A BANQUET OF OTTOMAN HOSPITALITY
by Bern KEATING The Washington Post
I get lost easily, which makes me an instant expert on the level of hospitality in the many countries I visit. In Syria, for instance, I was questioned as a spy suspect for asking the way to the airport. I assumed they were not yet ready for a booming tourist industry. In next-door Turkey, when I asked a random pedestrian the way back from Istanbul's spice market to my hotel, he hustled me into his car drove me to my destination and left me with an invitation to dinner that night at his house across the Bosporus in Asia.
The seven-course dinner was built around a vegetable cutlet, soaked in olive oil and redolent of the thyme that grows exuberantly in the Turkish wild. So exotic was the texture and flavor, I thought it was a filet of some Turkish mountain antelope.
Over the inevitable after-dinner Turkish coffee, guaranteed to help you stay up to greet tomorrow's dawn, a colleague who had accompanied me to the dinner admired an antique silver filigree tray. Our hostess instantly stuffed the tray into her guest's camera bag. So-purely as an experiment, of course-I admired a superb Turkish carpet. Sure enough, our hostess presented me with the 150-year-old kilim woven by her greatgrandmother. All this hospitality sprang from my asking a stranger how to find my hotel.
Turkey deserves the tourist boom that is flooding the country. Vast resort construction projects are springing up along Turkey's Aegean and Mediterranean beaches to handle hordes of Europeans who have discovered the sunny climate and the seashore's charms. But a sunny coastline alone cannot account for the boom. Many countries have beaches; few can match the hospitality and cuisine of Turkey.
The ancient Greeks and Romans felt the same way. Mile for mile, the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts of Turkey have more classical ruins than the Roman and Greek homelands themselves. And Turkish hospitality holds up even among the postcard and soft drink vendors who swarm about the entrances to the ruins.Staggering out from an exhausting round of the vast and glorious ruins of Ephesus, I ordered a bottle of soda at a rickety stand. After digging up a glass so I could drink like a gentleman, the proprietor offered me his camp stool. His competitors abandoned their stands to chat with me. When I expressed admiration for the stunning flowers, wild and cultivated, that adorned the Turkish countryside this spring, they conducted me down the street to admire a spectacular rose bed growing improbably around a tumbledown shack that seemed to shelter an entire tribe of Turks. The gardener was a formidable. middle-aged woman with immense shoulders and a jutting chin. The city was founded by the Amazons, who hated men and used them only as slaves for reproductive purposes, so I nervously sought to placate this muscular woman by praising her garden. She made me hold still while she pinned a rose the size of a cabbage to my T- shirt, but made no other demnds on my time.
The bus I rode from Ehesus to tour the other splendid ruins near Kusadasi stopped at a roadside restaurant in Selcuk for lunch. It was housed in a unprepossessing shack, but when a young boy met us at the entrance with a bottle of cologne to sweeten our palms, I suspected this was not your average American roadside fuel-and-eats emporium.
The hash-slinging inside, however, was in the best tradition of a U.S. Navy mess hall.
Patrons pointed to their choice from among two dozen crocks on display; the cook scooped up and splattered food on a plate with little sensitivity for the aesthetic arrangement of the portions.
There the similarity to Navy chow ended. The vegetable dishes were exquisitely spiced, the pilaf was cooked in meat stock and carried a hint of an elusive herb none of us ever identified, the lamb chops were so young and tender we expected them to bleat. Many of us went back for seconds and thirds and heard no protests from the management. Who was counting? Certainly no Turk, for all the hosts we met, commercial and private, beamed with pleasure when we clamored for more.
Turkey's preoccupation with the joys of the table seemed overdone on next morning's visit to Pamukkale. Around the Roman and Byzantine ruins of Hierapolis, mineral-laden springs have flowed over the edge and down the sides of steep cliffs, coating them with a thick glistening layer of what looks for all the world like vanilla icing on a gigantic wedding cake. Here and there little puddles of steaming water form. Signs forbid wading in the pools, but those classical ruins were once inhabited by the ancients who came here to take the baths and their descendants are not to be denied. Visitors slop about the salt-rich pools with admirable disregard for the bureaucratic signs banning bathing.
All that cake icing just made us hungry and we pressed on.
The bus stopped for lunch at the Anatolian Restaurant at Geyre. After the ritual dousing of our palms with cologne, we plunged elbow-deep into a tomato omelet of feathery weight, flaky rolls stuffed with feda cheese and parsley, called "cigar pastries," eggplant with potatoes, eggplant with tomatoes, even eggplant jam, shish kebab, lamb chops, green beans in tomato and yogurt sauce, the unfailingly delicious Turkish bread and a grilled trout that was still swimming minutes before our bus arrived.
The lunch was the epitome of Turkish cuisine. Shrewd use of fresh spices, many fresh from the countryside, lavish dousing with olive oil, surprising disguises for humble vegetables as exotic meats are tricks picked up from regional dishes during the Ottoman Empire's 500-year reign. Off and on the Turks ruled over most of southeastern Europe, including Greece and the Balkans. Turks governed the entire Middle East, including Egypt and vast stretches of the Caucasus in Asia. In all their satrapies, they picked up the local kitchen tricks and carried them to the opposite ends of their realm. They even passed along to Western Europe and America.
From the steppes of Asia, for instance, comes the skewered lamb dish called shish kebab. The name for Hungarian goulash is a corruption of the Turkish kull ashi, or "soldier's food." Americans will recognize in the Turkish doner kebab the vertical rotating lamb roast served in our Greek restaurants as gryros. It does not take a degree in linguistics or the palate of Escofier to recognize the Greek eggplant dish. familiar to Americans as moussaka, in the Turkish musakka. The world cpilaf," used in many parts of the American south for rice dishes, is also Turkish. In pide the Turkish flat bread, lurks pita, the Greek pocket bread. For generations a Christmas gift for children has been lokum, or Turkish delight. Even more paralyzingly saccharine are the layers of flaky pastry and honey called baklava, another Turkish word.
The Turk's delight in the pleasures of the table even overcomes the prohibition of wine in the Koran, for a lively sparkling rose from vineyards around Gyre graced the Anatolian table. When we piled back on the bus we hazily overlooked the bar bill. On the way back to the hotel, somebody realized we had forgotten to pay for the beer and wine we had consumed at lunch, so we drove back sheepishly to the restaurant.
The restaurateur we had bilked greeted us rapturously, waved away the idea of paying for our drinks, made us descend from the bus, called up native musicians and brought out amphoras of wine. He had a new baby boy and had been looking for an occasion to celebrate. We couldn't let him down. One development worried me. Turks eagerly embrace the West. They point out that the capital at Istanbul is in Europe, not Asia.
They have abolished the veil for women, Romanized their alphabet. In their eagerness to be Europeanized, the Turks borrow words freely from Western languages. Window signs advertise t-shirts and switsort. Film houses have a delightfuily unconscious pun in their Turkish name of sinema. Because many Turkish restaurants serve buffet style, cafes are called bufes. They advertise rasebeef or rokfor cheese sandvic. Okay, so far But I was brought up short by a bufe with a sign in the window unashamedly pushing fastfood. That may signal the end of great Ottoman cuisine.
For more information about travel in Turkey contact the Turkish Government Tourism Office,
1717, Massachusets Ave. NW. Suite 306, Washington, D.C. 20036