Our Second Foray into the World of Traditional Turkish Food
In the last two weeks I had the pleasure of attending not one, but two Turkish Food Festivals. The first was a repeat performance held at the Bogazici Turkish Educational and Cultural Center in Garden Grove, California. Though it’s a bit of a drive for me, the food and hospitality are well worth it. Ebru Awad is an extraordinary project manager and logistician so this year’s event was even bigger and better than last year’s. We did our best to sample as many dishes as possible. In fact, I was delighted to find things I hadn’t tried before, though the ravioli-like manti was high on my list of dishes I was impelled to revisit. In fact, Heather liked it so much, she brought some home for later!
Atika once again commanded the kitchen where she teaches the women of the center to prepare dishes like manti, Su Borek, and stuffed dolma using time-honored, traditional techniques; by hand and from scratch using only the purest ingredients.
Though we came hungry, the sheer variety of dishes meant we could only taste a few, but those we did try were delicious, unique, and beautifully presented.
So Many Choices, But Only So Much Appetite
We started with a lamb kabob and Turkish bread. The deliciously spiced lamb is cooked on a sword-like skewer which allows the meat to grill evenly while remaining moist. Turkish bread is an interesting cross between pita and sourdough; heavier than pita, with a sourdough-like texture.
I insisted on revisiting the stuffed dolma which was not filled with the typical meat and rice mixture. Instead, it was filled with rice, pine nuts, and spices and had a light, citrus-y flavor. My mouth waters remembering how it melted on my tongue.
We followed the dolma with Su Borek, a light, buttery pastry filled with spinach and cheese. The Su Borek is so rich and filling, we had to bring some of it home as finishing it would have been the end of our culinary adventure. Though the dough itself is very light, the cheese and spinach are quite filling.
Sweets and Coffee
A Turkish meal would not be complete without sweets and Turkish coffee. We couldn’t very well walk away incomplete, now, could we? For dessert we chose both Baklawa and Sutlach. Turkish Baklawa differs from the Greek or Mediterranean version we’re more familiar with. The syrup is thinner and less sticky than the honey used in the Greek confection. Turkish Baklawa is known for using pistachios instead of other nuts, as pistachios grow well and are plentiful in Turkey.
For a delicious, cloud-like dessert, you have to try Sutlach. It’s a rice and milk pudding with a cake bottom, pineapple, walnuts and a very light whipped cream topping. It’s perfect for ending a deliciously filling meal, especially paired with a cup of the incomparable Turkish coffee.
Another Opportunity to Experience Turkish Culture
But my adventure didn’t end here. Two weeks later, at Ebru’s suggestion I attended another Turkish food festival at a newly opened community center in Northridge, California. I spent a couple of hours wandering through an upper class neighborhood before attending the new Festival. Evidence of recent remodels and structural facelifts shared space with sidewalks distended by tree roots and the major earthquake which, 24 years later still bears witness to the power and unpredictability of nature.
Food offerings were slightly different though vendors offered similar merchandise for sale. Face and henna painters occupied a small out-building between the area where food was served and a grassy, tree-shaded yard where tables were scattered about. It was an idyllic setting which almost made you forget you were in the middle of the bustling San Fernando Valley.
The chicken kabob was served with rice and salad. The chef had managed to find the perfect point where the chicken was completely cooked but still juicy. It was perfectly complimented by a jasmine rice and a light, vinegary salad dressing.
We finished our meal with pieces of baklawa and cups of hot Turkish tea. The baklawa was more dense than what I’m used to with a thick layer of crushed pistachios. It was truly love at first bite. The tea was strong but not at all bitter, requiring no sweetener (though I drink my coffee and most teas black so if you’re used to a sweeter beverage, you might want to add a bit of sugar).
Unexpected Visitors Treated with Kindness and Grace
Though this event seemed like it was aimed more towards the Turkish community we were made to feel welcome. I think they were a bit surprised to have attracted visitors not clad in traditional attire. But as with the center in Garden Grove, the hospitality was unparalleled. We had to leave before the Su Borek was ready as afternoon traffic was starting to accumulate. They are teaching the women of the center the traditional methods, and you can’t rush tradition. I, for one am grateful those traditions are being shared with future generations. Mass-production takes not only the flavor but the unique quality of food away.
Food Overcomes Our Differences
I’ve heard it said that food transcends all cultural and political differences. The Turkish community is doing an incredible job of proving the point.
Until next year, my heartfelt thanks to Ebru, Atika, and the members of the Turkish community for their hard work, hospitality and commitment to maintaining their traditions.
Photographs are courtesy of Heather Hewes and can only be used with permission.
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