There’s more to Turkish cuisine than kebabs, baklava, and mezze — the menu items people are most familiar with in the United States. Before her first visit to Turkey, Robyn Eckhardt had a similarly limited view of Turkish food, but she quickly grew enamored of the incredibly variety of dishes she encountered in the incredibly diverse country.
Turkey, though just one-thirteenth the size of the U.S., has coasts on four major bodies of water and borders Bulgaria, Greece, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia. “Its various regions,” Eckhardt explains in the book, “are characterized by wildly different landscapes: long, sunny coasts, snowy peaks, fertile valleys, and semiarid deserts. Throughout history, Turkey has received both conquerors and migrants who stayed. The result is not a nation united by one cuisine, but an array of culinary regions that make it one of the most gastronomically complex countries anywhere.”
Eckhardt, a food writer and blogger who has been lauded by Saveur and The Times of London for her blog Eating Asia, began traveling in Turkey nearly 20 years ago. Inspired by the diversity of food and culture, she and her photographer husband, David Hagerman, returned again and again to explore neighborhoods and villages located off the beaten path, going to markets, talking to locals, and capturing a culinary snapshot of Turkey.
Istanbul & Beyond: Exploring the Diverse Cuisines of Turkey is more than a cookbook. It delves into the culture of Turkey with stunning photographs that feature the people, landscapes, and life as well as food; anecdotes that explain traditional dishes and bring them to life; and a glossary of Turkish ingredients as well as phrases to help readers build their own Anatolian pantry as authentically as possible. Many of the 150 comprehensive recipes have never been published in England before; they are a reflection of Eckhardt’s own exploration of Turkey. “They are informed by roads traveled and friendships forged, impromptu cooking lessons, restaurant visits, and home meals, and hours spent exploring markets and conversing about food with anyone willing to put up with my Turkish.”
Some for the recipes featured include:
The Daily Meal: What is your philosophy of cooking (and/or eating)?
Robyn Eckhart: I don't follow any particular dietary rules, but cook and eat what I'm craving on the day. I feel that my body knows fairly well what it needs, and I listen to it. I especially love vegetables, grains and legumes, and fish, and I eat meat or chicken a few times a week. I am lucky to live in northern Italy with access to wonderful farmers markets every single day of the week, so it is very easy to eat seasonally and locally.
And I like to spend a day or two a week on “projects” — like bread or pickles or yogurt, so these foods are also a big part of my diet.
How did it inspire the recipes you chose to include in this book?
I didn't so much choose recipes for this book as the recipes chose me. During 16 months researching the book on the ground in Turkey, these recipes (plus about 100 more that I couldn't include due to space limitations!) are the ones that lay in my path. From the 230 or so recipes I came away from Turkey with, I tried to choose recipes that ran the gamut from simple to a bit complicated, and from familiar (to readers who might have experienced Turkish food) to surprising. I sought a balance in recipes, for instance between vegetarian/lacto-vegetarian dishes and meat, chicken, and fish main dishes. I learned to make bread just before starting recipe development, and fell in love with it, and in the course of research found such a variety of breads in Turkey. So I wanted to be sure to include plenty of bread recipes.
What is your favorite recipe in the book and why?
I love Fingerprint Flatbread (from the Van/Hakkari chapter) because it reminds me of the many hours I spent in firin (traditional wood-fired bakeries) while researching the book. In many towns these bakeries also serve as community ovens, so in addition to learning how to make breads I was able to interview members of the community about the dishes — everything from vegetables to meats and fish — they carried in to bake in the bread oven. Several recipes in the book came from these encounters.
I always felt welcome in these warm, cozy spaces, no matter how many questions I lobbed at the men (always men) working the ovens. David Hagerman (the book's photographer) and I were always offered samples of breads and tea, and sometimes a full breakfast with olives, tomatoes, and a variety of cheeses, as we documented the work in the bakeries. For me these places will always epitomize Turkey's outsized tradition of hospitality.
What are some of the foods you can’t live without?
Fish, leafy greens, cured meats and cheese, yogurt, good bread, wine, olive oil and lemon, fresh and dried herbs, and chiles.
Would you rather dine out or cook at home?
I love a good restaurant meal but I love to cook more, and I do cook most every day, by choice. I choose cooking at home.
What is your favorite go-to meal or drink?
Frittata or omelette. If you have a bit of cheese, some eggs, and a scrap of vegetables (or some cured meats), you have a meal. I've found that most cuisines have their own “quick and easy” main dish featuring eggs. If I'm drinking, a Negroni (or gin and tonic if the weather is hot) will do nicely.
How do you hope readers will use this book, and what do you hope they take away?
I hope that before they cook from it, readers will sit down with it, turn pages, read and take in the images, and get a real sense of the scope of foods cooked and eaten in Turkey. I hope they'll bookmark recipes that appeal, and get to it in the kitchen! I hope they'll 'take a chance' on a dish that might be very surprising. Because Turkey's regional cuisines are so varied, there's really something for every cook and eater. I think that meat lovers, vegetables lovers, seafood lovers, lovers of grains and legumes will all find something to satisfy their palate. Mostly I hope that readers come away with an excitement to discover a cuisine that is so much more than kebabs and baklava ... and maybe even with a motivation to visit Turkey beyond Istanbul, to enjoy these dishes (and more) in the places where they are made.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Nope — other than “thank you!” for the opportunity to share my thoughts with The Daily Meal's readers!