Ramadan and Turkish Cuisine
From the evening of 15th of May, 1.8 billion Muslims all over the world will be embarking upon an annual period of fasting, prayer and giving to charity. The month long festival is the biggest act of religious observance of its kind in the world and those who live in Turkey or happen to be visiting at the time can enjoy all of the traditions and rituals that go with it. Ramadan is a period of fasting where practicing Muslims abstain from all physical needs including food and drink between the hours of sunrise and sun down. Turkey is a secular country and while some do observe Ramadan, many perform their own take on the festival by giving up either alcohol or smoking, just as Christians would during lent. One thing that is true for everybody is that Ramadan is a time of bringing family and friends together, of remembering those less fortunate and perhaps surprisingly, considering the connotations of fasting, it is all about food! The month of fasting ends with a fun three day long party which celebrates all things sweet with the annual “Şeker Bayramı” (Sugar Festival).
The act of fasting during Ramadan is known as “sawm” and is one of the five pillars of Islam. Traditionally, Muslims refrain from eating and drinking anything, even water, during hours of daylight. They are also to abstain from any other physical needs such as smoking and sex and from using any evil thoughts and words during this time too. Before sunrise, participants enjoy an early breakfast called “Suhur” in order to fill up on protein and water and set themselves up for the day. But once the sun has set, the fourth of the five daily prayers has happened and the local mosque’s minaret has been lit up in green, the evening feast of “Iftar” begins!
Sunrise in Turkey happens at approximately 5.30am and “Suhur” must be eaten before this time. In Turkey, men with drums known as the “davulcu” traditionally walk the streets of the country’s cities, towns and villages in order to wake up the residents in time to eat and drink before the first call to prayer of the day and sunrise. While the “davulcu” do still practice in the historical areas of Istanbul and smaller towns and cities across Turkey, sadly this tradition is slowly disappearing due to people staying up later and the use of modern technology such as alarm clocks and mobile phones.
The whole precedent behind Ramadan is that it is a period of time during which muslims can reflect on their lives and practice moderation while remembering what the Koran teaches about kindness, selflessness and discipline. Perhaps more importantly, it is a time to remember those less fortunate than themselves; the poor, the homeless and anybody who cannot meet their basic needs. Ramadan is a time to give thanks and reaffirm a commitment to helping those in need.
During Ramadan there is a heavy emphasis on the concept of “sadaqah”; voluntary giving and good deeds to help others. Traditionally, a muslim is required to give a fixed percentage of their savings to the poor or to a charity of their choice. But kindness and charity can be provided in whatever way an individual can afford. It could be to give food, it could be to provide a roof over a head or to give money to those in need. A recent estimate suggested that British Muslims alone give over £100 million to international aid charities during Ramadan. In Turkey, the country’s Humanitarian Relief Foundation helps at least 1 million people during Ramadan each year. Citizens in 76 Turkish cities are offered aid as well as people in 93 other countries across the world. This year the foundation will be focussing on children, women, the wounded and elderly in Syria who are facing famine and thirst.
With such an impetus on fasting throughout the day, it is no surprise that as soon as the sun has set, darkness represents a time of feasting. Food plays an important part in the celebrations of Ramadan, bringing friends and family together at the dinner table; a firm tradition of Turkish culture. Ramadan and the three day feast that follows the month of fasting is an opportunity to celebrate the great food of Turkey, from olive oil mezes to treats for the sweet tooth.
Any meal served in Turkey is accompanied by some type of bread and this is certainly no different during Ramadan. Neither “Suhur” nor “Iftar” would be complete without the addition of pide, the traditional “Ramazan pidesi”. Usually bakeries across Turkey are busy baking all day long, but during Ramadan, they bake through the night ready for customers to buy the traditional pide in time for “Suhur” and in the early hours of the evening ready for “Iftar”.
“Pide” is a soft, porous, leavened bread that is shaped by hand and this particular kind of pide can only be found during Ramadan. It more closely resembles the Armenian bread “matnakash” and is made from wheat flour and yeast and is presented in a flat, round shape. It rises but doesn’t puff as the master bakers make fine designs with knives or fingers on the dough to make little pockets. Some bakers may add eggs or sesame seeds and depending on the region, cheese, meat, dates and sugar as decoration.
“Suhur" is served in the early hours of the morning before dawn and the day’s first call to prayer. Most muslim Turks indulge in a protein rich “kahvaltı” or Turkish breakfast, which allows the person fasting to avoid crankiness and weakness caused by the fast. A traditional “Suhur” includes eggs, omelettes or menemen (runny scrambled eggs mixed with tomatoes, chillies, onions, peppers and olive oil), turkish cheeses, honey, preserves, olives, dates, vegetables and bread. This delicious and nutritious food is of course accompanied by Turkish tea and lots and lots of water!
The evening feast of “Iftar”, which takes place after sunset, is where the real fun begins. It is the event of the day that brings together family and friends to celebrate the day. The first food to traditionally break the fast are dates with a sip of water, as Mohammad broke his fast with three dates. This is then followed by a light fare of meze similar to a Turkish breakfast, including black and green olives, turkish cheeses and “Ramazan pidesi”. The feast continues with several main course and vegetable selections, desserts, Turkish coffee and fresh fruit.
