Turkish delights From refreshing appetizers to grilled meats to rich desserts, the country's cusine is full of remarkable flavors and variety.

Posted: January 15, 2004

Every month or so, Center City resident Nursal Hicdonmez and her friends Yonca and Yasemin Agatan, who live in Ardmore, get together to cook a feast of home.

All three women are from Turkey - Hicdonmez from the Aegean coastal town of Izmir and the Agatan sisters from Istanbul, for centuries the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Though it's been more than 15 years since they've lived in their native land, a meal of Turkish delicacies is all it takes to conjure the joys of their heritage.

From the brilliant hues of Istanbul's spice market to the fresh fish on the Turquoise Coast and the baby lamb chops in Cappadocia, Turkish dining offers unforgettable variety and flavors.

No wonder Turks are passionate about food. "They write love songs to yogurt, ballads about fish sandwiches, and poems that imagine battles between pastry and pilav," according to World Food: Turkey (Lonely Planet, $11.99 softcover). Food plays a central role in Turkish culture. It is a reason to get together, to celebrate life and to commiserate over sorrows.

"In Turkey, we learn to cook from our mothers and our grandmothers," said Ayse Atay, who, with her mother, owns Konak, Philadelphia's only Turkish restaurant, at 226 Vine St.

Konak means mansion in Turkish, and the spacious restaurant is decorated in high style, with family heirlooms and embroidered treasures adorning the walls.

Atay and her mother, Melek Basaran, cook up such Turkish specialties as an outstanding mezze (appetizer) selection with lebni (creamed yogurt with garlic, dill and walnuts) and dolmas (stuffed grape leaves), along with lahana sarma (cabbage leaves stuffed with rice, meat and spices), tender chicken kebabs, and spicy izgara kofte (minced lamb and beef blended with onions, garlic, parsley and spices), arnavut cigeri (pan-fried liver with onion salad), and imam bayildi (roasted eggplant stuffed with tomato, onion, green pepper and pine nuts).

"Most people really don't know what Turkish food is. They think it is curry, or highly spiced, or exactly like Greek food," Atay said. "But it has its own flavors. People are surprised we eat fish. Istanbul is surrounded by water - of course we eat fish."

From the extravagant dishes created in the Ottoman kitchens of the royal Topkapi Palace in Istanbul to the humblest rustic village fare, Turkish food is among the freshest and most healthful of global cooking styles.

The country's multicultural heritage has generated an urbane cuisine, strong on grilled meats and seafood, salads, fruits and vegetables, rich desserts, and tasty local drinks - from tart fruit juices to fine wines, beers and Turkish coffee.

While simplicity is a hallmark of Turkish cooking, the cuisine also boasts a density of flavors and textures as well as extraordinary variety. Eggplant alone is prepared 40 different ways.

This is the result of the centuries-long influence of an imperial palace (also the case for two of the world's other grand cuisines, French and Chinese) and a culture in which the preparation and serving of food are important rituals of everyday life.

Turkish hospitality is renowned. Offering food, whether in a restaurant or at home, is considered a gesture of friendship.

"Every dinner in Turkey, the family eats all together," said Yonca Agatan, who, with her sister, moved to Philadelphia to attend college. The sisters live together, and both work at Deloitte & Touche.

"Our mother did all the cooking," Agatan said. "We don't have that much time here in America, since we are working. But when we go home, she makes all of our favorite foods."

Sultan's Delight (Hunkar Begendi)

Makes 6 servings

For the lamb:

2 tablespoons butter

2 onions, finely chopped

2 to 2 1/2 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, cubed

Salt to taste

1 1/2 teaspoons black pepper

2 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced (or 2 table-

spoons tomato paste)

2 3/4 cups hot water

For the eggplant puree:

3 tablespoons butter

2 1/2 tablespoons flour

1 large eggplant (1 1/2 to 2 pounds)

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 1/3 cups hot milk

1/3 cup grated kashar cheese (or sharp cheddar)

1. Prepare the lamb: Melt the butter in a large skillet. Add the onions and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until they start to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the lamb; cook, stirring, until golden brown, about 3 to 4 minutes. Cover and cook until all liquid is absorbed, about 5 minutes. Season with the salt and pepper.

