Eating is taken very seriously in Turkey. It is inconceivable for the household members to eat alone, raid the refrigerator, or eat on the "go", while others are at home. It is custom to have three "sit-down meals" a day. Breakfast or "kahvaltì" (literally, "foundation for coffee"), typically consists of bread, feta cheese, black olives and tea. Many work places have lunch served as a contractual fringe benefit. Dinner starts when all the family members get together and share the events of the day at the table. The menu consists of three or more types of dishes that are eaten sequentially, accompanied by salad. In summer, dinner is served at about eight. Close relatives, best friends or neighbours may join meals on a "walk-in" basis. Others are invited ahead of time if elaborate preparations are expected. The menu depends on whether alcoholic drinks will be served or not. In the latter case, the guests will find the meze spread ready on the table, frequently set up either in the garden or on the balcony. The main course is served several hours later. Otherwise, the dinner starts with a soup, followed by the meat and vegetable main course, accompanied by the salad. Then the olive-oil dishes such as the dolmas are served, followed by dessert and fruit. While the table is cleared, the guests retire to the living room to have a tea and turkish coffee.

Women get together for afternoon tea at regular intervals (referred to as the "7-17 days") with their school-friends and neighbours. These are very elaborate occasions with at least a dozen types of cakes, pastries, finger foods and böreks prepared by the host. The main social purpose of these gatherings is to share information and experiences about all aspects of life, both public and private. Naturally, one very important function is the propagation of recipes. Diligent exchanges occur while women consult each other on their innovations and solutions to culinary challenges.

By now it should be clear that the concept of having a "pot-luck" at someone's house is entirely foreign to the Turks. The responsibility of supplying all the food belongs solely to the host, who expects to be treated in the same way in return. There are two occasions where the notion of "host" does not apply. One such situation is when neighbours collaborate in making large quantities of food for the winter such as "tarhana" - dried yogurt/tomato soup or noodles. Another is when families get together to go on a day's excursion to the country-side. Arrangements are made ahead of time as to who will make the köfte, dolma, salads, pilafs and who will supply the meat, the beverages and the fruits. The "mangal" - the copper charcoal burner, kilims, hammocks, pillows, musical instruments such as saz, ud, or violin, and samovars are loaded up for a day trip.

A "picnic" would be a pale comparison to these occasions, often referred to as "stealing a day from fate". Kücüksu, Kalamis, and Heybeli in old Istanbul used to be typical locations for such outings, as many songs tell us. Other memorable locations include the Meram vineyards in Konya, Hazer Lake in Elazig, and Bozcaada off the shores of Canakkale. Commemorating two Saints : Hizir and Ilyas (representing immortality and abundance), the May 5 Spring Festival (Hidirellez) would mark the beginning of the pleasure-season (safa), with romantic affairs, lots of poetry, songs and, naturally, good food.

A similar "safa" used to be the weekly trip to the Turkish Bath. Food, prepared the day before, would be packed on horse drawn carriages along with fresh clothing and scented soaps. After spending the morning at the marble wash-basins and the steam hall, people would retire to the wooden settees to rest, eat and dry off before returning home.

These days, such leisurely affairs are all but gone, spoiled by modern life. Yet, families still attempt to steal at least one day from fate every year, even though fate often triumphs. Packing food for trips is so traditional that even now, it is common for mothers to pack some köfte, dolma and börek to go on an airplane, especially on long trips much to the bemusement of other passengers and the irritation of flight attendants. But seriously, given the quality of airline food, who can blame them?

Weddings, circumcision ceremonies, and holidays are celebrated with feasts. At a wedding feast in Konya, a seven course meal is served to the guests. The "sitdown meal" starts with a soup, followed by pilaf and roast meat, meat dolma, and saffron rice-a traditional wedding dessert. Börek is served before the second dessert, which is typically the semolina helva. The meal ends with okra cooked with tomatoes, onions, and butter with lots of lemon juice. This wedding feast is typical of Anatolia, with slight regional variations. The morning after the wedding, the groom's family sends trays of baklava to the bride's family.

During the holidays, people are expected to pay short visits to each and every friend within the city, visits which are immediately reciprocated. Three or four days are spent going from house to house, so enough food needs to be prepared and put aside to last the duration of the visits. During the holidays, kitchens and pantries burst at the seams with böreks, rice dolmas, puddings and desserts that can be put on the table without much preparation.

