Turkish cookbook aims to demystify one of the world's great cuisines

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By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 14, 2010; 11:23 AM

Turkish cuisine is said to be one of four global greats, along with French, Italian and Chinese. It's colorful and healthful: the original Mediterranean diet. Turks gave the world yogurt, an impressive array of kebabs, and side dishes with ingredients most urban Americans can get their hands on.

So why don't we know it better? In May, Post food critic Tom Sietsema identified a growing Turkish food trend among Washington restaurants, but Turkish street snacks, quick lunches and bulgur-laced meals at home? Not seeing them.

Nur Ilkin and Sheilah Kaufman have their theories about why that is so; in the meantime, the longtime friends are producing cookbooks that might put Turkish food on more American tables.

Their first, "A Taste of Turkish Cuisine" (Hippocrene), was published in 2002. Their follow-up effort, "The Turkish Cookbook: Regional Recipes and Stories" (Interlink, 2010; $35), identifies the breadth and culinary nuance across Turkey's seven regions: Marmara, the Aegean, the Black Sea, the Mediterranean and the three Anatolian regions in Turkey's Asian side: Central, Eastern and Southeastern. Its 220-plus recipes are enhanced with rich context and photos of those areas.

Marmara is home to Istanbul. Its lamb kebabs taste different from those of the other regions because the animals there are pasture-fed, Ilkin discovered. Chestnuts find their way into stews, rice or bulgur and are glazed with a sweet syrup. Cooks in the Aegean use more seafood than lamb, of course, and the mild climate puts a bounty of vegetables, figs and olive oil in just about every kitchen. The Black Sea region boasts anchovies that are so good they are used even in desserts. Hazelnuts grow there; about 70 percent of the world's hazelnuts come from Turkey.

Beyond the grouper and red mullet drawn from the Mediterranean region is the surprise of the country's only banana plantations. The area's oranges, pomegranates, strawberries, sour cherries and apricots are used to make the jams for which the city of Antalya is famous. Central Anatolians stuff vegetables and leaves. Eastern Anatolians keep stores of dried fruits and grains to survive long winters, and Southeastern Anatolians are known for their baklava made with local pistachios.

In the book, Kaufman refers to Turkish cuisine as a giant, colorful mosaic. In person, the Potomac resident does not need much prompting to list half a dozen new favorites: an addictive walnut-and-red-pepper spread; the best cabbage rolls she has ever tasted, stuffed with a mixture of chestnuts, currants, pine nuts, onions and herbs; and buttered sweet plums. Ilkin is partial to a Black Sea dessert of crispy phyllo with custard at the center, and an eggplant stew with lentils: "It's a very old traditional dish from Antakya in the southeast," she says. "The combination of lentils and eggplant, onion, garlic, cumin and pomegranate molasses is a new discovery for me."

Ilkin, 63, has plenty of research material to support a vegetarian Turkish cookbook, which is what she'd like to work on next with Kaufman.

Although Kaufman, 68, has 26 cookbooks to her credit, it's clear that these particular culinary traditions have captured her heart. She first went to Turkey as an adult, on cruises with her mother. It sparked her interest in the history of the Jews in Turkey and in Sephardic cookery. During return trips, she found herself at "humongous" meals where she fell in love with the flatbread called bazlama. Last year, she spent three weeks eating her way across the country, sampling much of what her co-author had already begun to teach her.

She met Ilkin a dozen years ago. The Gaziantep native and wife of the Turkish ambassador to the United States served more than two dozen Turkish dishes at a luncheon; Kaufman knew she had met a kindred kitchen spirit. Ilkin learned family recipes from her grandmother, although she did not really cook until after she was married.

"Sheilah and I both learn so much from each other's experiences and enjoy each other's company," Ilkin says via e-mail while on vacation in Bodrum, a resort town on the Aegean Sea.

For their first collaboration, Kaufman would go to the ambassador's residence, painstakingly notate the dishes Ilkin and her staff put together and then go home and type out ingredients and directions so she could test the dishes herself. "They didn't measure things, and the directions lacked cooking times and temperatures. That made it difficult," she says. During the six-month process, Ilkin took Kaufman bargain shopping for quinces and chestnuts at Chinese markets, where those ingredients cost far less than at organic grocery chain stores.

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