The farmers’ markets hereabouts are always buzzing with life regardless of the season and provide a wealth of fresh fruit, vegetables and other ingredients vital to Turkish cuisine. But at this time of year there are some ingredients, which at first look are totally alien to the non Turkish palate and which are invariably overlooked by foreign visitors.
The Turkish cooks in these parts are very versatile in their use of ingredients and have learned, from their mothers’ knee, which plants and fruits growing in the fields and hedgerows for free are good to eat. It is not unusual to see groups of people enjoying the spring sunshine, carrying bags full of unripe plums, shinnying up trees to raid them of their unripe almonds and clutching bundles of what most Europeans would think of as weeds. However, all these ingredients have a culinary use and Tijen Inaltong is the wise woman of Turkey, when it comes to explaining "wild cuisine" to the foreigner.
"The çağla is an unripe almond and it can be eaten whole. Try
crunching into the thick, furry shell; still soft enough not to break your teeth. They have a wonderful, slightly bitter flavour but are particularly tasty taken with a pinch of salt." Inaltong and her Turkish friends smack their lips at the thought. "They can be cooked and made into a wonderful salad too."
No tummy ache this time
The same can be said of the wincingly sour green plum ("erik" in Turkish) which for many a visitor would bring back Proustian memories of mothers shouting "don’t eat those, they’ll give you a tummy ache!" but which here are a delicacy.
It seems that the weedy patch in the garden is not for turning or burning. Inaltong explains the long list of tasty greens that can be harvested for free and used in omelettes, börek, salads and a host of other dishes.
Take wild asparagus (tilkişen) for example: this can be seen in the markets at the moment, usually in a bucket of water, to keep it fresh. It is delicious cooked with potatoes, onion and garlic or with eggs as a kind of frittata.
Kuş Otu (Chickweed, Stellaria media) has small tender leaves and tiny white flowers. In spring, it is very common in the markets. It is edible raw, but also is cooked like spinach and purslane, and is put in börek.
"One of my favorites is keçi körmeni, a type of wild garlic, is now in season." Inaltong said. "I used to buy it nearly every week at the market but when I learned to identify it, I proudly went out and collected my own. In this way I wasn’t forced to find ways to finish the great bunches that were offered in the markets, and just gathered as much as I needed at the moment."
Before the country lanes and fields of Turkey are invaded by groups of visitors hunting for "something different and free" for their Sunday lunch, they should be aware that knowing what’s what is very important to avoid poisoning, or worse. Until this skill is learnt, or groups are accompanied by an expert, it may be better to buy from the market stall.
For anyone who is already salivating at the thought of all this wonderfully different food, check out Tijen’s blogs on: www.mutfaktazen.blogspot.com and www.zeninthekitchen.blogspot.com