Özlem’s Turkish Table: Recipes from my homeland - Özlem Warren, GBP Publishing, April 2018 >> read review

There is no shortage of cookery books on the market and there has to be an edge to a publication to merit its celebration, and this book seems to hit a number of those edge markers.

Özlem is clearly a highly experienced cook, having taught at the Central Market Cooking School in Texas since 2005 and guest chef elsewhere in that state. Since 2009 she has authored her blog on Turkish cuisine and later was teaching classes in the JA University in Amman, Jordan; London’s Divertimenti Cookery School and the Istanbul Culinary Institute in Istanbul.

The other edge of this book is the local emphasis on the author’s home region of southern Turkey with its own regional specialities highlighted and clearly she is highly qualified for this gastronomic exploration of that heritage. This book is also is a celebration of Anatolian culinary varieties that Özlem has picked up in her many wanderings across that wide geography. There is a meaningful emphasis that Turkish cuisine is very much a fusion of the cultures living there and its past tapestry of communities and the Antakya region is one of the few areas of Turkey that still has Armenian, Jewish amongst other communities that have contributed to the mix of recipes. The book also has a brief section dealing with her own family heritage in the region, adding that extra personal touch. That region also is prominent in using spices and regional specialities are also highlighted such as Antakya’s signature desert, künefe, and speciality ingredients of that region such firik, pomegranate molasses, sumac etc. are also introduced.

The book is divided into logical sections past these introductions, such as soups & dips, hot & cold mezes etc. and each recipe has a corresponding full page illustration opposite. In its 300 pages there are also a fair sprinkling of double page mood creating photos of Turkish foods and scenes, which do not detract from the subject matter, so it has a part ‘coffee table’ book feel. Each section such as meat & poultry has an introductory page explaining the significance of that culinary division’s importance in Turkish cookery so the book is far from a long list of recipes. The final chapter is an interesting twist of ‘suggested menus’ for entertaining, followed by an index but no bibliography.

The author clearly loves her subject and that enthusiasm is infused by the style of the book without being over-bearing. The only criticism if it is one would be perhaps a deeper historical analysis of how far back certain dishes go but this would stray the topic from the practical to the academic perhaps. All in all, a well written and well-presented book for the beginner or those familiar but who wish to experience the pleasures of this rich cuisine to a deeper level.

 

>> read the interview

1- This is your first book so when did the idea of this book first arise? What was the main tenet to separate it from the myriad of other Turkish based cookery books out on the market? How long did the research and preparations take for this book?

The book idea first came out, while I was teaching Turkish cookery at the Central Market Cooking School in Austin – Texas, about 10 years ago. Participants to my classes often asked where they can buy my book. We were moving back to the UK that time so best way to tackle I thought was to start my blog, Özlem’s Turkish Table, where I published and shared my recipes. My readers hugely encouraged the book idea too, I am grateful to them, so it is about 10 years in making. I wanted to give a bit of personal touch with my family’s traditions, recipes passed down from my mother and grandmother. More than a cookery book, I wanted the book to convey the warmth, generous spirit of the Turkish culture. My book also focuses of southern Turkish cuisine, especially Antakya’s, where my roots are from. This region hasn’t been explored much yet and I wanted to showcase this rich cuisine.

2- Clearly family memory and traditions are important to you. Were recipes purely an ‘oral tradition’ or did you find notes from your grandmother etc. to which you referred. What was the first dish you remember that left an impression as an infant?

Very good question. Traditions, culinary memories shared are really very precious for me. Majority of the recipes were an oral tradition (most of whom I retrieved over expensive phone calls overseas or whenever I visited back home). I did have a few written down notes from my mother, I treasure a few letters she wrote with recipes in it. As a child, I spent many happy childhood holidays at my grandmother’s 450 year old home in ancient Antioch, Antakya. Making oruk, oval bulgur balls with walnut and minced meat filling, I remember as always being such a grand event. Bulgur and meat would be grinded by my mother and grandmother in hand held machines and whole family, cousins and aunts would participate to knead the bulgur dough and make the filling, as we would make huge quantities. A day event; I loved everyone helping and we would all sit at the courtyard around the big table under the fig tree, to enjoy this specialty. Happy memories.

3- Based in the West clearly some of the ingredients from your home region are hard to obtain. For those that are difficult to source, can you suggest near alternatives or do you think it is important to stick to the spices etc. as much as possible to avoid a creeping ‘blandness’.

Another very good question. I feel very lucky that now, we can get almost every southern Turkish ingredient in the UK, such as the specialties like pomegranate molasses, za’atar blend. The pepper paste, biber salçası, is the only item not easy to find. For that, I included my home made pepper paste recipe and possible substitutes such as the Amore chili paste or combining concentrated tomato paste with chili flakes. It always is best to have a chance to access to the real thing, but living abroad, I learned to make do and make the most of what is available. I learned to love filo pastry sheets as yufka is hard to find and found a way to make mean böreks!

