FOOD PROTOCOL FOR THE CULTURALLY CORRECT
Eating is taken very seriously in Turkey. It is inconceivable for household members to eat alone, raid the refrigerator, or eat “on the go” while others are at home.
It is customary to have three “sit-down meals” day. Breakfast or “kalvaltı” (literally, ‘under the 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 neighbors may join in on meals on a walk-in basis. Other are invited ahead of time as elaborate preparations are expected. The menu depends on whether alcoholic drinks will be served or not. In the former 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 main meat and vegetable 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 living room to have 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 neighbors. These are very eloborate occasions with at least a dozen types of cakes, pastries, finger foods and böreks prepared by the hostess. The main social purpose of these gatherings is to gossip and share experiences about all aspects of life, 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 squarely rests on 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 neighbors collaborate in making large quantities of food for the winter such as “tarhana” –dried yogurt and tomato soup, or noodles. Another is when families get together to go on a day’s excursion into the countryside. 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 fruit. The “mangal”, the copper charcoal burner, kilims, hammocks, pillows, musical instruments such as a saz, ud, or violin, and samovars are also 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”. Küçüksu, Kalamış, and Heybeli in old Istanbul used to be typical locations for such outings, as numerous songs tell us. Other memorable locations include the Meram vineyards in Konya, Lake Hazar in Elazığ, and Bozcaada off the shores of Çanakkale. The May 5 Spring Festival (Hıdırellez) commemorating two Saints: Hızır and İlyas (representing immortality and abubdance), would mark the beginning of the pleasure season (safa), with 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 freh 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.
Nowadays 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 “sit-down meal” starts with 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 visit 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 a side 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.
Deats are also occasions for cooking and sharing food. In this case, neighbors prepare and send dishes to the breaved household for three days after the death. The only dish prepared by the household of the deceased is the helva which is sent to the neighbors and served to visitors. 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 the helva and continue reminiscing. Usually the helva is done by the time everyone in the room has had a chance to speak. This wonderfully simple ceremony makes the people left behind talk about happier times and lightens their grief momentarily, strengthening the bond between them.