My friend Ayfer's round face is alight
with merriment. We have been watching two Turkish cooks prepare
a köfte, a food that has assumed cult proportions in Middle
Eastern cooking. For this köfte the cooks are using bulgur,
which is being kneaded with grated onion, crushed garlic, red and
green peppers, cubed tomatoes, red pepper paste, cumin, and other
spices. When I ask why they don't soak the bulgur in water the way
most Arabs would, Ayfer laughs. "Around here no man would marry
a woman who did that!" she chides.
The room erupts in laughter, the köfte-making
I have come to southeastern Turkey and
the region around Gaziantep, the gastronomic capital of the country,
to learn about Turkish-Armenian cooking, in which bulgur plays a
starring role. A cooked wheat byproduct, bulgur is not to be confused
with cracked wheat (though it often is), and is ubiquitous in southeastern
Turkey, where it originated. It is used in nearly every dish, including
soups, pilafs, salads, desserts, even drinks.
Bulgur and the traditions, recipes--- and
cultural humor--- that surround it span the generations. They also
form a common meeting ground for a people torn asunder, as my friend
Ayfer Unsal has discovered. Ayfer may be Turkish, but there could
be no better way for me to learn Armenian cooking than through her.
For years, Ayfer has been reaching out to Turkish-Armenian women,
for their cooking secrets and their friendship.
The Turkish deportation and killings of
ethnic Armenians in 1915 are well known--- what isn't publicized
are the efforts of a few, like my friend Ayfer, a newspaper columnist
and author, who are closing the wounds by seeking to establish meaningful
relationships between Armenians and Turks. Her efforts have not
always been well-received; once her brother's car was bombed, an
apparent message to Ayfer to temper her writing.
For Ayfer, who has written a two-volume
work on the cuisine of Gaziantep, her hometown, the dining table
has always been central to the dialogue of healing. She is deeply
involved with a program that brings the children and grandchildren
of exiled Armenians to Turkey, so that they can perhaps find common
ground with contemporary Turks while visiting their ancestral land.
Often, she entertains the visitors at her home, hoping that if we
can cook and eat together, then maybe we can become friends. Having
them cook with me helps them feel at home in my house. When we enjoy
food together, we can put aside the past.
My lesson in the preparation of bulgur
is taking place in Halfeti (also known in Armenian as Rumkale),
a city of low-slung, suntanned buildings that hugs the Euphrates
River in southeastern Turkey. The surface of the river seems languid,
the water a deep turquoise, but there are, Ayfer tells me, strong
Strong political currents, too. Halfeti
was once a seat of power when the Supreme Patriarchs of the Armenian
Orthodox Church made the region their base between the 12th and
14th centuries. It is also the site of the great Fortress of Hromkla,
where artisan monks toiled to produce brilliant illuminated manuscripts
now on display at Los Angeles' renowned Getty Center, and of recently
discovered Roman mosaics. But both will be lost when a major dam
project is completed in 2001. Ayfer is working feverishly with local
activists to have the mosaics excavated before they are lost forever.
We meet the mayor, Mehmet Gokcek, for lunch,
prepared by his cooks Gunay Ozal and Erminia Baydilek. Ozal, wearing
a black-and-white striped blouse and white kerchief around her graying
hair, is working in the onion, garlic, tomatoes, peppers, red pepper
paste, and other spices to give the bulgur köfte flavor. (Meat
juices are also sometimes used.) To loosen the bulgur, she gradually
adds cubed stale bread that has been soaked in ice-cold water, and
when it's well-kneaded--- firm, tender, and elastic--- Baydilek
scrambles a dozen eggs in olive oil. Ozal carefully folds the eggs
into the flavored grain, then adds chopped parsley and mint and
shapes the mixture into roughly inch-long cylinders.** It is the
molding of a food--- whether it's bulgur or meat---into the distinctive
round and oval shapes that makes a food a köfte, and how these
shapes are achieved is much of the köfte mystique.
Ozal serves the köfte with sprigs
of mint, tender raw grape leaves, and leaves of young romaine in
which we wrap the delicious mixture. Ayfer tells me how, in her
grandmothers' day, the women would gather at a public mill in the
countryside right after the summer wheat harvest to make bulgur.
For two days they would boil the hard wheat kernels until they swelled.
The kernels would be dried on the flat roofs of the houses, then
cracked and sieved to separate them by size (bulgur comes in four
sizes: extra coarse, large, medium and fine). "Everyone ate bulgur,
morning, noon and night," Ayfer recounts, so many new dishes were
Ayfer brings me to the home of Zeliha
Gungoren in the village of Jibin, across the Euphrates River from
Gaziantep. The land here is flat, covered in grape vines and pistachio
trees, and the low buildings of the town are of stone, now partly
crumbling, with fewer than 200 still inhabited.
Before the deportations of 1915, half
the population of the then-bustling village was Armenian. Some families,
fearing their daughters would not physically survive the trek to
Syria, left them behind with Turkish neighbors. Many assimilated,
and Ayfer believes that their children, like Zeliha, have brought
an Armenian temperament to the food of the region. Because Turkish
and Armenian cooking share so many dishes--- koftes, dolmas, kebabs,
pilafs, and yogurt dishes--the differences between the two are subtle
and are most often found in the seasoning. Armenian cooks use the
gentle herbs such as basil, mint, and tarragon, so the food is earthy
and aromatic. Turks are inclined toward the robust and spicy, often
adding red pepper to dishes.
