THE SEPHARDIC CUISINE IN TURKEY
The Sephardic Jews arrived in the Ottoman Empire in 1492. They came from Spain when there was the Spanish Inquisition. The Spanish king and queen, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabel of Castille decided to make a united Catholic Spain so they ordered all the Jews and Muslims to either convert or leave. About 200.000 Jews were exiled and came to the Ottoman Empire. Sultan Bayezid II received them and was happy with the technology and knowledge they brought. The Jews settled mainly in the Aegean region, Istanbul, Thrace and the Balkans.
Sefarad is the name given to Spain in Hebrew, and as these Spanish Jews came from Sefarad, they called themselves Sephardim, their culture Sephardic. So when we talk about Sephardic cuisine, we are talking about the cuisine of these Spanish Jews, who brought their culinary traditions with them from Spain and Portugal. Some of these people did not come straight from Spain to the Ottoman Empire. There were numerous Jews who came via France, Italy and then of course the Balkans, which already belonged to the Ottomans at the time. It is not so easy to characterize what we call “Sephardic Cuisine” because ever since the 15th century, wherever the Sephardim went, they adapted their cooking to the techniques, tastes and ingredients that they found in the lands to which they migrated, all the while remaining faithful to their ancient cultural traditions and Iberian culinary heritage.
The Jews in the Ottoman Empire lived in their own areas, not because they were pressured to do so but because they preferred to live with the people from the regions they came from. However, as these were not “ghettos” , some amount of interaction was inevitable with the cultures around them and of course mutual borrowing between, Jews, Greeks, Armenians and Muslim Turks occurred naturally. Cooking rules and recipes were passed down from mother to daughter and resulted in a treasury of culinary ideas that continued being transmitted throughout the centuries up to the present day.
Two important factors characterized Sephardic cooking in Turkey: the Spanish heritage and the Turkish culture with additional traditions, flavors and techniques imported from the Greeks, who were very famous for their culinary skills. An interchange of culinary traditions, the borrowing of the tasty from one’s neighbors seemed to be common usage in the days when people socialized with their neighbors. We read a lot of stories of Muslims visiting their Jewish neighbors on their religious holidays and being offered of their traditional dishes and of Jews visiting their Muslim neighbors on their holidays to partake of the delicious sweets and desserts.
There are a multitude of dishes with vegetables in the Sephardic cuisine. You can create a whole meal without any meat at all as meat was always the most expensive ingredient to buy for a family. So we have a lot of very tasty dishes with vegetables that were used to their very last bits, even their peels. A very good example of this is the dish made from squash peels, called “kashkarikas”. It is a delicious dish eaten cold, like a salad, with olive oil and lemon and dill.
Another example would be the very tasty pie that can be made from the leaves of red beets. You can cut these leaves into small chunks and then add cheese (white and yellow), eggs and bread crumbs to it and then bake the mixture in the oven you get an incredibly delicious dish, which is both nourishing and very filling.
In summer, when tomatoes are plentiful and very cheap you could make a very substantial and delicious entrée, called “Armi de tomat”, a tomato and rice stew is made of tomatoes, onions and parsley. This is a dish that is specifically sephardic, just like “kashkarikas”, and red beet leaves pie, not known by the wider Muslim Turkish community.
As to the dishes with meat, we have a lot of dishes made with minced meat and most of these are köftes of one form or another. The most famous of these is the leek meatballs or köftes de prasa, as we call them.
The king of the vegetables was of course, the aubergine, both in the Sephardic and the Turkish cuisines. It is not surprising therefore that every meal in the summertime includes aubergines in many different forms, fried, baked, stuffed, made into pies etc. etc. Empanadas, as they are called in Spain, are usually referred to as börekas or börekitas in the Sephardic cuisine in Turkey, utilizing the word börek for the same type of pastries from Turkish. A tapada is prepared in a pie fashion, baked in a tray with a variety of fillings, best of course with aubergines.
Beef and lamb are broiled, baked and cooked with vegetables and spices and have a great taste. The juice of the cooked meat is never thrown away but is used in making rice or pasta or just vegetables. The same applies to chicken.
A very special characteristic of Sephardic cooking is the fact that it uses a lot of sour sauces, much more than all other cuisines. Vegetables like ocra, artichoke, spinach, cabbage, and all their derivatives with meat are cooked with a lot more lemon than you will see in the Turkish cuisine, The most characteristic dish in contemporary Turkish Sephardic cooking is called gaya kon avramila, fish in sour plum sauce.
Another example, regarding vivid heritages of cross-cultural interaction is that of a very much loved cheese, called kaşar. Along with white cheese (beyaz peynir) it constitutes one of the most popular cheeses of Turkish cuisine. Yet, no one ever thinks that it has a Jewish connection. It seems that kaşar was brought over by Jews from Spain, who referred to it as kaşer, the Ladino for kosher.
Contemporary Sephardic cookery is also rich in terms of desserts and confectioneries. Famous quince paste of Spain, membrilla exists as bimbriyo (quince paste) or as helva de bimbriyo in Sephardic cuisine.
Going through a number of changes over the generations, these Sephardic Cooking traditions are left to us as an inheratence. Unfortunately the changing conditions of life have caused their gradual disappereance.
