I just got back from an unbelievable trip to one of the most beautiful and geographically diverse countries on earth: Turkey. A country that spans both Europe and Asia, Turkey is incredibly rich in its culture and history, and is a culinary paradise for any foodie looking to taste flavors of the Mediterranean, mixed with Middle Eastern dishes that have been a staple for hundreds (even thousands) of years. Each region of the country is unique in its landscape, but the flavors and ingredients that distinctly define Turkish cuisine stay relatively consistent everywhere you go.
The Turks are amazing people, warm and inviting, they are also incredibly proud of their heritage and the history of their amazing country. To capture the history of Turkey in a few sentences really doesn’t do it justice. The jaw-dropping architecture of 1,500 year-old mosques, the incredible site of ancient Roman aqueducts, the eery call to prayer at 5 a.m., and the overabundance of smells and colors at the Spice Bazaar can only truly be appreciated by experiencing it for yourself (though I’ll do my best to portray it with pictures).
My family and I had a full 9 days in Turkey, and only got a glimpse of the breathtaking country, but we tried to take in as much as possible in such a short period of time. We spent three days in Istanbul, most of which was spent celebrating our beautiful friend Zeynep’s wedding. Then it was on to Capadoccia, an eery, Mars-like region in the middle of the country, known for it’s unusual landscape, hot-air balloon rides and ancient underground cities. Three days later, we ended the trip in true style, lounging in a villa, overlooking the Mediterranean on the Turquoise Coast. It was an unbelievable trip, and such a pleasure experiencing the Turkish culture, especially getting to know Turkish cooking.
The Turks take great pride in their food, using fresh, local ingredients, pungent spices and recipes that have been in the family for hundreds of years. One night, we were dining at a fabulous restaurant in Cappadocia, and were so amazed at how fresh and delicious the produce was. Surely those red, flavorful tomatoes couldn’t come locally from the dry, barren town that we were staying in. Sure enough, the waiter explained that all the produce, including the tomatoes, cucumbers, figs, apricots, even the wine, was grown locally in the Rose Valley just down the road from our hotel. There’s no concept of farm-to-table restaurant in Turkey, because it’s just assumed the ingredients are sourced locally and coming to you fresh from the vine. What a difference it makes! There’s a reason why all these farm-to-table restaurants are all the rage here in the US.
One of my favorite things about Turkish cuisine is the traditional Turkish breakfast. Each day, we fueled up for the jam-packed days of sightseeing with a delicious and healthy breakfast. Turkish breakfasts always consist of some combination of vine-ripened tomatoes, sweet Persian cucumbers, “white cheese”, which is very similar to feta, olives, dried fruits, nuts, yogurt and freshly baked bread. It’s pretty much heaven. Throw in some chocolate and wine and I could live off this for the rest of my life. (Alright I may need some of these every once in a while thrown in too).
To reminisce about my time in Turkey, and to share my stories, I decided to throw a Turkish themed brunch with some friends. It is one of the easiest brunch to prepare because almost nothing is cooked, just freshly chopped vegetables and cheese. I did want to make it as authentic as possible and decided to bake my own Simit, a Turkish bread that is everywhere in Turkey. It was a huge hit, and made me feel like I was back on the streets in Istanbul, taking it all in.
Traditional Turkish SimmitAdapted from Turkey: More than 100 Recipes, with Tales from the Road Makes 10 Note: Simit is a quintessential staple in Turkish cuisine. The bread is a chewy, sesame-crusted, braided ring that is sort of a mix between a pretzel and a bagel. There are food stands all over Istanbul, with Simit artfully stacked in beautiful little carts, ready to go for a snack or to be served for breakfast. It’s a very simple dough to make, only takes one rise, and is very easy to shape them (though looks impressive to friends!). The dough is dipped in Pekmez, a fruit molasses that can be found in most Middle Eastern or Turkish grocery stores, and it gives the dough a little sweetness that makes the flavors so distinctly Turkish. If you’re unable to find Pekmez, you can brush the dough with a little milk mixed with warm honey to keep that mild sweetness.
- 1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
- 1 pinch of sugar
- 3 teaspoons active dry yeast, like Fleischmann’s
- 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 3/4 cup pekmez (see note)
- 1 1/2 cups seasame seeds
Add the sugar to 1/4 cup lukewarm water in a small bowl, then stir in the yeast. Allow the mixture to sit for about 8 minutes, or until foamy, and then add an additional 1 1/4 cups water.
Whisk together the flour and salt in a large bowl. Add the yeast mixture and stir to form a course dough. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead the dough for 6-7 minutes, or until the dough is very elastic and smooth. Keep dusting your surface and hands with flour as you knead to avoid sticking. Roll the dough into a ball and place in a bowl brushed with olive oil (to avoid sticking). Cover the dough with oiled plastic wrap, and set aside in a warm, draft-free place for approximately one hour, or until the dough has doubled in size.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F and line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Punch the dough down to deflate it, and turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface. Divide the dough into 10 equal pieces. Combine the Pekmez with 1/3 cup water in a large bowl or pie plate. In another large plate, pour in the sesame seeds. Working with one piece at a time, roll the dough out to a 22 inch rope. Fold the dough in half so that both ends align, and then lift up from the counter, and twist the dough so that it is a two-stranded braid. Connect the ends to form a ring, pressing firmly to seal. Repeat to make 10 braided rings. If you’re more of a visual person with these kinds of things (or just want to see how the pros do it) check out this video.
Dip each ring into the Pekmez mixture so it is covered completely. Drain well, then dip in the sesame seeds and set on the baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining rings. Let the rings stand for about 20 minutes at room temperature, to puff slightly. Bake in the oven for 15-18 minutes, until deep golden and cooked through. Transfer to a dish towel or wire rack to cool.
The bread is best eaten the day of, but can be frozen for up to a month. Serve with a traditional Turkish breakfast of sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, feta cheese, dried fruit, nuts and jam.