A previous article titled “Epic Tastes of Mesopotamia” explored the cuisine of the Southeast Anatolia Region of Turkey. It was part of a four-part series dedicated to the province of Mardin, Turkey. It can be found in two places under the Blog section of the North America TEN (Turkish Entertainment Network) website – under “Foods” and under “Mardin, Turkey”. It will serve another role, as Part One of Seven of a dedicated series about the cuisine of each of the seven regions of Turkey. This article is Part Two of Seven, about the cuisine of the Aegean Region. Five regions remain to complete the seven-part series and each will be addressed in future articles.
Turkey is one of the most unique countries in the world. Its seven regions stretch from East to West and include three different climate zones. This allows Turkey to be entirely self-sufficient in the growing of food for their population. Anyone who travels around Turkey will find themselves on a culinary adventure. Experiencing wonderful and varied tastes and enjoying regional recipes that have been made exactly the same way for generations. What a wonderful heritage! To be able to be part of that during a visit to any region in any country is a traveler’s dream experience. Especially if that traveler is a lover of food and different cuisines as I just happen to be!
The Aegean Region (Ege Bölegsi in Turkish) is located in the western part of Turkey. It is bordered by the Aegean Sea to the West, the Marmara Region to the North, the Central Anatolia Region to the East, and the Mediterranean Region to the South. Among the four coastal regions of Turkey, the Aegean Region has the longest coastline. Its magnificent coastline abounds in vast and pristine beaches surrounded by olive groves, rocky crags, and pine woods. It is dotted with idyllic fishing harbors, popular holiday villages, and the remains of ancient civilizations attesting to the inheritance of more than 5,000 years of history, culture and mythology.
The Aegean coastal plain enjoys an exceptionally mild climate, with soft, verdant springs, hot summers, sunny autumns, and warm winters. There are mountains perpendicular to its shores and many valleys lie between them. This permits the sea climate to reach inner parts of the region. Most of the population and the cities on the Aegean Region are concentrated on the coastline because of its convenience for sea transportation. Particularly for foreign travelers to Turkey, most will want to try the culinary delights of the Aegean Region and the Mediterranean coast because there are many popular resort destinations here, such as Cesme, Bodrum, Kas and Marmaris.
In exploring and writing about the food of Turkey, I have learned it is a huge mistake to dismiss the rich diversity that exists in Turkish cuisine by stereotyping it with just kebabs and baklava. You can dismiss that concept with just one glance at the variety of delicious Turkish dishes, appetizers, and condiments arrayed on this beautiful table. Looking at this glorious food myself definitely just made me hungry!
There are those who might attempt to claim that Istanbul is the capital of everything gastronomic in Turkish cuisine. Let me also decry that notion and say this: the more I learn about the unique cuisine of each of Turkey’s seven regions, the more I realize each region deserves attention and respect for its own unique specialties. Let’s take another step toward dismissing these and all preconceived ideas and stereotyping of Turkish cuisine, and pay a visit to the cuisine of the famed and beautiful Aegean Region.
Key Ingredients of Aegean Cuisine: Wild greens and herbs, fish, seafood, olives and olive oil are key ingredients in the recipes and dishes in this region. Aegean Cuisine is remarkably like its Mediterranean counterpart in southern Turkey. However, subtle differences in the local ingredients used in this cuisine are discernible to the taste buds of experienced food lovers who can distinguish the uniqueness of this cuisine vs. that of another region.
Like all of the regions of Turkey, the foods grown and harvested within a region, and the traditional dishes and recipes developed from local ingredients and resources, are numerous and varied. It would take a very long time to give proper respect and attention to the unique foods and products of each region. For the sake of attaining some understanding of the cuisine and flavors of the Aegean Region, I will concentrate on the products that seem to be the most prominent and, in some cases, annual festivals have developed around them. We will also see what we can discover about some regional favorites.
Izmir – The Heart of the Aegean Region: Visiting Izmir, Turkey’s third largest city, is the perfect introduction into the historical background of this regional cuisine. Previously known as Smyrna, before a great fire ruined the metropolis in 1922, a mass collective of various cultures ensured its economic success. The Jewish, Greek, Levantine and Ottoman communities swapped recipes and created new dishes that would eventually become regional classics that endure to this day.
After the fire that destroyed part of Izmir in 1922, the Treaty of Lausanne prompted the expulsion of Turks that were living in Crete. Many of them returned to Izmir bringing with them unusual recipes. Many of those included their fondness for wild greens such as fennel, and nettle, served simply drizzled with a healthy dose of olive oil and garlic. Touring the local eateries in the city center, particularly in the Kemeralti district of Izmir, will introduce the visitor to many different cultural dishes of this healthy cuisine.
