Tying the Knot with Dough
It was a history of love and hate. There is a saying that big love affairs start from big hatred and of course, the course of true love has never run smoothly in history, as Shakespeare stated in his play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 1598. That is exactly what happened with the relations of two countries, Poland and Turkey. Their common history is a long and tumultuous one, dating back to 1414, when Sultan Mehmed I Çelebi received the first diplomatic mission from Lehistan (Poland in Ottoman Turkish) when he was trying to consolidate peace by setting up a state government in Bursa. Though the Polish mission was well-received by the Ottoman court, the countries soon fell into turmoil due to conflicts, followed by periods of war and peace and since then, Polish and Turkish histories have been intertwined with one another, witnessing one of the greatest love affairs of the Ottoman court.
As I am watching the famous Turkish TV series “The Magnificent Century,” dubbed in Polish in a rented room in Krakow, I cannot help but think the tie between the two cultures may have been even deeper than we think. The TV series is based on the life of Ottoman Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, and his beloved wife Hürrem Sultan, who had been the most influential and powerful woman in the Ottoman court. Her birth name unknown, she was originally from Ruthenia (hence, her nickname Roxelany meaning Ruthenian) in the Kingdom of Poland, now in present-day Western Ukraine. She was captured by Crimean Tatars, brought to Istanbul and her destiny changed when she entered the harem. Her rise from slavery to the Sultan’s legal wife, and the queen of the empire is an incredible story, recently attracting the interest of masses especially in post-Ottoman countries or in countries, which had strong ties with the Ottomans. She managed to tie the knot with the man of ultimate power of the time, becoming the lawful wife of the sultan, breaking a tradition where sultans were not supposed to marry their concubines. She was also influential in state affairs, she had written letters to King Sigismund II Augustus of Poland; in her first letter in 1549, she expressed her congratulations for the new king’s ascension to the Polish throne. Her lifetime had been a period of peaceful relations of the Polish-Ottoman alliance.
The close Ottoman and Polish relationship has led to many cultural exchanges that are reflected in daily life. Turkish rugs and carpets were much appreciated by the Polish. Oriental products fueled the imagination and were instrumental in impressing and showing off. It was not only the elite, but also the middle class and even the peasantry who were influenced by oriental fashion. This might be the reason why the word kieca, meaning “dress,” came from keçe taken from the word for “cloth” by the Polish, but actually means “felt” in Turkish. Ottoman influence penetrated Polish life, bringing coffee drinking and smoking habits, men shaving their heads, many borrowed words, especially related with military, weaponry, administration, husbandry, pasture and agriculture, most of them which are no longer used in contemporary Polish. However, one can still have its kawa/kahve, with a kajmak/kaymak roll or helva/chelwa in Poland and try to figure out how much bahşiş/bakszysz you should leave as a tip for service.
I’m here in Krakow for a symposium titled “Food and Drinks as Symbols: Historical Perspectives,” organized by the Department of History and Material Culture of English Speaking Countries. I cannot help but think of more culinary ties to explore between the two countries. As I wander in the streets of Krakow, I notice one thing that makes me strangely feel at home: The ubiquitous street vendor, Obwarzanek Krakowski.
This twisted ring-shaped bread, sprinkled with salt crystals, poppy seeds, or sesame must be a close cousin of Turkish “simit.” I learn that The Polish noun obwarzanek is derived from the verb obwarzać, “to parboil,” which refers to the distinctive technique of boiling dough before baking. Just how most simit are made, parboiled, or passed through a hot bath of pekmez (molasses) and water.
Sources point out another common name in Polish and Turkish, the word “kurdesz” coming from the Turkish “kardeş,” meaning brother or sister, is associated with brotherhood in Poland.
All of a sudden I see Obwarzanki Krakwoski and simit as siblings. It actually does not really matter which is first, or which influenced the other, they are both much loved companions of common people, nourishing their souls as well as being the ultimate street food. The two tastes of the streets surely have ties, the two twisted dough rings surely tie the spiritual knot between the nations, so I grab a sesame studded one and dig into reading a bit of history to polish my knowledge of Ottoman-Polish relations, a history full of twisted knots!
Bite of the Week
Fork of the Day: Leave your fear of gluten and indulge in carbs in Poland. In Krakow, every corner is full of wonderful baked products. “Zapiekanki” is what toast is to us in Turkey, it is an open French baguette pizza heavy on cheese, which comes to the rescue of partygoers late at night. Never leave Krakow without biting into a pillowy paczki, the one at Gorace Paczki on Sweska Street is worth going for. My choice is full of carbs but not with gluten at least, “placki zieniaczene” is a potato pancake topped with sour cream.
Cork of the Day: A bottle of John Lemon is what you have to grab in Poland today. I mean literally today and tomorrow. Brilliantly labeled John Lemon, a soft drink line of tasty lemonade variations, it is soon to become a collector’s item. The company has to sell out their stocks by the end of October. Late John Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono had it banned after threatening the company to impose heavy fines. Some bottles already no longer bear the name, but any new lemonade will be labeled “On Lemon” from now on. If you have the chance to get to hold one bottle, either save it for later (I smuggled one for my daughter) or enjoy its fresh fizz straight away by adding a crystal clear shot or two of the incredible Polish vodkas and “Let it be” boozy!