2. Add the tomatoes or tomato paste and the hot water. Simmer until meat is tender, about 20 minutes. (Check occasionally, adding more water if liquid totally evaporates.)

3. Make the eggplant puree: Melt the butter in a small saucepan. Add the flour and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 2 minutes (watch carefully so it doesn't brown); set aside.

4. Grill the eggplant directly over a gas or barbecue flame, holding it by the stem and turning it above the flame until skin is charred and eggplant softens, about 10 minutes. Let cool.

5. Place the lemon juice in a bowl. Peel the eggplant and soak the pulp in the juice for 15 minutes. Remove from bowl and press pulp by hand to drain it.

6. Stir the eggplant into the butter-flour mixture in the pan over low heat. Season with salt, add the hot milk, and blend well, forming a dense paste. Add the cheese; stir and remove from heat.

7. To serve, place the meat in the center of a large platter, surrounded by eggplant puree. Serve hot.

- Adapted by Nursal Hicdonmez from Classic Turkish Cooking,

by Ghillie Basan and Jonathan Basan (St. Martin's Press, $29.95)

Per serving: 578 calories, 31 grams protein, 16 grams carbohydrates,

8 grams sugar, 43 grams fat, 149 milligrams cholesterol, 272 milligrams sodium, 4 grams fiber.

Turkish Stuffed Mussels (Midye Dolma)

Serves 4 as an appetizer

15 mussels

1/4 cup olive oil

2 large yellow onions, chopped

1/2 cup uncooked rice

1 cup boiling water, plus enough to cover mussels in saucepan

2 tablespoons pine nuts

2 tablespoons currants

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Freshly squeezed lemon juice

1. Scrub the mussel shells under cold running water with a stiff brush, discarding any mussels that are open. Pry open each without damaging the hinge and cut off and discard the beard. Rinse mussels well, then let soak in their shells in cold water while preparing the filling.

2. Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent, about 5 minutes. Reduce heat to low. Add the rice, cover, and cook until tender, about 15 minutes. Add the cup of boiling water, the pine nuts, currants, parsley, salt and pepper. Cook, covered, until all the liquid is absorbed, about 8 to 10 more minutes. Set aside until cool.

3. Stuff each mussel with rice mixture and tie the shell shut with kitchen string. Arrange mussels in layers in a large saucepan. Add just enough boiling water to cover. Put a plate or small lid on top of mussels to hold them in place while they cook. Cover the saucepan.

4. Cook over very low heat for 30 minutes. Drain, leaving mussels undisturbed to cool. Remove string.

5. Serve well chilled, with lemon juice.

Per serving: 385 calories, 23 grams protein, 33 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 18 grams fat, 48 milligrams cholesterol, 781 milligrams sodium, 2 grams fiber.

Almond Custard (Keskil)

2 cups light cream

2 cups milk, divided

1 cup blanched almonds,

pulverized in a blender

or nut grinder

3/4 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

1/4 cup rice flour

1 tablespoon fresh pomegran-

ate seeds

1 tablespoon finely chopped almonds

1 tablespoon finely chopped unsalted pistachios

1. In a 3-quart saucepan, combine the cream, 1 1/2 cups of the milk, the pulverized almonds, sugar and almond extract. Bring to a boil. Remove pan from heat, cover, and let stand for 20 minutes.

2. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve set over a bowl, pressing hard on the almonds with the back of a spoon to extract their liquid. Discard almonds. Return almond-flavored liquid to the pan.

3. Dissolve the rice flour in the remaining 1/2 cup milk. Stir flour-milk mixture into liquid in pan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring frequently, until custard thickens enough to lightly coat a spoon, about 15 minutes.

4. Strain custard through a fine sieve. Spoon it into 6 individual dessert bowls. Refrigerate for 1 hour.

5. Before serving, garnish with pomegranate seeds ringed with circles of chopped almonds and pistachios.

- From Classic Turkish Cooking, by Ghillie Basan and Jonathan Basan

(St. Martin's Press, $29.95)

Per serving: 541 calories, 10 grams protein, 39 grams carbohydrates, 30 grams sugar, 39 grams fat, 100 milligrams cholesterol, 79 milligrams sodium, 3 grams fiber.

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