Citrus: The Mediterranean coast has garnered fame as the citrus capital of Turkey, thanks to the copious amounts of oranges grown there. The major citrus producing areas are located along Turkey’s southern Mediterranean and Aegean coastal plains, where typical mild or cool Mediterranean, sub-tropical climate prevails. The third largest citrus area in Turkey is the Aegean Region, composed of the provinces of Mugla, Izmir and Aydin. The Mugla province is one of Turkey’s largest producers of citrus fruits (as well as honey, particularly pine-forest honey). Several of Turkey’s largest holiday resorts, such as Bodrum and Marmaris, are also located on the Aegean coast in Mugla province.
In the 4th Century BC, Alexander the Great introduced citrus to Turkey, as well as many other areas of the Middle East. Since then, Turkey has planted considerable areas of citrus, including most of the cultivars grown in other citrus production areas of the world. Oranges are the main citrus fruit grown in Turkey, followed by mandarins, lemons, grapefruit, and others like pumelos, sour oranges, and limes. Because of its suitable environmental conditions for fresh fruit production, Turkey has a comparative advantage in high quality fresh fruit production compared with the other Mediterranean countries producing citrus. Most of Turkey’s citrus production is used for local fresh fruit markets and for export.
Olives: Ah, but the olives! When it comes to growing olives, the Aegean Region is king. The climate in this region provides the ideal condition for the simple olive tree to flourish and thrive. Olives are a staple ingredient of Turkish cuisine in all seven regions of Turkey. The green olive and the more mature black olive are essential ingredients on Turkey’s famous breakfast table. One way they are served for the table is in a mixture of olive oil, oregano and red pepper, with toasted breads for dipping into them.
The Olive Fest of Ayvalik: Almost 80% of Turkey’s olive and olive oil production comes from the Aegean Region. The ancient culture around the olive tree has been kept very much alive by the “exchanged” refugees that arrived to inhabit Ayvalik in 1923. Many came from Crete and Lesvos, which are the major oil-producing areas in Greece. Ayvalik is a county of Balikesir province located on the Aegean Seaboard, and one of Turkey’s fast emerging but still largely untouched tourist destinations. The impressive geography in this area is complemented by pine forests and olive orchards that grow in the region’s fine, clean air. The island of Lesbos is right across the bay, and the Ayvalik Archipelago, consisting of 24 small islands, surrounds the town.
Each autumn there is a festival at the start of the olive harvest. Major entrepreneurs of the Turkish Aegean Region from the counties of Balikesir and Izmir participate in the festival, bringing their trademarked brands of olive oil, table olives, and a wide range of products produced from olives, such as soap and cosmetics.
Most everyone in this area is connected to the ancient and new olive groves in some manner. Whether by ownership, cultivation, processing, merchandise, widespread consumption in the home, or products served in restaurants. A simple walk around the streets of Ayvalik and of its neighbor Cunda Island will confirm this fact.
Wild Greens and Herbs: Located in Izmir, Alçati is one of the most attractive tourist destinations in Turkey. Its white stone houses, narrow cobblestone streets, boutique hotels, gourmet restaurants and award-winning beaches draw thousands of visitors each year from all around the world. It is particularly famous for its wide variety of edible greens and nutritious herbs.
The Alaçati Herb Festival: One of the most anticipated events each year occurs in April. The wild greens and herbs which are a staple of Aegean Cuisine are celebrated at this annual, four-day festival. First established in 2010 to revive cultural values and preserve them for future generations, this festival has become a very popular annual event on the community’s calendar and attracts several thousand visitors each year.
Those attending can explore street stands to taste and experience these natural flavors in various herb-based dishes. Attend seminars and video screenings to learn of the beneficial properties of these greens and herbs. Workshops are held for learning how to collect them, and also take part in the gathering of these locally-grown greens and herbs. Cooking classes are available for preparing recipes and dishes with these ingredients that are healthy and delicious. Joining in the mid-day parade is always a highlight, as well as participating in cooking competitions testing one’s culinary skills against other home cooks, as well as local and international chefs.
Amazing smells from both dried and freshly picked herbs and greens presented for sale perfume the air. Foods offered by local street vendors and nearby restaurants tempt the passersby to stop and sample what is offered. Lingering odors from cooking competitions drift and waft over the festival site, infusing the atmosphere and whetting appetites even more. Visitors are compelled to explore the source of all these wonderful smells. To sample and taste the local ingredients and how they are used in the traditional recipes and dishes served in this area.
Artichokes: Approximately 21 miles from the city of Izmir in the center of the Urla district, is the quaint coastal town with the same name. Its mission is to showcase its own traditional local ingredients and to share its culinary legacy of wild greens and plants. In particular, the focus here is on the coveted sakiz enginari, a type of artichoke indigenous to the Izmir region.
