Engin Akin’s The Essential Turkish Cuisine is definitely not a title used lightly here; through over 250 pages of recipes, a thorough history of Turkish cuisine, cookery and culture unfolds, with fascinating insights into the origins of traditional flavours and methods, complete with interesting nuggets, such as how the turkey bird got its name. It’s a recipe book to curl up with a cup of Turkish tea (pg 248), folding down the corners on dishes you vow to make, just as soon as you’ve finished reading.
The foreword by writer Anya Von Bremzen acts as an aperitif, whetting the appetite for the feasts that await in the subsequent pages, with tales of past trips to Turkey, how she met Engin Akin, and over twenty years’ of friendship urged her many times to release a cookbook in English. This is said book, and that foreword alone has Istanbul pencilled firmly on my ‘must visit’ list.
The Essential Turkish Cuisine – a pretty hardback in blues and gold is split into four main parts: Meze (small plates); Main Dishes & Accompaniments; Bread, Pastries & Pasta; Sweets & Beverages, and then again into sections on seafood, soups, rice, kebabs, egg dishes, halva and much more, with over 200 authentic Turkish recipes. There’s also a section dedicated to the key spices and ingredients used within; their origins, meanings, uses and flavour notes, as well as useful pastes, sweeteners and syrups.
Being a veteran cookery teacher and three-time cookbook author, still running a cookery school in Ula, Akin’s recipes in are well explained and easy to follow; with the phonetic spellings and translations of traditional dishes in brackets adding exotic appeal. Every section is introduced with a dose of history, common methods and current uses of the dishes, and each recipe has a story behind it – it’s an absorbing read and excellent dinner party material.
Akin’s recipes are food for the soul: full of fresh, vibrant colours, warmth, aroma and complex tastes from the myriad of herbs and spices used in abundance. Dishes to get you through the cold months of winter, salads and grills for summer; little bites to whip up for appetisers, and treats to satisfy a sweet tooth. There’s much to inspire here: no less than fifteen pilaf recipes, with accompaniments ranging from chestnut and tangerine, to sea bass, lamb and wild fennel. The mighty aubergine, aka ‘Turkish Caviar’, is a re-occurring star through guises such as the smoky puree to serve as a dip, and The Priest Fainted: a simple baked dish of aubergines, pine nuts, tomatoes, onions, garlic and herbs, which carries various stories around the origin of the name, including one of a priest who found the dish so delicious he fainted with delight…
A section on shish kebabs and koftas conjures up images of sunny patio dining; another, listing sardines, anchovies, mussels, peppers, grape leaves and the like – dolma (stuffed) or sarma (wrapped), is a finger buffet in the waiting. 12 soups to warm the cockles right now, ranging from a more familiar red lentil to the intriguing Fresh Young Garlic and Yoghurt, to the downright delicious-sounding Meatball and Parsley, are accompanied by an interesting passage on the symbolic meaning of soup during the Ottoman era, and how they are seen and served today. Then there’s the bread section of delectable stuffed, oven-baked flatbread (Pide) and flaky pastry Puffed Cheese Borek (Puf Borek) filled with yoghurt, feta and parsley that wink at you from page 205.
I’ve salivated over the words, pawed over the vibrant photographs (if I could change one thing about the book, it would be more of those lovely pictures), and pinpointed a lot of dishes to try, but it still hasn’t made the transition from coffee table read to food-splattered kitchen go to. I just can’t decide what to make first – I’m overwhelmed with possibilities. I want everything. Or, rather, I impatiently want to hop on a plane to Istanbul and order it to feast among the colours, scents and beauty of the city. Until then, I think I’ll journey to page 224 and find a little sweet treat to whip up for afternoon tea, then stop off at page 168 for a dinner of Lamb with Quince (Ayvali Kuzu)… and then…
Published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang, Engin Akin’s The Essential Turkish Cuisine is available to buy online here. All photos are © 2015 Helen Cathcart.