By MM Pack
Photography by Jody Horton
It’s been said that there are three great cuisines in the world: French, Chinese and Turkish. Yet while most of us have at least a nodding acquaintance with these first two culinary friends, the third might be a bit of a polite stranger. Elif Selvili is doing her part to change that by introducing Austinites to the pleasures of Turkish cooking and eating. Selvili, an Istanbul native who arrived in the U.S. in 1980 to study electrical engineering, has made Austin her home for the last nine years.
She’s an inveterate host of parties based around the fresh, seasonal Turkish dishes that are closest to her heart, and she provides lucky guests with a surrounding context of traditional dining customs and food history.
“My parties are always about food,” Selvili says. “I may forget to buy flowers, but I cook, cook, cook!”
Turkish recipes are often feast-size because preparation can be somewhat labor-intensive. It simply makes sense to make large quantities. Luckily the effort complements and enhances the cuisine.
“You can feed your friends, and if you have leftovers, that’s great,” says Selvili. “The longer dishes stick around, the better they taste.”
Positioned at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Turkey contains a multitude of diverse terrains that support all manner of abundant growth—from eggplants, olives, lentils and grains, to figs, grapes, apricots and peaches, to pistachios, hazelnuts, walnuts and more. Turkish cheeses and yogurt play an important role in the cuisine, as do seasoning combinations featuring garlic, dill, mint, parsley, cinnamon, sumac and red pepper powder.
Although Turkish cooking traditions appear as far back as the nomadic, pre-Islamic times, an impressive culinary sophistication developed during the 15th- and 16th-century Ottoman Empire. Chefs’ guilds refined the cuisine, and Ottoman courts passed laws to regulate food freshness. Via imperial dominance, Turkish cooking exercised far-flung influence across the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
Food historian Terrie Wright Chrones writes, “The beauty of Turkish cooking is in its affordability, use of fresh ingredients and ease of basic cooking techniques.” Selvili elaborates by noting that Turkish cooking is also quite parsimonious.
“We use everything,” she says. “[The cuisine] is also very forgiving. If you don’t have red pepper, use black pepper. If you don’t have white onions, use green onions. If a dish looks too dry, add some water. People think Turkey is an exotic place, which is nice, but Turkish cooking is mostly just common sense.”
Wearing a hand-embroidered apron from her mother’s hope chest and serving from an impressive collection of copper and ceramic vessels, Selvili recently prepared an elaborate Turkish winter feast for Edible Austin using seasonal produce and primarily local ingredients. Accompanying the fare was fragrant rak? (a clear anise-flavored liqueur) and red wine. (Turkey has a venerable tradition of making wines, but they’re not widely distributed in the U.S. Either Lebanese wines or Mediterranean-style Texas wines are the most similar types available here.)
Conducive to stress-free dinner parties, most Turkish dishes are better made ahead and allowed to rest. “There are lots of fresh vegetables and subtle spices,” Selvili emphasizes. “It’s all about building layers of flavor…about the various flavors melding together.”
Tonight, our feast’s menu—laden with winter vegetables—aptly demonstrates a variety of Turkish culinary concepts. For example, the zesty appetizer spread of feta cheese and piquant spices (Beyaz Peynir Ezmesi) is simply prepared ahead in a food processor, but the finished dish requires a bit of resting time for the spices to marry. The red lentil, bulgur and rice soup (Ezogelin Çorbas?) sings with flavor—a harmonious and complementary chorus of garlic, tomato, lemon and mint. And Selvili’s showpiece, Circassian chicken (Çerkez Tavu?u), is built in stages and topped with a complex, rich, nutty sauce. She finishes the dish with drizzles of warm olive oil, paprika and a sprinkle of nuts.
To fine-tune the recipes, Selvili relies on her taste memory. “I try to stay authentic,” she says. “But over the years, my palate has changed somewhat; I’ve lightened some dishes with less oil, less frying, less sweet[ness] than is strictly traditional.”
After a luscious dessert of silken apricots stuffed with mascarpone and sprinkled with pistachios, it was time for the feast’s crowning touch: rich Turkish coffee. Served in delicate demitasse cups, coffee is prepared three ways—sweet, semi-sweet and unsweetened—in a copper vessel called a cezve.
Selvili explains that an integral part of the coffee ritual is passing around the grinder (Turkish coffee needs to be completely pulverized to achieve the proper brew, so extensive grinding is a must). Following coffee, Turkish custom calls for telling fortunes from the patterns formed in the beverage dregs. An accomplished reader, Selvili entertains us with prophesies she sees in the bottoms of our cups. One prediction: we’ll soon be preparing Turkish feasts of our own.