Bridging the Cultural Gap in the Best Possible Way

An unassuming beige building on a main thoroughfare in Orange County is home to the Bogazici Turkish Educational and Cultural Center. Named for the famous Bosphorus Bridge which connects Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus Strait, the center seeks to bridge the gap between Turkish and American culture for approximately 250 people. Established in 2013, the center serves many purposes for this small community of immigrants who, while embracing their life as Americans, don’t wish to lose sight of the rich heritage from which they came.

One of the richest parts of that heritage is the cuisine and the manner in which the food is prepared. Atika, who has been in the U.S. for 11 years and recently became a citizen is dedicated to passing on the traditional ways. She teaches the women and their daughters how to make traditional foods like phyllo dough and a ravioli-like dish called manti completely by hand. Not only the food itself but the methods of preparation are an integral part of the Turkish culture.

On a rainy weekend in April, the Bogazici Center opened its doors and its arms to the public. Though the Turkish Food Festival was intended as a fund-raiser for their educational activities, visitors to the event received far more than they gave. The Turkish people are an extraordinary example of kindness and generosity despite being treated, themselves with distrust and often outright hostility.

Without question or hesitation, they greet everyone like a beloved friend or family member with hugs and a sweetness seldom found in a society addicted to fast cars and faster internet connections. Ebru Awad who organized the event bustled in from her day job and was the first to make guests feel welcome. And guests we were, rather than patrons of their event. Before turning her attention to the Bogazici Center, Ebru worked with the North American Islamic Center organizing events on a much larger scale. She told us this event had originally been a cook off, but after a 1 year hiatus, they brought it back as a food festival instead, using Facebook to spread the word to a wider audience.

Atika and Ebru were joined by Center President, Ahmet Onerbay and Imam (Head Teacher and Administrator), Omar Faruk to keep the food coming and make everyone feel welcome. They were assisted by Azmi, a volunteer, Ziya, manager of the LA Center and Busra, a young female preacher from Germany who was assigned to the center to teach the women. Omar presided over the gyro spit himself.

Such Culinary Delights

As this was, indeed, a food festival, this story would be incomplete without sharing some of the delicious, hand-made delicacies to which we were treated. They were made even more delightful by the accompanying stories.

As press, we were presented with such a huge variety of food, we could barely taste it all! They started our adventure with glasses of Turkish Tea, a delicately floral black tea which needed no sweetening.

Carni Yorik is stuffed eggplant, but the name translates roughly to “open up your belly”. Though our conversation with Ahmet kept me from tasting the Carni Yorik, I did sample the Kofta with vegetables which is a common Mediterranean dish. It can be prepared with a variety of meats and ingredients but the Turkish version is traditionally made with lamb, though it can also be made with beef. Like most Turkish food, it was lightly spiced, allowing the flavor of the meat and vegetables to stand out.

Commonly sold on the streets of Turkey and a staple in the diet of the poorer citizens is a dish called Kuru pilaf. It is a mix of white kidney beans and rice which is high in protein and very filling. The version we tasted had chunks of flavorful beef. Ebru shared that when people have a little more money, they’ll add beef or other meat to the dish.

The spring rolls were quite different from those found in Chinese cuisine. These were made from cigar dough and filled with cheese, but can be filled with meat and vegetables as well. They brought to mind a milder, cheesier version of a taquito, but with a lighter shell.

Our first exposure to the hand-made phyllo dough came in a dish called Borek. Layers of phyllo dough alternated with layers of spinach and cheese for a buttery, flaky, mouth-watering treat. Though bakeries use a machine to roll their phyllo dough to the almost paper thin consistency required, nothing compares to dough over which someone has put in the time and effort to prepare as it was before there were electric mixers and mechanical rollers.

The Turkish version of Baklava was a bit of a surprise. Unlike the traditional Greek Baklava which is rich and sticky with honey, it was made with syrup which made for a lighter, less messy, but still delicious treat.

Manti, a small dumpling served with a spiced yogurt and tomato sauce was another of the dishes made completely by hand by Atika and her crew. Similar to ravioli but much smaller, and with a lighter dough, they quite literally melted in your mouth. Manti is one of the dishes the Center keeps on hand to provide traditional foods to their community.

A discussion of food would be incomplete without a short rave about their dolma. Stuffed grape leaves come in many varieties, but these were extraordinary. From the distinctive flavor of the leaves themselves to the light, fluffy rice inside and the subtle sweet flavor, I unashamedly admit I made a pig of myself, but refrained from asking for more. Something to look forward to next year!

New Friends Made

Last, but certainly not least was our introduction to Turkish coffee. Ebru pronounced Atika an expert in the preparation, stating that the amount of bubbles on the surface was the mark of proficiency. What lay beneath those bubbles was a complete surprise. The slightly sweet, chocolaty flavor leaves me no choice but to declare it heaven in a cup. If they didn’t already have me with the dolma, the coffee convinced me to return for next year’s festival. To quote Selda Tok: “A cup of coffee starts the friendship of 40 years”. Clearly, this old Turkish saying was referring specifically to Turkish coffee.

For more information and additional pictures from the event, check out their Facebook page. I know I’ll be watching for news of next year’s event.

 

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