In a previous blog, Journey to the Center of the Onion, I wrote about the trip I took to Eastern Turkey with my son, Emre. I told about the places we had visited and the incredible historical and archaeological sites we had seen. And although I mentioned some of the impressions these places made on me, I thought I would save my experiences with the people, food, and culture of the region until I could focus more on each of these aspects alone.
Anyone who has ever visited Turkey is aware of the country’s rich cuisine. From its never ending “Turkish breakfast” to the sumptuous mezes (hors d’oeuvres) and late evening dinners, not to mention its panoply of delicious pastries and desserts, one is almost overwhelmed by the quality and variety of food choices in this amazing country.
In Van, a mostly Kurdish populated city whose roots stretch back 5000 years, even the celebrated Turkish breakfast has been outdone by what is, perhaps unoriginally, called the Van Breakfast. Whereas a “regular” Turkish breakfast will include fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, and green peppers, a serving of eggs prepared to one’s preference, a couple of types of local cheeses and olives, and a choice of sliced salami or ‘sucuk’ (fried spicey sausage), all accompanied by a never ending basket of fresh bread with jams and honey and washed down by copious tulip glasses of çay (tea), a Van Breakfast takes this basic composition to a whole new level. Add more sauces and dips, (my favorite being ‘tahin pekmez’, a mixture of tahini and grape molasses), cheese or potato filled pastries (börek), fresh honey in the comb, stewed plums in their own nectar, and a greater variety of local cheeses and breads until the whole table is filled with 20 different serving dishes and barely enough room for your plate, and you get an idea of what I’m talking about.
Pide, a kind of Turkish pizza, is another Turkish specialty which is done differently in the city of Trabzon on the Black Sea coast. While Istanbul’s pide is generally sold flat and oblong shaped, a classic Trabzon pide more closely resembles an Italian panzerotti, with the cheese and a choice of meats enclosed within a crisp thin shell of pastry. It is delicious and filling and makes for a great lunch. We also enjoyed a lunch of Turkish mantı, small meat-filled and boiled dumplings covered in creamy garlic yoghurt and topped with a ladle of a special butter and tomato paste sauce, lightly dusted with parsley, red pepper, oregano or mint flakes to your preference. It wasn’t so much that the mantı in Trabzon was better than any I’d ever eaten in Istanbul (my wife’s is delicious), but the fact that we ate it while gazing over that city in the garden of a traditional Trabzon home, which generally includes a stone foundation reaching up to an overhanging 2nd floor supported by huge wooden struts. A whole neighborhood of some of the last remaining of these homes is found on a difficult to reach hilltop (I swear that the people of Trabzon must be some of the fittest in the world for all the climbing they do in their hilly seaside city). There are several highly recommended restaurants there, offering stunning vistas of the Black Sea and the western part of the city.
My main observation regarding dinners in Eastern Turkey is that there didn’t seem to be any vegetable options on the menus of the restaurants we visited. Not vegetarian meals, mind you, but simple vegetables: fresh green beans or carrots or broccoli, for instance. I recall a vegetarian friend of mine complaining about this fact after she’d traveled to the east of Turkey back in the mid-nineties, and now I wonder how she didn’t starve to death. In restaurants, at least, the meals usually came with a side of salad and broiled tomatoes or green and red peppers but that’s about it for vegetables. That being said, the meat is fresh from farm to table and of high quality and we tried to sample some of the regional favorites that are famous throughout Turkey. For instance, fried sheep’s liver and Urfa kebab in Şanlıurfa, or large meat and onion filled, (fried or boiled) dumplings (ikbabet) and a molded mound of bulgur rice filled with lamb’s meat and liver and steamed pine nuts (kaburga dolması) in Mardin, to name just a few.
As far as alcohol was concerned, we found it interesting that it was easier to get a drink in Trabzon and the more eastern, Kurdish populated cities of Van and Diyarbakır, or the multicultural Mardin, than it was in the largely ethnically Turkish cities of Şanlıurfa and Adiyaman. Though Van is no Istanbul, it has plenty of Tekel shops that sell beer and liquor, and we were able to find a few bars to enjoy some beer and cocktails. The main street of old Mardin, meanwhile, is lined with wine shops where we were able to stop and sample the delicious vintages. One favourite was a wine liqueur suffused with honey that we bought and finally consumed in a park beneath the walls of Şanliurfa castle, high above the old part of the city. As for Şanlıurfa itself, although we could get drinks in our hotel’s restaurant, we spent a harrowing 40 minutes weaving through a maze of barely lit back streets, trying to find a non-existent Tekel shop that had been shuttered months earlier. We had a similar experience in Adiyaman.
If you’re interested in experiencing some of the culinary delights of Turkey, you basically can’t go wrong wherever you are in the country. However, Eastern Turkey has it’s own regional favorite meals and cheeses that are guaranteed fresh from farm to table. Just remember that owing to the conservative nature of some of the eastern cities, you might want to bring along a bottle of your favorite libation if you don’t want to be overcharged for it in your hotel’s restaurant.