I have already taken you to some of the landmarks of Northeastern Turkey, and more specifically the city of Kars. Today, I decided that I would like to take you on a tour of the local cuisine. What else could you expect from a respected Taurus?! The region has an average altitude of about 2000 meters, so agriculture is not among the main livelihoods. The range of products is traditionally poorer than many other areas, which also affects the cuisine. The main character in it is cheese, to which the good people of Kars dedicated a whole museum.
Cheese is involved in many local recipes. For example, it is the main actor in the so-called “Hangel” (in the top photo), which is a variety of the traditional Turkish dish “Manti”. Simply put, it’s a white-sauce pasta. And I use the word “pasta” in the modern Italian sense, not as a small cake, as my Bulgarian mother would understand it. She would probably call the Hangel “Macaroni with cheese”, but then she would enter another culinary dispute about what Macaroni are.
The best actor in a supporting role in the cuisine of Northeastern Turkey is, no surprises there, yogurt. In the restaurants of the women’s cooperatives, called Hanimeli, they will serve it freshly made in ceramic cups or bowls. It’s so delicious that it doesn’t need anything else, but just in case, they can offer you dried fruits or honey, and honey here is not to be refused; after all, bees collect pollen from highland herbs. The yogurt is also being served as a side dish to various other meals, even the cabbage rolls called sarmi.
The third place in our food story should go to the goose meat. Here they raise some enormous geese, which traditionally were fattened throughout the warm season, however short it is at 2000 meters. At the beginning of winter, which means October, they were turned into goose meat, which was dried at sub-zero temperatures. This was the only season when one could try the specialty of goose pilaf. Today there are freezers, so it can be tasted at any time.
Speaking of pilaf, it is rarely made with rice in Northeastern Turkey. More precisely, they use rice these days because it’s easier for them. The original recipes are with a special type of bulgur, sometimes they mix rice and bulgur. Very typical of the area is the so-called “shirin pilaf”, which is rice/bulgur with dried fruits and spices like cinnamon. The fruits are often pre-fried in the so-called “yellow butter” that has been melted twice before use. The aroma is amazing.
They say that the recipe came from Iran and Azerbaijan, which are literally around the corner. In traditional restaurants, you will also be offered “erishte pilaf”. It is no longer made with neither rice nor bulgur, but something like thinly sliced pasta. It serves as a garnish for various dishes, for example “Erivan meatballs”, which is probably an Armenian recipe. It contains minced meat and spices, and is served in a sauce like a potato stew. When I say ‘potato’, you mustn’t get your hopes up; every meatball is allowed just half a potato.
The real stew, however, is called “piti” and you will find it on the Internet as an Azerbaijani dish with lamb. In Northeastern Turkey, they use goose (sometimes chicken) legs, which they cook with chickpeas and saffron. In the Azerbaijani version, you can add fruits, onions and tomatoes, here the recipe is quite simple, but very, very tasty. It is served by crumbling bread in a large bowl and pouring the finished stew over it.
Two words for local soups. “Ayran-Chorba” is like the Bulgarian tarator (cold yogurt soup with cucumbers), but instead of cucumbers here they put boiled bulgur and whatever local greens are currently growing in the field. The “Evelik-Chorba”, on the other hand, consists of chickpeas, lentils and bulgur, seasoned with the same greeneries and hot red pepper. Nowadays you can find upgraded versions with the addition of potatoes and even meat, but I liked the original. And be careful, it’s quite nutritious, doesn’t matter that it’s only a soup.
I will probably disappoint you a little when it comes to desserts. There is no great variety in Northeastern Turkey – honey, dried fruits, halva. Therefore, you should not miss Turkish breakfast. It is murderous in all corners of our southeastern neighbor, Turkey, though the flavors are different because of the local products. So, brace yourselves, find comrades to share this trial with you, and best order the breakfast straight for lunch!