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Exploring varied tapestry of Turkish cuisine

"The Turks love to eat," Ghillie Basan writes at the beginning of her much-lauded "Classic Turkish Cooking."

"Ask a Turk about his food and his eyes light up as he warms rapturously to his theme. It's not the dish that matters but the taste, the smell, the passion, the pleasure."

This is a cookbook keenly interested in more than getting a meal on the plate. Basan delves into Turkish history, spanning the last millennium from the warring nomadic tribes of the 10th century to the Ottoman Empire and the arrival of New World ingredients like tomatoes and peppers.

That colorful past produced today's Turkish culture, a diverse mixture of groups and traditions that have all left their marks on what Turks eat. There's the Istanbul-centric dishes descended from the palace cooks of Mehmet II, the emperor whose rule saw the establishment of special palace battalions for making sweet pastries, savory pastries, meatballs and more.

Versions of those recipes are still cooked today, as part of Saray, or palace cuisine, Basan writes. The reader is treated to not only recipes, but the historical forces behind sophisticated, delicate rice pilafs, silky soups and rich casseroles like Patlican musakkasi, or Sultan's moussaka.

But there are also an array of dishes from rural Anatolia and Circassian communities, unknown even today to many Istanbul cooks, writes says.

Turkey connects Europe with the Middle East, and Basan suggests that's true for cuisine as much as geography. As the Ottomans conquered territories, elements of their subjects' cuisines inevitably made their way back to Istanbul.

"It is because of this adaptation and adoption that a common food vocabulary developed and we find variations of dolma, kofte, kebab, borek, baklava, yogurt and Turkish coffee in Greece, Egypt, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, parts of North Africa and parts of Russia and former Yugoslavia," writes Basan.

Basan recommends readers use the book to explore the varied tapestry of Turkish food: yogurt and cheese dishes, vegetables, breads, meats, seafood, pilafs, poultry and game, to desserts, sweets and drinks.

Though the history and some of the spices may seem exotic, Western New Yorkers have access to the ingredients to enjoy most of the dishes in "Classic Turkish Cooking." (There's even a recipe for sour cherry syrup, for drinks, that would be quite at home in parts of Niagara County).

"The philosophy is simple," the author writes. Dip heartily into the earthy flavors, calmly savor the sensual tastes, let them dance on your tongue and paint images of the East in your mind."



Classic Turkish Cooking

Ghillie Basan

Palgrave MacMillan

224 pages, paperback, $25