On the rise as a popular holiday destination, the Aegean town of Urla blends its traditional culture with the boutique hotels and restaurants that have come into the area. The city center has an Art Street devoted to local artisans, restaurants, and pretty little shops. The surrounding neighborhoods of Urla straddle the shores of the peninsula, and villages are scattered in the forested hills which overlook the Aegean Sea.
The Urla Artichoke Festival: Held for three days in April, this festival celebrates the region’s legacy of this vegetable that looks like a flower. Thousands of people come from all over Turkey and the world to enjoy this artichoke-lovers celebration. Thanks to this annual festival, it is claimed that artichoke production has reached 34 million pieces per year. In addition, it is further claimed that due to this annual festival, the income of artichoke producers has increased 275% over the last five years, an almost unbelievable figure.
During the festival, artichoke producers, farmers, and local traders present anything and everything to do with and about artichokes. There are food and art workshops, tasting events, and various seminars and concerts. Visitors can purchase artichoke jam, artichoke dishes, and textiles and gifts with artichoke themes. Since it began, the festival has attained international recognition and welcomes local as well as international chefs to participate.
Although it might be one of the least consumed ingredients in Turkey, festival organizers insist that their recipes and dishes using artichokes have to be tried at least once. They quote the passionate 18th-century food writer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who famously said: “The discovery of a new dish confers more happiness on humanity than the discovery of a new star.”
Fish: A prominent feature of Aegean cuisine is fish. This comes as no surprise given the significant number of coastal resorts, towns, and fishing villages in this region. Fish holds an important place in both world cuisine and in Turkish cuisine, and has been caught and consumed abundantly in Turkey. Despite the fact that fish and seafood has been enjoyed since the Ottoman Period, plain methods are generally preferred for preparing fish dishes served in Turkey. Simply frying or steaming the fish is generally considered to be enough to bring out the taste. What adds to that taste are the meze (appetizers) and salads that will accompany the fish to the table. Typical appetizers include hummus (fava bean puree), Acli ezme (hot pepper paste), haydari (yogurt with herbs), and enginar (artichokes).
Locals strongly adhere to their roots as small fishing villages, and take full advantage of the bountiful ingredients available from the sea. Most Turkish diners insist on fresh fish, straight from the sea. Fish restaurants are big business from the top of the North Aegean near Gallipoli to the furthest right of the Mediterranean in Alanya. Evening dining during summer is a lengthy affair since rushing your food is socially rude and unacceptable. It is a time to dine with family and friends and enjoy good conversation while feasting on fish and seafood caught that day, or straight from the sea to the grill to your table. The reputation of a fish restaurant can be made or broken simply on its ability to meet the demand of its customers for fresh fish and seafood.
An interesting side note for the traveler to Turkey: In a typical Turkish restaurant, fish is generally served with the head and the tail intact. Alert your waiter if you want the fish de-boned for you.
While sea bream, sea bass and anchovies (Hamsi)are popular all over Turkey, Aegean cuisine gives a special place to the simple Sardine (Sardalya). Sardines are very popular in Aegean regional cuisine, especially during the early fall when they are in season. Some of the best Turkish sardines are harvested near Gallipoli, where the Aegean and Marmara seas meet. You will not find pickled sardines, as foreign visitors might expect or be used to. The locals grill them fresh, and serve them with a fresh salad of finely chopped tomatoes, onions and peppers. Or coat them in corn flour, fry them, and put them between sandwich bread or serve them alone with salad and chips.
Sea Bass (Levrek) is perhaps the most coveted and popular of all Turkish fish. Massive hatcheries raising “domestic” sea bass dot the Turkish Aegean coastline to meet the ever-growing demand. However, fresh from the sea will always be more delicious. Sea Bass is best when grilled, using just a little olive oil and light seasoning. In some restaurants, chefs encrust the Sea Bass in a thick shell of sea salt before baking in the oven. The waiter then dramatically delivers the fish to the table, covers it with bourbon, and sets it aflame before serving. Imagine having this experience at your dinner table!
Red Mullet (Barbunya) is highly prized in Turkish cuisine. As it thrives in colder, deeper waters, the best red mullet are caught in the Aegean and Mediterranean seas. It has a reddish color similar to red snapper and an earthy, ever-so-slightly bitter taste. Some people prefer red mullet fried, but the most popular way to serve it in Turkish cuisine is Pilaki-style. Pilaki refers to a method of cooking common in Turkish and Greek cuisine characterized by the use of garlic, fresh herbs, carrots, spices, and tomato. When dining out, ask for Barbunya Pilaki and you will get a wonderful platter of red mullet cooked in its own juices with all of these ingredients.
