The Bread Basket of the World
There is a reason that Turkey and the region of Anatolia are known as “the bread basket of the world”. Turkey produces some of the best and most varied bread in the world. Known in Turkey as “Ekmek”, bread is a diet staple, eaten with every meal and snack time throughout the day, from breakfast to a dinner. Due to its popularity, every village, town and city in Turkey has at least one bakery and loaves, rings and dough-balls are baked at least twice a day.
Bread has a rich old history that goes back at least 30,000 years. The earliest known types of bread are the flatbread, indeed extremely popular in Turkey. This first type of bread was probably cooked versions of a grain paste, made from roasted and ground cereal grains and water, possibly developed accidentally. The bakers of the Ottoman period believed that after his expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Adam, the Patron Saint of Bakers, learned how to make bread fro the Archangel Gabriel and the secret to the best tasting bread in the world is still held dear by Turkish bakers.
Bread in Turkish Culture
In Turkey, a meal isn’t a meal without bread. Eating bread has become a cultural habit for the Turkish, it is just part of their fabric. Bread has always been considered a ‘peasant food’ as it is easy to make, cheap to produce and very filling. But bread is for everyone in Turkey, rich or poor. In fact, quite often you will find bags of bread left out in bags on walls or hanging from gates as the rich give bread away to the poor and needy.
Bread is of such importance in Turkey that even to throw bread is an insult, and you should never ever insult the bread. No bread should ever go to waste, hence the giving away of bread to the poor. The richer citizens of Turkey believe that you should never waste bread as one day, you might be poor and in need of bread, regretting the time that you wasted it. You will often hear a Turk exclaim “I am Turkish, I must have bread” or “of course I want bread, I am a Turk”. Eating bread is simply in their culture, their history, their blood and their religion.
The Importance of Bread in Islam
With Islam being such a huge part of Turkish culture, it is unsurprising that bread has become such an important part of life. Before baking bread, the baker will say the word “Bismillah” meaning “In the name of God” before placing it in the oven. If you should see bread lying on the ground, it should be picked up and placed where it cannot be stood on, and you should also say “Bismillah”. It is quite a humbling thought, to believe that every piece of bread that you eat in Turkey has been blessed and baked in the name of Allah.
So, the importance of bread in Islam and Turkey is quite clear. You should respect the bread, but especially during festivals and days of religious importance. During the fasting month of Ramazan, the holy month, the popular Turkish bread, pide, is baked daily just before sundown and the millions of Muslims across Turkey will rush to their local bakeries to grab themselves a loaf of pide for their evening meal. For the many feast days throughout the Islamic calendar, differently flavoured breads are created with the addition of butter, spices and fragrant herbs. During feast celebrations, you can find bread adorned with salt, cumin, saffron, sesame, mustard and watermelon seeds among other decorations.
Bread Baking Techniques
There are two main types of bread in Turkey, leavened, breads baked with raising agents such as yeast and unleavened, usually flatbreads. The different doughs, created from a variety of wheats and barleys, flours and seeds, are rolled out to the desired thickness with a rolling pin known as an oklava; usually a long thin cylinder of wood. Turkish breads are very specific about the width and thickness of the different types of bread, so the oklava rolling is an important part of the bread making process.
There are then the different ways of cooking the bread. Some are oven baked in a pan as we would be used to in the western world. Most Turkish breads are cooked on what is known as a ‘sac’, a convex iron griddle placed over a fire or filled with hot coals. Another popular way to bake bread in Turkey is in a tandır oven. Originally used by families in rural villages, a tandır oven is made of clay and would often be kept outside the main house and primarily used to bake bread. The technique used today is based on this idea, using clay ovens or metal replicas and the dough is often stuck to the inside wall of the tandır to cook. One other technique worth mentioning is the pebble baking. A fire is lit in an oven and pebbles are placed on the floor of the oven. The dough is backed directly on the hot pebbles. This type of baking is particularly popular in the Eastern Anatolia region.
The Most Popular Types of Bread in Turkey
‘Yufka’ is an unleavened bread baked on a sac. Turks were eating this bread 1300 years ago and it is now one of the most important breads in Turkey. Usually made from wheat flour, water and salt. After kneading, the dough is allowed to rest for 30 minutes. The dough pieces are rounded and rolled out very thinly to about 18 inches in diameter before it is laid on the sac for a few minutes to cook. Like a pancake, the dough is cooked on both sides. After baking, yufka has a low moisture content and a long shelf life.