Deaths are also occasions for cooking and sharing food. In this case, neighbours prepare and send dishes to the bereaved household for three days after the deaths. The only dish prepared by the household of the deceased is the helva which is sent to the neighbours, who will remember and pray for the departed. In some areas, it is a custom for a good friend of the deceased to begin preparing the helva, while recounting fond memories and events. Then the spoon would be passed to the next person who would take up stirring of the helva and continiue reminiscing. Usually the helva will be done by the time everyone in the room has had a chance to speak and stir the helva. This wonderful simple ceremony, by making people left behind talk about happier times, lightens up their grief momentarily and strengthens the bond between them.

Food and Spirituality

Food and dietary practices have always played an important part in all religions. Among them, Islam is perhaps known to impose the most elaborate and strict rules in this respect. In practice, these rules have been reinterpretated in regional adaptations, particularly in Turkey, where it is harder to find strict Muslims. In Anatolia where a variety of Sufi orders flourished, food gained a spiritual dimension above dry religious requirements, as can be seen in their poetry, music, and practices.

Paradoxically, the month of Ramadan, when all Muslims are expected to fast from dawn to dusk, is also a month of feasting and charitable feeding of all those who are in need. Fasting is to purify the body and the soul and at the same time, to develop a reverence for all blessings bestowed by nature and cooked by a skillful chef. The days are spent preparing food for the breaking of fast at sunset. It is customary to break the fast by eating a bite of "heavenly" food such as olives or dates and nibbling lightly on a variety of cheeses, slices of sausage, jams and pide. This would be followed by the evening prayer and then the main meal. In the old days, the rest of the night would be occupied by games and conversations, or going into town to attend the various musicals and theaters, until it was time to eat again just before firing of the cannon or beating of the drums marking the begining of the next day's fasting. People would rest until noon, when shops and work places opened and food preparation began...

The other major religious holiday is the "Sacrifice Holiday", commemorating Abraham's readiness to sacrifice his son Ishmael in the name of God. But God sent him a ram instead, sparing his son's life. The act of sacrificing an animal, in Turkey most likely a sheep, represents repentance and a solemn promise to do good on earth. The meat is sent to neighbours and to the needy. The sheep is revered as the creature of God that gives its life for a higher purpose. The henna colouring on the sheep is a symbolic way of showing this respect and so are the strict instructions for slaughtering. In fact, it is believed that one of these rams will take the believer across the "hair-thin and razor-sharp bridge" to heaven on Judgement Day.

Several other occasions commemorating Prophets also involve food. The six holy nights marking events in Prophet Mohammed's life are celebrated by baking special pastries, breads and lokma. The month of "Muharrem" occured when the flood waters had receded, and Noah and his family were able to land. It is believed that then they cooked a meal using whatever had remained in their supplies. This event is celebrated by cooking the same dish - "asure" or Noah's pudding, made of wheat berries, dried legumes, rice , raisins, currants, dried figs, dates and nuts. You can also taste this most nourishing pudding at certain muhallebi shops any time.

The feast of the Prophet Zaccharia is prepared upon being granted one's wish. This feast consists a spread of forty-one different types of dried fruits and nuts served to guests. Prayers are read and everyone tastes all forty-one foods. A guest can then burn a candle and make a wish. If the wish comes true, one is obligated to prepare a similar " Zaccharia Table" for others.

Beyond these practices, examples of a spiritual tradition imbued with food metaphors are found in Sufism generally, and in the poetry of Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi in particular, as well in the verses of classical Turkish poetry and music. In fact, to understand the full meaning of this spiritual tradition would be impossible without deciphering the references to food and wine, cooking, eating, and intoxication. Mevlana, who lived in Konya in the 13th century A.D., represents an approach to Sufism that follows the Way of Love to Divine Reality, rather than Knowledge, or gnosis. As mentioned earlier, the food-related guilds and the Janissaries also followed the Sufi Order. A clash of philosophies on food is told in a story about Empress Eugenie's French chef, who was sent to the Sultan's kitchen to learn how to cook an eggplant dish. He soon begged to be excused from this impossible task, saying that when he took his book and scales with him, the Turkish chef threw all of them out the window, because "an Imperial chef must learn to cook with his feelings, his eyes and his nose" - in other words, with love!

Asceticism, rather than hedonistic gluttony, is associated with Sufism, and yet food occupies an important place. Followers of the Order began with the simplest menial duties in dervish lodges which always included huge kitchens. After a thousand and one days of service, the novice would become "cooked" and become a full member of the Brotherhoood. In other words, being "cooked" refers to spiritual maturation. One wonders if the Turkish tradition of cooking everything until soft and well-done had anything to do with this association (cooking al dente has no meaning to Turks).

