the Eastern Mediterranean. There is an especially strong family resemblance between Greek and Turkish recipes, and it is in no way clear in which direction the influence was strongest. While the Greek cuisine is older, it was also heavily influenced by Persian and Phoenician sources, so it is easy to believe that the central role of lamb, yoghurt, sesame, citrus, flatbreads, and very thin pastries all came from some common central Asian source. What is surprising is that while the Christian Greek culture not only allows, but actually encourages a wine culture and the Islamic Turkish culture disallowed wine, both cultures shared a devotion to `meze'. In fact, Ms. Algar traces the origins of meze to the pre-Islamic wine culture of Persia, where the original meze were sweets to counteract the bitter taste of young wine.
While Turkish meze are interesting, the real star of the Turkish cuisine is Borek, a dish which is a cross between filo dough and a baked pasta dish such as lasagna. Ms. Algar gives not just one recipe for Borek, but at least a half dozen from different areas of Turkey. For some of the recipes, Ms. Algar allows the use of either filo dough or frozen puff pastry, but for her two most important recipes for Anatolian and Circassian Borek, Ms. Algar gives us the straight scoop on how to make the real deal, very thin Borek dough similar to fresh egg noodles of northern Italy, but so thin that even a pasta machine set on it's smallest opening will not give you a fine enough dough. And yet, at 1 millimeter thick, it is not yet as thin as filo. So, while it belongs to the same family as Greek pilo and Hungarian strudel, it is not the same. Like fresh pasta in general, it is used to create many different dishes which are baked, fried, or sauteed, depending on filling and shape.
It is no surprise to the reasonably well informed foodie that coffee was a very important part of Turkish culture and cuisine and that coffee culture spread throughout Europe from its center in Istanbul. It is just slightly more surprising that the Turks invented the notion of the café. I take this with a small grain of salt, as I have read of fast food / wine bars in the ruins of Pompeii. What the Turks invented, I suspect, is the shop specializing in the sale of coffee, thereby originating the word `café'. Thus the idea of the casual food store goes back at least to Imperial Rome. It probably goes back to food stands serving the farm workers spending their flood induced vacations working on the pyramids.
Probably the biggest surprise was the fact that flavored sherberts, sorbets, and ices were such a common item in Ottoman courts. We are always so inclined to attribute these to the Italians, yet the Turks seem to have gotten this idea quite on their own, with the resources it took to store ice from the winter or from local mountaintops for a quick summer refreshment.
This is an excellent book and a welcome addition to the collection of anyone who loves to read about world food. It is also a superb source of dishes with healthy ingredients such as nuts, yoghurt, sesame, fruits, and light breads.