From dumplings the size of a thumbnail to multilayered delicacies made With dough as thin as a leaf, from egg plant 40 ways to poached fish en papillote with cream sauce, Turkey is full of culinary surprises.
Cookbooks paint a tantalizing cuisine that proves Kipling was wrong when he insisted that East and West would never meet. But the cuisine that some believe is as varied and sophisticated as French and Chinese appears to have been left largely in the hands of home cooks: it is difficult to find authentic Turkish cuisine in restaurants, where a lot has been Frenchified.
In "Classical Turkish Cooking" (HarperCollins, 1991), Ayla Algar writes of restaurants in Turkey, "Very few now cook good traditional Turkish food, most offering instead a mixture of Turkish and Western dishes."
Tugrul Savkay, one of Turkey's leading food authorities, is part of a movement trying to interest Turkish chefs in the once-admired food of the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman rulers had the best of all worlds: Mediterranean ingredients like tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and olive oil, and dishes from Persia, the Far East, Central Asia and Turkey itself.
"What we are trying to do is to revitalize the forgotten cuisine and make lt available for professional chefs," Mr. Savkay said.
In two weeks of traveling along the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts and north to the heart of Anatolia, It was clear the best food was usually the simplest of country cooking. From the hand-rolled borek - trans lucently thin dough filled- with four kinds of cheese - in Konya to the superior Turkish version of pizza in a working man's cafe in Derinkuyu, a tiny town in the Cappadocia region, persistence was rewarded.
But at two hotels - one the country's grandest, the other certainly one of its most charming - two chefs are striving to recapture the sophistication of the famed Ottoman palace kitchens. The fish stuffed with raisins, pine nuts, unions, cinnamon and garlic at the Ciragan Palace Hotel on the Bosporus and grilled squid stuffed with fish roe served with arugula at the Antik Theatre Hotel in Bodrum were among the finds.
Turkish food is not made with complex sauces or many spices and herbs. Most of the spices displayed in markets are used medicinally. In cooking, the main herbs and spices are garlic, mint, dill, bay leaf, sumac, parsley, hot pepper, cinnamon, allspice and cumin.
But the profusion of vegetables and fruits - not to mention the haggling and shouting, the pushing and shoving - is breathtaking: rows upon rows of olive varleties in black, green, pink, brown, depending on ripeness (there were 20 at a market in Konya); cheeses and yogurts; pistachio nuts in different sizes, barrels of olive oil in subtly varying shades of yellow and green.
The most interesting part of any Turkish meal is the meze (pronounced MEZZ-eh), or Turkish tapas. The meze table always has olives, stuffed grape leaves, feta cheese and flaky pastries filled with cheese or meat. Thick rich yogurt, which the Turks claim to have introduced to Europe, is used in many ways and is particularly delicious with lightly sauteed julienned carrots and garlic and hot pepper.
Turkey is surrounded by so many bodies of water that its fish dishes, whether part of the meze or as main dishes, are superior.
The piece de resistance of the most elaborate meze table is the Circassian chicken, poached chicken in a spicy ground walnut sauce.
Many of these dishes mays sound familiar to Americans because they have had them in Greek restaurants here, but Turks say that most of them originated in Turkey. Who can lay claim to what, however, is just part of the continuing hard feelings between the two countries.
The foundation of Turkish cooking is grain - wheat and rice. Borek is made with the translucent sheets of pastry called yufka in Turkey and phyllo in Greece (and in America) that are layered and folded into various shapes after being filled, usually with meat or cheese. Another form of thin dough is called su borek, which is boiled like pasta and stuffed. Manti, tiny meat-filled dumplings, are part of the culinary tradition that had its origins in China.
The best of all Turkish bread is the flat bread or pide, which makes a delicious base for the Turkish ver- sion of pizza. The most savory version, with ground lamb, union, tomato, green pepper, spicy sausage, a fried egg and a little cheese that tasted like Monterey Jack, was served at the Doyum Restaurant on a dusty side street in Derinkuyu. Ground lamb kebabs were cooked in charcoal-fired ovens and served with pide and the classic mixture of crushed onions, parsley and sumac.
The other star of Turkish cuisine is vegetables. They are combined with tomatoes, green peppers and onions, cooked in butter and their own juices and served hot; cooked in olive oil and served at room temperature, or fried or stuffed.
Above all else is Turkish eggpIant, partly because it has a richer flavor than eggplant found in this country and partly because so many of the dishes call for grilling it, which brings out its sweet smoky flavor.
Although the Turks are known for their thick coffee, tea is their main source of caffeine. It Is still common practice for young boys to scurry along the streets carrying tiny glasses of tea to the owners and patrons of nearby stores. Just what shoppers need to keep going.