Soups are particularly beneficial during Ramadan and is a traditional dish at “Iftar" as it is delicious, healthy and nutritious. Beginning the meal with soup helps to replenish any lost fluids from the day’s fasting and prepares the digestive system for the rest of the meal. Favourite soups of Ramadan include “Ezogelin Çorbası” or red lentil soup, “Yayla Çorbası” or rice, yoghurt and mint soup, “Tarhana Çorbası” or “Süzme Mercimek Çorbası”, a lentil and potato soup. All of these delicious soups would of course be accompanied by the traditional pide.
Turkish olive oil, vegetable dishes follow the soup, many of which can be found on a traditionally Turkish menu. Favourites include romano beans in olive oil, pinto beans in tomato sauce, Turkish style artichoke bottoms with vegetables, stuffed eggplant and okra with tomato and olive oil. These simple vegetable dishes are sometimes served with cured meats like “pastırma” (dried, cured beed) and “sucuk” (dried spicy sausage).
Traditional main meals are served, with many cooks reverting back to childhood favourites or regional specialities. “Hünkar Beğendi” or ‘Sultan’s Delight’ is a favourite Ramadan meal of lamb stew served on a bed of creamy roasted eggplant or aubergine puree. “Kuzu Tandır” is one of the most beloved lamb dishes in Turkish cuisine and often makes an appearance during Ramadan. Lamb is cooked in a special oven made from a pit in the soil, hug from suspended hooks over hot coals and left to slow cook for hours. Other traditional dishes include lamb stewed with wheat berries, lamb kebabs with grilled vegetables and roasted chicken with chickpea studded rice.
Hydration can be a real issue during Ramadan, as muslims are not allowed to consume any liquids, including water, during fasting hours. Some indulge in Turkish coffee or tea during “Iftar” with sips of water on the side, or perhaps the national yoghurt drink “ayran”, but over the years the Turks have created two massively hydrating and delicious drinks to accompany meals; “şerbet” and “hoshaf”.
“Şerbet” is a sweet drink prepared from seasonal fruits or flower petals and herbs, boiled with sugar and spices, then strained to serve chilled. The more popular variations include rose water, sandalwood, lemon, orange, apple and tamarind. “Hoshaf” is made from cooking different kinds of dried fruits, such as raisins, apricots and cranberries, with sugar and spices and a lot of water. Once the fruits are soft and swollen, they are taken off the heat and served cold or at room temperature. Both types of drinks contain lots of nutrients and fibre and as long as the sugar content is kept low, both are healthy refreshments essential to curbing dehydration.
Otherwise known as the Ramadan Feast, “Şeker Bayramı” is the three day festival that ends the fasting month of Ramadan. Many people wake up early on the first day and dress in their best clothes to have a big family breakfast before enduring days of endless feasting. It is named the sugar festival as people tend to treat their guests to sweets and traditional desserts during the festival. It is customary to visit one’s relatives with sweet treats and for children to go door to door kissing the hands of the elders and receiving sweets and small amounts of money in return.
Traditional sweets and desserts are the staple of the three day festival, including the world renowned Turkish Delight and Baklava. But there are many delicious Turkish treats that are celebrated during “Şeker Bayramı”. Güllaç is a firm favourite, made with sheets of corn starch and wheat flour dough. Thinly rolled and almost transparent, they are soaked in a mixture of lukewarm milk and sugar and sprinkles of rosewater. and then traditionally decorated with mastic, pomegranates, walnuts, almonds, pistachios or cinnamon.
“Kaymaklı Kayısı Tatlısı” are dried apricots cooked in a sugar syrup until soft and then stuffed with buffalo milk (“kaymak" - similar to rich, clotted cream). “Revani” is a delicious dense sponge cake made with semolina flour, steeped in sugar syrup and served with yoghurt. “Kesme Dondurma” is a traditional Turkish ice cream dish made from salep and goats milk. The mixture is beaten in a specific way which ensures a thick density which produces a solid brick shape when frozen. Favourite flavours include peanut, orange, caramel-almond, chocolate, pistachio and mixed fruit.
“Künefe” is a traditional dessert made from a stretchy, unsalted fresh melting cheese called hatay, similar to mozzarella. The cheese is coated in sugar syrup soaked phyllo shreds called “kadayıf” and is fried until crisp. “Lokma” is also a favourite delicious sweet snack. Boxes of dough balls found in Turkey are the mediterranean answer to a doughnut, crunchy on the outside, soft in the middle and coated with a sugar syrup. “Lokma” means “bite” in Turkish and these appropriately bite-sized pieces are rich, chewy and very sweet!
Ramadan is quite the paradox; muslims fast all day in order to reflect and then celebrate every evening with their loved ones and an array of delicious traditional dishes. If you are lucky enough to be in Turkey during Ramadan or “Şeker Bayramlı”, you will be able to witness and enjoy this festival of food first hand. Ramadan may be a festival of religion, sacrifice and charity, but really it is a time of reflection and an opportunity to enjoy the company of family and great friends around a table of the most celebrated food in Turkey.