I fell in love with Turkish cuisine during my first visit several years ago to Turkey. Its emphasis on simplicity and skillful use of spices makes it a delight. Many adore the cuisine for these very reasons, and the coveted herbs and spices are popular commodities with tourists visiting Turkey. Locals and tourists crowd the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market, which are filled with spice merchants and their shops trying to entice the crowds. When I first traveled to Istanbul, I was enamored by the spices’ bright colors and sumptuous aromas and flavors. I was hooked, and wanted to know more! Since joining the Spice House, I have learned to view spices and their uses with different eyes. This has enhanced my interest in learning about Turkish cuisine, and more specifically the significance of spices to Turkish culture. In order to do so, it is critical to briefly review Turkey’s history. Please humor me as history is also among my favorite subjects.
Present day Turkey is home to some of the oldest known civilizations, including Mesopotamia. Geographically, it served as an essential bridge between Asia and Europe, as the country straddles both continents. This greatly influenced the development of these early cultures. It was ideally situated for commerce, and had trading centers as early as 2000 BC. The oldest known trading route was established in Anatolia, Turkey’s Asian side, in the 5th century BC. It was also in the direct path of the infamous Silk Road which facilitated the trade of exotic goods from the East such as spices. This enabled the Byzantine capitol of Constantinople (present day Istanbul), to become a center of trade.
As trade expanded and merchants and explorers became more ambitious, new products became readily available. Some of these goods were eventually incorporated into the cultures of the consumers. Cinnamon from the East and chiles from the West are great examples of spices that in spite of initially being foreign, became deeply embedded in Turkish culinary tradition. The formation of the Ottoman Empire (the boarders of which spanned from lands in the Middle East to parts of Eastern and Central Europe) created new networks. This environment was highly conducive for exchanging cultural influences which have left permanent impressions upon the empire’s former territories. This continues to hold true for modern Turkey. See…now that was not so bad.
Regardless of the history and origins of the herbs and spices used in Turkish recipes, many are considered key to traditional dishes’ flavor profiles. In fact, it is difficult to conceptualize Turkish cuisine without certain spices and herbs (even those adopted) due to their seamless incorporation. After all, the indigenous sumac is offered at many restaurants almost in the same way that salt and black pepper grace every table in America. And what would salep (beverage made from orchid root) or rice pudding be without some cinnamon or cassia (introduced from Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia respectively)?
So, by now you are probably wondering, how does this all tie into my initial point regarding spices’ connection with Turkish culture? Perhaps, the most significant correlation between the two is how spices perfectly exemplify how Turkey’s cultural history is physically and metaphorically a distinctive bridge between the East and the West. Once a cradle of human civilization, present day Turkey became an epicenter of world trade, and developed into and flourished as a unique entity. Spices were an important medium through which this was accomplished, and serve as a poignant symbol for Turkey’s ever evolving culture.
Written by: Samantha Heberton after her trip to Istanbul.