Monday, December 14, 2009

Food Rant

I am surprised at how much I dislike Turkish food; at least the food in the Çukurova region of Turkey. I am not sure whether it is the lack of variety that I don't like, or truly a flaw in the recipes or ingredients. An argument for the former would be the distant memory I have of absolutely loving everything I ate when I first arrived here; for the first month or so, I ate ravenously. However, by the time I returned to Canada for Christmas four months later, I'd been suffering from constant upset stomach, heartburn, and other ''mystery'' digestive ailments, and was generally ''off'' Turkish food. I was magically cured the instant I passed through customs at the international terminal of Istanbul's Ataturk Airport and sat down to enjoy a Starbucks soy latte.

Although Turkish people boast that their cuisine is wide-ranging, I don't think one can argue against the fact that each dish seems to contain the same basic ingredients: tomatoes, onions, green peppers and eggplant; each dish is seasoned with the same spices (tomato or pepper salça, salt, pepper, thyme, mint, parsley); and is served with rice and fluffy white bread.

Furthermore, I don't think one can argue that most restaurants are owned and run by people who went into the business on a whim; the people who work in the kitchen are not trained chefs. Each restaurant's menu looks and tastes the same: chicken on a skewer; beef or mutton on a spit; fish, grilled or deep-fried. Each item is prepared in the same way. A liver restaurant, or ciğerci, is a welcome change from the norm. To drink, one can choose from only Coke, ayran or şalgam; alcoholic beverages are either beer, wine or rakı.

Except in urban centres like Istanbul, which admittedly has some wonderful restaurants, both Turkish and ethnic, attempts at venturing beyond the standard Turkish fare often results in disaster: a pizza place I know of serves thin-crust pizza on maza bread, and toppings include canned corn and canned mushrooms.
But even the ''best'' kebapçı or pideci is limited by the ingredients available. Anything including chicken, beef, or mutton, is instantly sabotaged by the fact that the meat itself is not delicious. Of course mutton isn't lamb, but mutton does have its fans; the mutton that is served here is not the mutton that one finds in the UK, for example. Beef is often tough and flavourless, except for the generous salt, oil and pepper used to season it. And don't even get me started on chicken; I have never had such consistently tasteless chicken in all my life. Store-bought chicken is factory-farmed, and locals' homegrown ''free range'' chickens are skinny and feed off whatever they can scrounge up. Bread products are likewise lacking the flavour of either fresh butter or flour. Bakeries smell promising, but are always disappointing.

Dairy products are interestingly mass-produced by large national companies, unlike in Canada, where milk goes against the grain and is still very much a local product. One cannot find Beatrice milk outside of Quebec easily, nor can one find Neilson's milk in the U.S. The result is UHT milk, each brand tasting as artificial as the next; and cheese which likewise doesn't taste of milk or butter.

However, there is hope: once I got beyond my North American brainwashing against anything unpasteurized, I discovered a rich world of homemade dairy products, often for significantly less money than what was available at the supermarkets. My neighbourhood sütçü became my new best friend, delivering as much fresh milk as I wanted daily. I just had to make sure I boiled it slowly enough and long enough to kill any scary bacteria. Likewise, a trip into the nearby mountains yielded lots of homemade cheeses; a little inquiry led to sellers in the city.

I'd like to add that Saray Çiftliği makes the only kaşar cheese (the closest thing to mozarella in this country) that really tastes like cheese, and is available at their own stores and at Metro, but certainly not at all supermarkets. Homemade ''stinky'' cheeses, such as deri peyniri (cheese cured in sheepskin), are truly wonderful too, and as a result, I never miss blue cheese.
Now if I could just find some organic, free-range meat or poultry, and a few restaurants that serve it, I'd be happy!

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