4- You worked in different food establishments and schools. What was the most gastronomically trying experience for you in that period?

I have worked in some amazing cookery schools with state-of-the-art facilities and at very modest kitchens to teach cookery. During one of my culinary tours to Turkey, we had a very memorable cooking class, cooking with locals in a village near Şirince, Turkey. 10 of us were invited and crammed in a tiny kitchen, making stuffed vine leaves with our local village lady. Though the space was limited, the enthusiasm of the participants and the hospitality of the locals exceeded everyone’s expectation; we rolled the leaves on copper plates on our laps, outdoors under the trees and cooked in a great big pot. We then enjoyed our labour in a very casual but memorable picnic, eating under the tree as a group al fresco, washed down with endless glasses of cay, Turkish tea.

5- If suddenly you had guests announcing they would be coming at short notice, assuming the ingredients were already in stock, what would you cook to still impress?

I think I would go for this lovely Aubergines, lentils and peppers cooked in olive oil, Antakya’s Mercimekli Mualla. I always have lentils and peppers around and aubergine is our much loved, national vegetable (actually fruit as it has seeds in it). This dish is beautifully flavoured with dried mint and a real crowd pleaser, being vegetarian, gluten-free and vegan it is easy to accommodate various dietary needs too. And it is so easy to make and gets better the next day, if left any!

6- Do you think the noted Turkish restaurants either in Turkey or England try hard enough to reflect the richness and diversity of that cuisine – do you think the trend is positive or negative?

I have mixed feelings; as still there are still far too many kebab houses and not enough restaurants serving the authentic, regional flavours. I am hopeful though as there is a growing popularity for the eastern Mediterranean cuisine and that overlaps with especially southern Turkish cuisine, with our shared love of meze, stews and casseroles. And there are some good examples of recent restaurants in London, showcasing regional cuisine and I hope to spread the word and showcase more of the authentic flavours through my supper clubs in near future.

7- Are there dishes in the book that you have had to adapt for a Western audience either because some of the ingredients are truly local in Turkey or the level of spice would be too much for the average Western palate?

I tried to stick to authentic flavours and managed that over 90 % I think. There were only a few times I needed to suggest an alternative – for instance the dried spiced surk cheese is hard to find abroad so I substituted with crumbled feta cheese with spices including cumin, sumac, za’atar. I always try to make sure the ingredients are accessible to my audience or offer near best so that they can be able to recreate at home easily. In terms of spicing; I suggest a moderate fair but did say they can increase the amount if they like a spicier flavour.

8- Do you see dangers of some of the Turkish dishes becoming history as ‘globalisation’ and ‘fast food culture’ also makes in-roads in Turkey and perhaps family run small restaurants / bakeries close down?

That is a worry unfortunately and I feel sorry for that. I love our Esnaf Lokantası type restaurants where you get “slow cooked” traditional trays of casseroles, stews, vegetables cooked in olive oil and more in such great value, cooked fresh from scratch. They are still around but one wished they would be higher in numbers. On the other hand, some high profile chefs like Mehmet Gurs at home are passionate about bringing the authentic, Anatolian flavours and fusing with modern touches and I see this as a positive.

9- Does your family have a ‘signature dish’, and is that a regular theme in small places in Turkey where a dish style may be confined to just a family unit?

Very much so. Both my parents are from Antakya and that region’s cuisine is enjoyed at home greatly. My mother’s signature dish is Mevlubi, also known as Maklube, consisting of layers of aubergines, meat, potato, onions and rice cooked together – very slow cooking- and then turned upside down like a cake. A very special, impressive dish (variations of which found through eastern Med) that always turns up at any special occasion at our family table.

10- Do you know if in Ottoman times the average dishes of Turks were mostly the same, or has some dishes now gone out of favour? Is there much research on this that you know of?

There’s a strong legacy of the Ottoman cuisine that we can see in Turkish cuisine though, as you pointed out, so many dishes and style of cooking evolved since then. For instance there was a heavy use of butter, animal fat and we don’t use it much and prefer olive oil and butter – I am happy with that. On the other hand, I wished we could continue the use of fruit such as quince, plums etc., that the Ottomans used in the savoury dishes, regularly. That seems to have disappeared greatly, other than in some regional cooking.

11- Any future plans to open your own restaurant? Or a follow-on book?

I don’t plan to open a restaurant at the moment but plan to host Turkish supper clubs in various locations. I would love to write more books, hopefully in near future. A vegetarian one is high on the list, with regional Turkish flavours. I also love the healthy side of Turkish cuisine and it may tie with that too.

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