Pandora (Mercan) is known in Turkey as the “fish of summer”. It has a light pink flesh with a very delicate flavor. The best time to eat Mercan is during June and July. It can be found nearly everywhere but is said to be best from the Aegean Sea. This fish can grow to be quite large, reaching up to 30 pounds, but the smaller, two to ten-pound size is preferred. Its delicate flavor lends to delicate seasoning. Cook this fish on a grill with just a brush of olive oil, some lemon juice, salt and pepper. That is all that is needed to allow the natural flavor of this delicate fish to come through.
Calamari: This is a favored starter and any Turk that highly favors their seafood can instantly spot the difference between the frozen, supermarket product and the fresh “catch of the day”. Certain restaurants have become locally famous simply for the freshness of the squid and the way they cook it. Thinly cut slices are bathed in a light batter before frying, and served with a green leaf such as roka and a tartar-like sauce made with yogurt, garlic, and lemon.
Cigirtma (Eggplant): The town of Bergama is famed for the ancient ruined city of Pergamum and the steep theater nestled into the hillside. Visitors should take a slight detour to find the local eateries which serve the regional classic of Cigirtma. Chefs combine the main ingredient of patlican (eggplant) with tomatoes, peppers and a very heavy dose of garlic. Then the dish is seasoned with salt, black pepper and red pepper flakes.
Cop Sis: Further south in Izmir, restaurants on the main highway running through the inland town of Soke mostly sell only one local dish: Cop Sis. Translated from the Turkish, its meaning is “garbage meat”, usually consisting of scrap ends of lamb. However, the marvelous taste of the small, tasty, grilled pieces of meat cooked with onions, peppers, and tomatoes bears no resemblance to the name. It came about simply because this is a cost-conscious, budget-friendly dish. First prepared as a snack or street food, Cop Sis has ascended to the status of a main course – at least in the Aegean Region south of Izmir where you will see restaurant signs advertising it everywhere!
Çiçek Dolması (Stuffed Zucchini Flowers): Another popular dish in the Aegean Region uses zucchini, specifically the blossoms of this flower-like vegetable. This dish is a great example of edible flowers and a favorite Turkish meze (appetizer) or starter. Picking the blossoms must be done at just the right time, and they must be carefully cleaned to remove the bitter tasting seeds which can ruin the whole dish.
Stuffed zucchini flowers have a light, delicate flavor and look stunning on any table. This delicacy is mostly common in the Aegean regions of Turkey during the spring and summer months when zucchini flowers are fresh and plentiful. This dish has been rediscovered by many chic restaurants in Istanbul and other major cities. The blossoms are stuffed with rice, and emphasize the region’s use of local herbs such as mint, parsley and dill. Find a chef who has perfected the art of cooking Zucchini Blossoms, and you will be happily introduced to one of the most unusual but tasty flavors of Aegean Region cuisine.
Turkish Delight (Lokum): The name of the town of Afyon comes from the sheer rock promontory topped by an age-old fortress at the town’s center. It is in mountainous countryside inland from the Aegean coast and 155 miles southwest of Ankara along the Akarçay River. Afyon (Afyonkarahisar) actually means the Black Fortress of Opium. Usually called just Afyon, it is famous for its Turkish delight (lokum), some of it made with the rich clotted cream (kaymak) also used in baklava and other treats. Legend has it that the clotted cream is produced by cattle fed on the leftover opium poppy plants. Although opium poppies are still grown in abundance around Afyon, there is no longer much of a black market for the drug. Most of the opium is used for morphine in hospitals.
Turkish Wines: Many travelers are surprised when they come to Turkey and discover it is a wine producing country. Turkey is one of the earliest wine producing areas in the world, and wine may have been made here 7,000 years ago and grapevines first domesticated here. Turkey is a fertile country with an enormous supply of underground water. More than 800 varieties of indigenous grapes are produced.
The wine regions along the Aegean coast, mostly near Izmir, account for 20% of the Turkey’s wine production. The Aegean Region has a more pronounced Mediterranean climate, with mild winters and warm, dry summers which is ideal for growing grapes.
Sirince is a beautiful hill town in the Aegean hinterland, south of Izmir, and famous for its fruit wines. The Orthodox Christian Greeks who lived here during the Ottoman Empire were famed for the excellence of their wine. The Muslim Turks who moved here from Thessaloniki in 1924 re-started winemaking using local fruits: apples, apricots, and bananas; the blackberry, blueberry, creamberry, strawberry, and mulberry (both black and white); mandarin oranges, melons, peaches, quince, and sour Morello cherries.
Foreign visitors to this area can please their palette in any way desired since this region has embraced international cuisine wholeheartedly. However, it is the bounty of the sea and the unique flavors in the traditional recipes and dishes served throughout the Aegean Region that make it a desired destination for visitors, both from Turkey and abroad.