This month we partnered with Rebecca Seal, author of the new cookbook Istanbul, to learn all about the bold, colorful, aromatic cuisine of Turkey. Rebecca’s recipes, which were inspired by her travels to the diverse city, offer a deliciously modern take on tradition — see a sampling of them in our Turkish dinner party menu and try them yourself!
Here, Rebecca shares a list of key ingredients that make up a classic Turkish pantry, along with her favorite uses for each one. Read on to learn about them all, then see our Q&A with Rebecca for more inspiration.
This deep red, lemony spice is used in all sorts of Turkish dishes. You can easily use lemon juice to lend a dish the same sourness, but sumac has a depth of flavor that lemons alone can’t match. It is wonderful in something as simple as raw onions rubbed with a little salt to sweeten and soften them and mixed with parsley; as a side to grilled meats; scattered over a salad; or as part of the marinade for fish. A little tub will go a long way. Keep it in an airtight jar, away from heat and light.
This is sweet but sharp and sour at the same time, a deep brown, sticky sauce that is added to many dishes to give them a vibrant acidity. Like sumac, it is often used in dressings and marinades — I particularly like what it does to simple couscous or bulgur wheat salads, where it can make fairly plain ingredients sing. It keeps for ages, so it is well worth investing in.
In cafes and street food restaurants all over Istanbul, you’ll see a little bowl of chili flakes sitting on the counter or table. Usually, it is pul biber, which is often not particularly spicy, but is very tasty indeed — quite different and more subtle and interesting than the chili flakes we might normally add to curries or sprinkle over a pizza. Turkey has a wealth of chili peppers; I also love Urfa biber, which is darker in color and smokier.
Turkish tomato paste is very concentrated, far more so than Italian tomato paste or puree. You can buy the most enormous jars of Turkish tomato paste, and they will keep for ages in the fridge as long as you pour a layer of vegetable oil over the exposed top once it is open or freeze portions of it. (Some brands can be salty, so you may want to taste your dish, if possible, before you add more salt.)
Red Pepper Paste
This can be mild or hot – make sure you check, because hot really means hot! A spoonful of this paste lends a lovely rich flavor to everything from salads to lamb dishes. I love to use it as part of the marinade for foods like sticky chicken wings. Keep it in exactly the same way as tomato paste, detailed above. (If you can’t find it anywhere, there is a recipe for a quick cheat’s version in my book.)
In the alleys around the Spice Market in Istanbul, there are dozens of tiny shops selling vine leaves. Often, they will have several vats of them in the doorway, and the white crystals forming on the uppermost leaves allow shoppers to tell how salty the brine is, as different types of leaves are used for different dishes. Back home, and away from the Spice Market, I usually only have one choice of preserved vine leaves, which means it is important to rinse and blanch vine leaves to get rid of excess salt. Vine leaves are wonderful when used to protect fish from the heat of a barbecue, as well as when they are stuffed.
Pickles are much loved in Turkey. In the UK we tend to think of Turkish food as being all about kebabs, often served with a fiery pickled chili. But Turkish food is much more diverse than that, and so are the pickles! There are even whole shops dedicated to pickles in Istanbul, and everything that can be pickled is pickled: cabbage, garlic, lemons, quince, grapes, cucumber, corn on the cob… The sharpness of pickled vegetables is a crucial part of Turkish cuisine, in which rich flavors from spices, slow-cooking or griddling meats are elevated through the addition of sour notes.