‘Pide’ is an obvious favourite and the chief type of bread in Turkey. Flours used are wheat, rye and corn flour and the dough is rolled out thin and flat. Topped with meat and cheese, they are known as ‘Turkish Pizzas’.
‘Bazlama’ is a common type of Turkish bread, single layered, flat, circular and leavened, with a creamy yellow colour. This type of bread can be cooked on a sac or in a tandır.
‘Börek' is a popular dough based food, presenting as more of a pastry than a bread. Böreks are made with dough and layered with fat. A common characteristic is that the doughs are rolled out extremely thin with an oklava. The thin layers of dough are then rolled or filled with other ingredients such as meat and vegetables. A popular choice is cheese and spinach or herbs. On a Turkish menu, you will see these listed as ‘Sigara Böreği’ and they are delicious!
The ever popular Turkish snack, ‘Gözleme’, known to tourists as a Turkish pancake, is actually a yufka bread cooked on a griddle and layered with oil. The bread is then filled with savoury or sweet foods and folded or rolled like a pancake.
‘Simit’ is a circular bread, covered with sesame seeds or less commonly, poppy, flax or sunflower seeds. The size, taste and crush of a ‘Simit' will vary depending on what region you are in. In Izmir, the limit is known as ‘Gevrek’ which translates as ‘crisp’ and is very similar to the Istanbul variety which are made with molasses. ‘Simits’ in Ankara are smaller and crispier. Apparently ‘Simits’ have been produced in Istanbul since 1525.
‘Manti' are dumplings of dough filled with a special met mix, eaten with generous servings of garlic yoghurt and melted butter with paprika, often classed as meal in themselves.
Regional Variations of Bread in Turkey
Central Anatolia is a particularly important and well known area for bread, it is here that the phrase “the bread basket of the world” originated.‘Bazlama’ in Niğde and Elazığ are rolled out much thinner than anywhere else at just 2mm in thickness. The colour of ‘Bazlama’ also varies in this region depending on what kind of flour is used.
‘Yufka’ also originated in Central Anatolia. This ancient bread can be stored for 6 months if it is tired on the sac and so it is known here as the ‘winter bread’. In rural areas if Central Anatolia, villages have ‘Yufka’ parties where they make the bread ready to be stored and eaten over winter. The capital city of of Turkey, Ankara is famed for it’s ‘Ebleme’ bread which is baked by dividing leavened dough into pieces and rolling them out like yufka, then cooked on a sac. After cooking, both sides are oiled.
Niğde in Central Anatolia is well known for Halka bread which is rolled into a thick rope by hand, made into a U shape and baked in the oven. It is over-baked and then allowed to dry for two days after which it is stored hung over a rope. Sivas is home to the Ev Ekmegi, a home baked bread, ‘Ev’ meaning ‘house’, where the dough is softer than normal, and placed in a clay pot known as a çerepene. This is then covered with a sac filled with coals and the heat from this bakes the bread.
The Aegean Region, including the city of Izmir is where ‘Tepsi’ bread originated, the closest to westernized bread, known as oven bread. The yeasted dough is put into pans or trays and oven baked.
The Black Sea Region is famous for its corn breads, made of corn meal, flour and water, usually unleavened, sometimes brushed with a beaten egg. These breads are traditionally baked on a sac or in a pan in the oven and are yellow in colour thanks to the corn flour. The city of Artvin is famed for its Kakala bread, round pieces of dough cooked in a deep stone oven called a Pileki. The round pieces of dough are joined together during the baking process and resemble a ‘tear and share’ loaf.
The Mediterranean is also an important region when it comes to the baking of bread. As a popular tourist area, the areas around the cities of Adana, Antakya, Antalya, and Fethiye are leading producers of Millet or Darı seeds. These seeds are ground up and mixed with milk or the turkish yoghurt drink, ayran and made into dough which are then baked to make a bread with a milky, seedy twist. In Isparta you will find ‘Yuvarlak’, which when translated means ‘round’, leavened dough is shaped into ovals, sprinkled with sesame and poppy seeds, cooked in a warm oven overnight. It is very dry when baked so it is often moistened when it is to be eaten. Hatay - Malayı. In Antalya you will be likely to find ‘Fırın Ekmeği’, which is a type of ‘Somun' bread, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. A fantastic accompaniment to Turkish soups!