Turks do have a few things to teach the world when it comes to the spices. Not every spice used in Turkish cooking originates from Turkey but it does not meat they has not acquired special place and use in Turkish cuisine. And where to get a better idea of the Turkish spices if not at the famed Istanbul Spice market, a venue where spices have been traded for centuries?
Let’s get a few things straight. If you try to educated yourself about the use of spices in Turkish cuisine by visiting the Istanbul Spice Market you may come out with rather inaccurate impressions, at best. Instead of buying what spice sellers would like to sell you should be looking for the spices you are interested in. And here are the tips to get your hunt for Turkish spices started.
Ah, the befuddling smells of the Istanbul Spice Market and witty pitches of its vendors: they addled many! Saffron (do read in a bit before buying any saffron in Istanbul), cardamon, aniseed, turmeric and other exotic spices you find at the Istanbul Spice Market are hardly used at the Turkish kitchens nowadays. They are sold as a tribute to the Ottoman times when the chefs of the sultan palace and the other noble kitchens were way more lavish with the use of spices.
Finest seasonings that money could buy from around the globe – this is what Ottoman dishes used to taste like: black pepper from South-East Asia, musk from Siberia and Himalayas, saffron from Middle East, mastic from Cyprus. While many features of Ottoman cuisine can still be found in the modern Turkish cooking there is a tremendous change in the use of spices. Modern Turkish cooks use more locally grown seasonings and do not go overboard with it – in a particular dish it is common to use just a few spices.
In addition, Turkish cooks do not use mixtures besides tuzot, a mix of dry ground herbs, vegetables and table salt. They don’t because you already know that it is rare to find over 3-4 spices in a particular dish (hence nothing to mix) and also because Turkish home cooks have a good sense on how to season their dishes instead of relaying on a cheat-sheet, or a ready mixture.
This is why in order to appreciate the real flavors of Turkish cooking it is worth having a look at the individual spices commonly used in Turkey and learning more about each – one by one.
1. Red Pepper Flakes (Pul Biber)
If you are looking at a stall of a local spice vendor there can’t be any doubt left: red pepper is dominating the space. Dried and then flaked Turkish red peppers are extremely versatile. Intense red or pale orange in color; sweet or burning hot, shining with oil that keeps freshness and pops up the flavor immediately or completely dry, wildly coarse or aristocratically fine – there is a pepper for every palate and purpose and you should taste to find ours.
While their heat may vary Turkish red pepper flakes are milder than most of the peppers found in South America or South-East Asia. My Asian customers often times challenge a spice vendor to demonstrate the hottest pepper on offer and they are rarely impressed. This is why Turkish red pepper flakes have become popular in the West: without burning your palate they still have a kick plus immediately add texture and color to the food.
Red pepper flakes are used as a finishing spice for almost every single dish in Turkey: it is customary to see a bowl of red pepper flakes next to the salt and black pepper on the tables of Istanbul kebab houses and canteens.
2. Dry Oregano (Kekik)
It may sound very Italian but oregano is among the most commonly uses spices in Turkish cooking. While fresh oregano can be a relative rarity its dry form is used way more frequently. Like many herbs oregano is extremely fragrant but also has a bitter note and this is why if you should not get too enthusiastic while seasoning your food. In Turkish cooking dry oregano is mostly used as a finishing spice, particularly in soups: a knob of butter is melted in a saucepan and as it starts sizzling you will be stirring in dry oregano and red pepper flakes to let their flavors pop up. In a few moments the seasoned hot butter can be poured over a soup – right in the cooking pot or in the individual serving bowls.
In Turkey you can also come across with a particular type of wild oregano – zahter – with a way more pronounced flavor. It has longer leaves which when dried transform into thin rolls similar to caraway seeds just green in color. If you can put your hands on this wild oregano here comes your after-meal tea (better way finish a meal than espresso or Turkish coffee, been to Çiya?)or a lead ingredient for your very own zahter mixture.
3. Dry Mint (Nane)
I am convinced that fresh mint is the most luscious herbs to flavor up your meal but everyone knows how hard it is to keep mint fresh and handy all the time. That’s why I can understand Turkish pragmatism in using dry mint every now and then. And not to make tea!
