Search This Blog

Monday, October 13, 2014

Turkish Food is Greek Food

To start with, much of the similarity you'll find in these cuisines in the United States is a product of history. The most common Greek foods in the US are not especially common in the territory currently defined as Greece.
When Ataturk led the Turkish nationalism movement in rebellion against the Ottoman Empire, one of his goals was the expulsion of non-Turks from Anatolia (though many argue that he supported only peaceful means of accomplishing this, not the ethnic cleansing that ensued). At the time of World War I, the Aegean coast of Anatolia was heavily Greek, particularly around the city of Smyrna.
The first and largest wave of Greek immigration to the United States was composed of Greek refugees from Anatolia. The major similarities found in the United States between food in Greek restaurants and food in Turkish restaurants is largely a product of the fact that it is Anatolian Greek food. As Anatolian Greeks lived side by side with the Turks for close to a thousand years, their cuisines have much stronger similarities than Turkish food does to that of the Greek islands (Dodecanesian Greeks), Cypriot Greeks, Cretan Greeks, Ionian Greeks, Greeks of the mainland coast, urban Greeks, or Greeks of the mainland mountains.
Lebanese food belongs to the larger food culture of the Levant. Both Anatolian (whether Turkish or Anatolian Greek) and Levantine food are, at their roots, Persian. These regions were ruled off and on by the various Persian Empires for thousands of years. Mainland Greece famously never was, and the Aegean Islands were only briefly a part of this culture, and the cooking style has never taken a strong hold in these places. Cypriot cuisine is also a part of the Levantine food culture, though it is much closer to Lebanese than to Turkish.
One of the major factors that distinguishes Greek cuisine from that of the Levant is religion. Greece is one of the most culturally Christian nations, Turkey is technically secular but still strongly Muslim, and Lebanon is split between these two religions with a small Jewish population. This means Greeks eat pork and drink wine, where Turks do not. A number of Lebanese Christian denominations hold to Kosher laws, as the churches trace back to Jewish populations rather than the pagans and Hellenized Jews the Greek Church was founded by. The Christian population of Lebanon has also long lived side by side with Jews and Muslims, so pork is eaten in Lebanon, but not nearly to the extent that it is in Greece.
Everyone associates lamb with Greek cuisine, but in Greece proper it is mainly eaten at festivals and on holidays. Gyros, for instance, are usually pork or chicken in Greece itself. Among Anatalian Greeks, however, who lived among Muslims, lamb was more common. Hence, in the US, we think authentic gyros are lamb. As with most island cultures, the people of the Greek islands eat more seafood and pork than they do any other meat. On the mainland, chicken and pork are very common. Legumes are not nearly as much a part of the Greek diet as they are of either the Turkish or Lebanese diets.
What we know as Greek food in the US is also urban fast food in Greece. Gyros aren't common outside of cities, and aren't found in sit down restaurants. The cuisine outside cities has a lot loss in common with Turkish food. I'd say it is closer to Spanish food. It is definitely more in the family of cuisines formed by the Greco-Roman Empires than by the Persian-Ottoman Empires.

Interesting insights and many half-facts. First of all, as a historian and a Turkish resident I must say that the notion of the Persian roots is very wrong. While there is some influence of Persian culture to the cultures of Anatolia, Persian rulers only ruled for around 300 years, during the Achaemenid Empire. Turks as such only came to Anatolia in the 10th century, both Seljuk and later Ottoman, and they brought with them eating traditions that are a little different than the ones the indigenous cultures had.
Modern Turkish cuisine is mainly influenced by its Ottoman heritage, and depending on the region in some places local traditions are really strong.
I live in the western part of the country and while dishes seem similar (esp. desserts) there are quite a few differences between Greek and Turkish food. It is evident even in the ways of preparing and serving the fish (maybe I am more sensitive to it coming from another Mediterranean country) in Kusadasi and the nearby Greek island of Samos.
Turks don't consume seafood that much, besides fish and mussels, and occasional fried calamari. Shrimp dishes are a rare treat for those who can afford it, but to my utter shock most people here find seafood disgusting, especially octopus, crabs etc.
Turks use a lot more butter and dairy in general. Greek food is lighter, heavier on typical Mediterranean spices, basil, oregano, rosemary. Turks prefer sumac, isot, aci biber and other kinds of pepper, and they love the sheep tail fat.
Turkish soups are mostly roux based and much heavier than traditional Greek soups I had.
Lebanese cuisine on the other hand feels fresher and lighter than Turkish, aromas are more clearly pronounced.
For example, kisir and tabbouleh, both bulgur dishes, illustrate this very nicely. Turkish version is loaded with tomato and pepper paste that mask other ingredients, and there is no that refreshing zing you get with your lebanese tabbouleh.
But of course, any kind of generalization is an oversimplification to say the least.
Personally, I can't believe that Turks don't have their own version of falafel, since many Turkish dishes have an equivalent in Levantine cuisine.
I feel blessed to live in this part of the world where I have an easy access to all three cuisines. I'd personally choose Greek for seafood and meat, Lebanese for vegetarian dishes and salads, Turkish for desserts and mezze, as well as soft cheeses and olives.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Blog Archive