A stale tale
Bread is considered sacred in Turkey, or better to say it was so in the past. Throwing away bread was believed to be a serious sin. If one would notice even a small morsel of bread dropped on the street, the common practice was to put it in a higher place, such as the top of a wall, both to place it in an elevated status and also in hope that it would not be wasted but eaten by birds. This would be done in a ritualistic manner, kissing the bread and touching the forehead with it in an act of paying respect. Bread simply had dignity. Nowadays, almost 5 million breads are wasted every single day in the country.
Naturally, with such a high symbolic status attributed to bread, traditional Turkish cuisine is very creative in recipes making use of leftover stale bread, not only for fear of being sinful, but also for the sake of home economics. The range is wide, from soups to desserts, including refreshing salads and hearty dishes. The bread used can be the usual daily white bread, or the pillowy pide that becomes tough only within hours, or flatbreads of all sorts. Actually the latter is made in vast quantities in one go, to be dried and kept in towering stacks in the larder to be reconstituted and used in dishes. One such recipe is called “ovmaç” or “omaç,” coming from the verb “ovmak,” which means to rub. The crumbled bread flakes are rubbed with a mixture of tomatoes, onions, garlic and loads of fresh parsley to be formed into patties, transforming into a satisfyingly filling, salad-tasting fresh snack.
Of all the stale bread recipes, one deserves a special mention. “Tirit,” coming from the Arabic “tharid,” is constituted of pieces of bread wetted with meat broth, and topped with cooked meat, legumes and vegetables. It is renowned as the favorite dish of the Prophet Mohammed, but in Anatolian cookery it takes on a totally different dimension. It may be soupy or stew-like; the variations are endless.
When it is made with flat breads, it may take diverse names like çullama, meaning laid or layered, or bandırma or banduma, meaning soaked. As the names would indicate, layers of flatbread are soaked in chicken or turkey stock, topped with pulled meat threads, often also covered with a blanket of garlic yogurt and drizzled with sizzling butter. Sometimes the ubiquitous simit, the sesame studded bread rings sold in streets can be used instead of bread.
In Kastamonu, a special sesame-less one, called kel simit, aka “bald” simit due to its shiny smooth surface, is produced just for the purpose. It is torn into pieces, with bone-stock poured over and a layer of garlic yogurt, heaped with sautéed minced meat and a generous splash of melted butter, it is the most heartwarming, belly-filling dish in cold winter months. One feels that in such recipes, bread is no longer to be saved for the poor, but adorned as a treat worthy of kings and sultans. It must be noted that in Dolmabahçe Palace, tirit was even recorded in menus, one recipe with buttered stale bread slices submerged in clear stock, topped with a layer of grated cheese, foamed egg whites and dotted with egg yolks and all warmed in a blast in oven must have been a royal treat indeed.
Wasting food is one of the major problems of today’s world. Luckily, awareness is being raised. Şahinbey Municipality in the southeastern province of Gaziantep has initiated a campaign, aiming at preventing wasting bread, distributing a free book featuring 46 recipes having stale bread as a main ingredient. Meanwhile in Istanbul, this year’s theme in Le Cordon Bleu Istanbul’s annual Gastronomy Days held in the French Consulate was “Wasteless Kitchen and Sustainability.” The new Fox TV show of food celebrity Refika Birgül had “tirit” in the core of the very first episode of the show, which is appropriately named “Öze Dönüş,” which could be translated as “Back to Basics.”
Seeing such efforts in eliminating waste gives hope for the future. But we have to remember that we do not need to invent new ways to save our bread, just looking back to our own culture will suffice. Just as Refika did, look back and remember your values to save the bread. It may sound like a stale tale, but it is a fresh idea for the future!
Recipe of the week:
The recipe I choose is the “Omaç” from Gaziantep, made with the dried crisp flatbreads that are always present at homes.
The flat breads are cooked on a sac, rather like a shallow upturned wok, and then left to dry. Stacks and stacks of these brittle flat breads are prepared as winter provision. When needed, they are sprinkled with water and wrapped in a damp cloth until softened. They also come in handy when preparing a meal in a hurry. A substitute could be dried-out yufka, or any other thin flat bread or lavash, provided they are well dried to absorb all the salad juices. I imagine tortilla chips can be used in the same manner.
Break 3 sheets of dried bread in coin-sized small pieces. Finely chop 1 medium onion, crush 2-3 cloves garlic, and mix with ½ tablespoon each of tomato and red pepper paste, ½ table spoon clarified butter, ½ teaspoon each of salt & pepper, 3 tablespoons ground red pepper (semi-hot or sweet according to your taste).
When thoroughly mixed, add 4 large tomatoes finely chopped, and 2 lumps of Antep cheese diced into smallish cubes. Crumbled white cheese, or mozzarella could also do. At the last minute add broken bread pieces and 1 whole bunch of finely chopped flat leaf parsley.
Knead the whole mixture vigorously until all the ingredients work into a dough-like mass. Form into bite-size patties and serve on lettuce leaves as a refreshing healthy snack that would be perfect with beer. Any combination of fresh herbs or spring onions can be used; clarified butter can be substituted with evoo; the spices can be replaced with curries or masalas.
Actually the variations can be endless - just be sure that you save the bread!