ALMODROTE de KALAVASA - Zucchini Fritata
2 kg of zucchini
4 tablespoons of flour
4 table spoons of olive oil
100 g white (feta) cheese
150 g grated kasher cheese or kashkaval
A bunch of dill
Peel and grate the zucchini. Press with your hand to squeeze out as much of the juices as you can.
Add the flour, mashed white cheese, grated kasher cheese ,finely chopped dill, eggs, salt and oil. Mix well.
Pour the mixture into an oiled baking dish,sprinkle the top with some more grated cheese and bake at 180 C.
For 45 minutes to 1 hour,until lightly colored.
KÖFTES de PRASA- Leek Patties
1,5 Kg. of leek
250 gr. of minced meat
2 egg yolks
2 beaten eggs
Peel the leeks, wash them well, chop and boil them until they are very soft. After they are boiled press them between your palms as hard as you can to get all the water out This is very important in order to make the meatballs firm .Now put the leeks into the food processor and blend to a soft paste. Then mix together the soft leek paste, minced meat, 2 egg yolks, salt and pepper.Shape into little round flat cakes of about 4-5 cm wide and dip them in to flour on a plate. Dip each in to beaten egg and lower gently into sizzling oil.Lower the heat, so as not to brown them too quickly, and turn over once. Drain on paper towels and serve hot.
KASHKARiKAS - Zucchini peels in sour sauce
1.5 kg zucchini
1 small cup of olive oil
1 tea spoon sugar
Juice of 1 ½ lemon
2-3 cloves garlic
A few sprigs of fresh dill
First slice off the peel from the zucchini in long, thick ½ cm slices. Then cut them in 3-4 cm squares.
Lighly boil the zucchini peel in water for a few minutes.Add lemon juice , garlic ,dill ,salt ,pepper ,sugar and enough water to cover. Cook over a small flame until all the water is gone. Cover and refrigerate. Serve cold .
BULEMAS DE BERENCANA ( Pastry with Eggplant filling )
2 yufka (Turkish style phyllo)
2 large eggplants
100 gr white (feta) cheese
1 cup grated kashar cheese or kashkaval
1 pinch salt
1 egg yolk
Grated kasher cheese or kashkaval
Pierce eggplants and cook/char whole over coals or over a gas flame until soft throughout. Remove skin, place in strainer to drain. Mash eggplant well with a fork and add the cheeses and salt, mix well. Divide the two yufka into four, for a total of eight triangular pieces. Spread the filling along the long (outer) side of the yufka and roll. Then from one end, roll the resulting tube into a tight spiral shape. Brush with egg yolk, sprinkle a bit of kashar cheese on top and place a piece of butter in the center. Arrange on a greased baking pan and bake in a medium oven till browned.
ARMIKO DE TOMAT - Tomato Stew
2 kg very ripe tomatoes
2 ½ tablespoons rice
1 tablespoon sugar
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 bunch of parsley
Chop onions and sautée in oil. Peel the tomatoes ,chop them add to onions. Cover and cook both over a small flame.
When boiling add salt, sugar ,rice and chopped parsley . If tomatoes not juicy you can add little water.
Cover and continue to cook over small fire.Ready when rice is cooked.
BOREKAS DE BERENCENA -Eggplant Borekas
For the dough
¾ glass vegetable oil
¼ glass melted butter
½ glass of water
About 250 g flour (as much as the dough needs to absorb)
For the filling
500 g eggplants
100 g white (feta) cheese
100 g grated kasher(kashkaval) cheese
1 egg yolk for glazing
Prick the eggplants with a fork and roast until they feel soft inside .
Put them in a colander and peel them.Then chop the flesh in the colander with a sharp knife
to release its juices and press them out with your hand. Turn the eggplant in to a bowl. Add the feta
cheese and mix well. Then add the kasher ( kashkaval) cheese or gruyere and mix well.
You may need to add salt.Taste before you do.
Pour the oil,melted butter, water and salt into a large bowl. Gradually add the flour and knead into a soft ,non sticky dough.
When the dough is ready roll it out wide with the help of a rolling pin. Cut rounds of about 10 cm in diameter.
Put 1 tablespoon of filling in the middle. Bring two opposite sides of the pastry together over the filling.
Cut with the edge of a glass to give them the form of a crescent and pinch to seal the edges very tightly.
Brush with beaten egg yolk and sprinkle grated cheese.
Arrange them with sufficient space between them on a tray with baking paper.
Bake at 180 C for 35 minutes or until lightly colored.
TEZPISHTI ( meaning cooked rapidly in Turkish )- Walnut sponge cake
250 gr sugar
420 gr matzot flour or flour
500 gr coarse ground walnuts
10 gr baking powder
1 orange –juice and zest
200 gr oil
300 gr sugar
375 gr water
Juice of half a lemon
Beat the eggs and add the sugar.The add flour and continue to mix. Add walnuts,baking powder, zest of orange and oil and bake at 180 c oven 25 minutes. Do not forget to put some oil on the oven tray you are going to use. Meanwhile prepare your syrup and let it cool .
When you take out your cake pour 200 ml lukewarm water and then the cool syrup over it and wait for the cake to cool before serving.( about 1 hour