Dark-haired, blue-eyed Zeliha is, Ayfer
assures me, a dynamite cook. She has agreed to teach me recipes,
but first, hearing I'm interested in edible wild herbs and other
plants, she takes us out to a meadow. She knows the names of all
the wild flora and how they can be used in cooking. Soon my notebook
is filled with pressed specimens---corn poppies, wild mustard, nettles,
mallow, and more. I ask how she learned so much. "When I was a child,"
she tells me, "I took care of our family's sheep. The other shepherds
Soon, joined by numerous female relatives,
neighbors and children, we are cooking up a storm: sarma, rolled
grape leaves stuffed with bulgur, meat, and spices;* dolmas,* vegetables
such as peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes, filled with the same stuffing;*
bugulama, leafy greens steamed with bulgur and seasoned with red
pepper, onion, and garlic;** and salads, including one of tender
raw grape leaves and grated hardcooked eggs embellished with a tart
red sumac berry dressing.
Zeliha's specialty is her tarhana** ---a
preserve of yogurt and cracked hulled wheat, dried in little lumps
in the sun, then rehydrated as needed, such as for her lentil soup.**
Zeliha's tarhana is especially flavorful because of the extra time
she allows it to dry. As she starts to mix the cooked lentils and
tarhana with a wooden masher for her soup, Ayfer interrupts. "Why
don't you try the machine Paula brought you?" she suggests."I'll
show you how it works."
Ayfer plugs in the hand-held electric blender
and plunges it into the lentils. In seconds the lentils and tarhana
are churned to a beige-yellow cream. Zeliha, gazing at this miraculous
transformation, beams with pleasure. "This is great!" she says.
"So fast!" Still grinning, Zeliha prepares a mint and pepper oil,
then stirs it into the soup, creating lovely Jackson Pollock-like
swirls. Patting the blender, she turns to me: "I can think of dozens
of ways of using this. I'll use it every day . . . and think of
The city of Gaziantep, formerly known as
Aintab, isn't particularly beautiful. With so many new buildings---
it has grown markedly since I first visited five years ago and now
has a million people---it doesn't have the aesthetic charm of other
Turkish cities. But I love its covered market below the citadel,
with gypsies selling purslane and grape leaves from baby carriages
and farmers selling pistachios and green almonds from wagons. Most
of all I love it for its human qualities, the warmth and kindness
of its people. And I love its cooking. Because of its location on
the ancient Silk Route, the food here has become a blend of the
best of Armenian, Arabic, Greek, Jewish, Kurdish and Anatolian cooking.
Gaziantep is known for its kebabs, and
two of my favorites are kusbasi kebabs, made with lamb loin strips
spiced with pungent savory, cinnamon, dried mint, cumin, and black
pepper;* and yeni dunya kebabi, made with ground lamb köfte
spiced in the same manner as the loin strips, and loquats*.The complex
spicing, the intensity of the heat and the speed while cooking make
these dishes among the best of their type. A delicious onion-parsley
salad, called piyaz salata,* is often served as an accompaniment
to the kusbasi kebabs.
Ayfer takes me to the apartment of Canan
Direkci, a handsome 50- year-old regarded as one of the most talented
home cooks in the city. As we're led into her stylish living room,
I note numerous plaques attesting to her gastronomic prowess.
Canan serves us a superb meal consisting
of, among other dishes, a soup that combines skinned wheat berries
with dark lentils and tarragon leaves, a fascinating striped cucumber
called acur that is stuffed with green wheat, bulgur, and meat;
and siveydiz, a thick stew of lamb, yogurt, and green garlic shoots.**
The shoots, which are unformed cloves, give the stew a subtle garlic
flavor. For dessert we have a superb sut muhallaba, a voluptuous
milk pudding subtly scented with rose-flower water and garnished
with pistachio slivers.** What is fascinating about the foods we
are eating is how seamlessly Armenian influences--- the subtle tarragon
flavoring in the soup, for instance--- have been integrated into
Canan's Turkish cooking, to a degree I don't think she is even aware
After the meal, it's time to read coffee
grounds. Drained cups are turned upside down on their saucers. Ayfer
and Ulker take turns reading the patterns in the grounds. Everyone
listens gravely. I note the sparkle in the eyes of various guests
as they respond to readings that hint at closely held secrets. A
reader will never tell a guest something bad, Ayfer tells me, but
there's always the possibility.
Ayfer and I go to the highlands, to a
village called Vakif in the foothills of the Musa Dagh (Moses' Mountain
area), a gorgeous region of thriving citrus orchards just a few
miles from the Mediterranean.
Vakif is one of the few remaining Armenian
Christian villages in Turkey, its residents descendants of survivors
of the tragic events of 1915 who escaped by hiding in the mountains.
Our hostess is Surpuhi Karfun, a slim, shy young woman in her early
thirties, wife of the village leader. There is no telephone or running
water, but everything in her comfortable stucco house is immaculate.
The kitchen is incredibly simple a two-burner
stove, a few aluminum pans and copper pots lined with tin. But such
food! It is different than anything we've eaten in Jibin or Gaziantep.
We consume a dish of meat and bulgur (like the traditional Middle
Eastern dish kibbeh) poached in a delicious stock enriched with
iepus mazeon, cooked preserved yogurt; baby eggplant stuffed with
bulgur and lamb and flavored with mint and pomegranate molasses;*
a stew of lamb, chickpeas, and taro root; a green bean pilaf topped
with fried onions; and tea served with a twirl of preserved bitter
orange peel called turunc.
After lunch we take a walk to the center of town,
a square with benches sheltered by poplar trees. Here Ayfer sits
with the men talking politics, while Surpuhi joins the women's sewing
"Back there I felt like I was in another world,"
Ayfer says. "It was as if we entered a time capsule, as if the bad
events between Turks and Armenians never took place." She sighs.