Just like dry oregano dry mint is a popular companion of red pepper flakes in finishing a soup. Think Turkish lentil soup that young brides swear by (I would know for sure, right?) or cold yoghurt soup of çaçik – this is there mint will offer its herbal and well, very minty flavor. The very same flavor – however subtle – can surely be found in Turkish pilafs prepared to be further hidden inside the neatly rolled vine leaves or bulgur pilafs with vegetables.
4. Cumin (Kimyon)
No Turkish meatball can call itself a meatball without a generous pinch of cumin. Cumin imparts earthy buttery taste and strong warming aroma to the food. Unlike the Turkish spices mentioned above cumin needs to be added early on in cooking for the flavor to thoroughly develop. Besides meats cumin combines well with legumes, a tendency you’ll notice when moving South-East in Turkey: traditional Middle Eastern treats such as humus or fava bean paste of foul mudammas (ful demmes in its Antakiyan version) will taste like nothing we know without the characteristic touch of cumin.
Cumin is at times confused with caraway seeds: they indeed look similar before grinding. But then while they have a similar piquant aftertaste I find that caraway seeds are sharper and lack the comforting buttery feel cumin has. But then spice substitution is always a personal and not very obvious choice: consider that cumin was used as a substitute for black pepper because it also has a peppery note and can be found closer to home (=more economical to use).
5. Sumac (Sumak)
Sumac may look like ground pepper but has nothing to do with the latter. Instead, it is a wild berry that is dried and ground into almost beet-like colored flakes. Like many wild berries it tastes a bit sweet and mostly sour, a union of flavors that can brighten up many foods. For instance, sumac is a seasoning in a simple salad of thinly sliced onions and parsley – often times served next to kebabs, meatballs or fried lamb liver. I find that sumac plays really well in the dishes where tomato and red bell peppers are also present as sumac takes that flavor of ripe red vegetables even further.
Besides using the dry and ground berry there is another way to add the flavor of sumac to a dish in Turkish cooking – it is sumak ekşisi, a concentrated sumac juice, essentially a reduction, that is used as a salad dressing or marinade for fish, meat or poultry – just in a way you would go about lemon juice.
6. Urfa Pepper (Isot)
Most Turkish peppers come from the South-East of Turkey hence the names often found on the labels at the spice stores: Maras, Antep, Adana. Some would even go further and suggest they have peppers from Aleppo but then you should know your red pepper flakes to trust those. And while Urfa peppers may have been just another flaked pepper hailing from the South-East of Turkey it is not.
Urfa better (isot) is not simply dried on the sun like many other varieties are: it is both dried and fermented. Urfa peppers are dried partly open partly closed which results in darker color and unique flavor that combines chocolate and raisins with smoky tones. With such a complex flavor profile Urfa pepper is easily the most exciting spice around. I am never too shy to use Urfa pepper in literally anything I make (soups, pasta, salads, meatballs – in particular): it may not have the heat of the red pepper flakes but its richer taste is enough to ask for.
7. Nigella Seeds (Çörek Otu)
My fist introduction to nigella seeds took place at the Spice Market of Marrakech, Morocco: there a spice vendor insisted on the ability of “black cumin” how he labeled the spice to cure headache and blocked nose. You just put a tablespoon of the nigella seeds into a tiny patch of cheese cloth, closed as a bundle and rub it against your palm to warm up the spice and help its aroma release. Then you bring the bundle close one nostril and take a deep-deep breath. It may have been just another tale picked at a spice shops, or “berber pharmacy’ how the call them in Morocco, but this trick really works.
It Turkey nigella seeds are known as çörek otu, pastry spice because endless varieties of Turkish savory pasty and bread are – without fail – sprinkled with nigella seeds. Besides being an edible decorative element these tiny hard charkole-black seeds are as bitter as pungent and combine very well with the other savory flavors. I am surprised that while nigella seeds are added in some Turkish cheeses we don’t see the seeds around much in salads and stews which can all benefit from this addition. But then just like with other spices it is a matter of personal preference; yet I do hope that now as you are well informed about the Turkish spices you will be curious to use them in your own cooking – Turkish or not – more frequently.
Sourced from http://www.deliciousistanbul.com/blog/2013/03/05/7-turkish-spices-worth-hunting-for/