The story of the chick-pea told by Mevlana in his "Mathnawi" is a superb example of this idea. When the tough legume is cooked in boiling water, it complains to the woman cooking it. She explains to it that this is necessary so that it can be eaten by human beings, become part of human life and thus be elevated to a higher form of life. The fable of the chick-pea describes the suffering of the soul before its arrival at Divine Love. The peasant eating helva for the first time symbolizes the discovery of Divine Love by the dervished. There is also the image of God Himself preparing the helva for the true dervishes. In this particular verse, the whole universe, as it were , is pictured as a huge pan with the stars as cooks! In other verses, the Beloved (God) is described as being as tasty as salt, or the Friend (God) has "sugar lips". Wine also represents the maturation of the human soul, similar to the ordeal the sour grape endures. So many mystical meanings are attributed to wine that the name "tavern" stands for the Sufi hospice and experiencing Divine Love is described by the metaphor of "intoxication".

These spiritual attributions are still very much alive in present-day Turkey, where food and liquor are enjoyed with recitations of mystical poetry and dignified conversation. Often these gatherings provide an occasion for people to distance themselves from earthly matters and transcend into spirituality and promises of a better life hereafter.

Contemporary Concerns: Diet and Health
As modernity takes hold, traditions are falling on the side. Spirituality as a guide for conduct in   everyday life is something of the past; now we turn to Science for answers. Ironically, as Mac Donalds and Pizza Huts are popping up everywhere, the traditional way of eating is also making a come-back. What our grandmothers knew all the time is now being confirmed by modern science : a diet which fundamentally is based on grains, vegetables and fruits with meat and dairy products used sparingly and as flavouring, is a healthy one. Furthermore, some combinations are better than others, because they complement each other for perfect nutrition. The Turkish Cuisine sets an example in these respects. The recent "food-pyramid" endorsed by the United States Department of Agriculture resembles age-old practices in ordinary households. Even the well-known menus of boarding schools or army kitchens, hardly known for their gourmet characteristics, provide an excellent nutrition that can be justified with the best of today's scientific knowledge. One such combination, jokingly referred to as "our national food", is beans and pilaf, accompained by pickles and quince compote - a perfectly nourishing combination which provides the essential proteins, carbohydrates and minerals. Another curious practice is combining spinach with yogurt. Now we know that the body needs calcium found in the yogurt to assimilate the iron found in the spinach.

Yogurt, a contribution from the Turks to the world, has also become a popular health food. A staple in the Turkish diet, it has been known all along for its detoxifying properties. Other such beliefs, not yet supported by modern science, include the role of onion, used liberally in all dishes-in strengthening the immune system; garlic for high blood pressure and olive oil as a remedy for forty one ailments. The complicated debate concerning mono-and polyunsaturated fats and the good and bad cholesterol is ridiculously inadequate to evaluate olive oil. Given what we know about health food today, one could even envy the typical lunch fare of the proverbial construction worker who, like all his kind, shouts "endearing" words to the passing-by females, while eating bread, feta cheese and fresh grapes in the summer and bread and tahini helva in the winter.

The variety of pastry turn-overs with cheese or ground meat, meat pide, or kebabs are the fast food for millions of working people. These are all prepared entirely on the premises using age-old practices.

One of the main culprits in the modern-day diet is the snack, that horrible junk food designed to give a quick sugar - high to keep one going for the rest of the day. Again, modern science has come to therescue, and healthy snacks are now being discovered. Some of these are amazingly familiar to the Turks! Take, for example, the "fruit roll-ups". Visit any dry-food store that sells nuts and fruits, and you will see the authentic version, such as the sheets of mashed and dried apricots and grapes. In these stores, there are many other items that await discovery by some pioneering enterpreneur to the Western markets. Another wholesome snack known as the "trail mix" or "gorp" is well-known to all Turkish mothers, who traditionally stuff a handful of mixed nuts and raisins in the pockets of their children's school uniform to snack on before exams. This practice can be traced to ancient fables, where the hero goes on a diet of hazelnuts and raisins before fighting with the giants and dragons, or before weaving the king a golden smock. The Prince always loads onto the mythological bird, the "Zümrüt Anka", forty sacks of nuts and raisins for himself, and water and meat for the bird that takes him over the high Caucuses Mountains..

As far as food goes, it is reassuring to know that we are re-discovering what is good for our bodies. Nevertheless, one is left with the nagging feeling that such knowledge will always be incomplete as long as it is divorced from its cultural context and spiritual traditions. The challenge facing modern Turkey is to achieve such continuity, in the time of genetic engineering, high-tech mass production and a growing number of convenience-oriented households. But for now, the markets are vibrant and the dishes are tastier than ever, so e n j o y !

Reference: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey

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