Empanadas with Turkish Delight?
AYLİN ÖNEY TAN“Empanadas stuffed with Turkish Delight” seems like a daring innovation by an experimental chef.
Actually it has not been invented yet, but the iconic Turkish-Sephardic delicacy, named “Borekitas de Lokum” in Ladino can be translated as such. Today is “Dia Internacional del Ladino,” the first international celebration of Ladino language, the old Spanish Sephardic Jews used to speak. This single food name can give a clue about the amazing journey of Ladino language and Sephardic cookery across the Mediterranean all the way from Spain to Turkey. Unfortunately, only people born before the 1940s speak the language as a mother tongue, nowadays Ladino seems to survive only in food names. These tiny borekitas, encased in a buttery dough, with a filling of lokum melted into a sticky sweet paste, will be the perfect nibble for kafez alegrez today, for elderly ladies in Estambul, chatting and gossiping in Ladino over a cup of perfect Turkish coffee!
The sweet-sour journey of Sephardic cookery and Ladino language started more than half a millennium ago. In the summer of 1492, the ports of Spain witnessed the start of a sad journey. Ships taking sail from Seville and Cadiz were packed with people who were forced to begin anew in order to remain who they were. These were all the non-Catholics, primarily Muslims and Jews of Spain who were expelled from Spain by the Edict of Alhambra, issued by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. The majority of the Spanish Jews who refused to convert to Christianity were welcomed to the Ottoman Empire by a special decree of Sultan Beyazıd II.
The Sephardic Jews had plenty to offer in their new country, though they were not allowed to take their belongings or any money with them. They left Spain with nothing, but with two unmatched treasures hidden in their mouths: Taste & Tongue; the taste of the food their mothers cooked, and their mother-tongue, the language they spoke. Neither would remain the same for the next 500 years but these two distinct cultural features continued to mark the community to this day.
The Judeo-Spanish or Ladino was soon to be considered as the common language of Ottoman Jews. In Ottoman lands there were already other Jewish communities, mostly Greek-speaking Romaniot Jews, or Arabic-speaking Mizrahis before the arrival of Sephardim. However, the newcomers assimilated other Jewish groups within a century of their arrival and medieval Castilian became the language of all Jews. Funnily, one Ottoman traveler visiting Spain later reported that it was strange that the people of Iberia spoke the Jewish language although they were not Jewish.
Sephardic food and eating habits were greatly preserved in Ottoman lands, probably because 15th century Spanish-Jewish and its contemporary Ottoman food culture already had an affinity with one another. The tastes were already familiar, the two food cultures shared a common heritage, both having influences from the Middle East. This was because of the fact that the Sephardic cuisine was a testament of the Westward journey of the Jews together with the initial Muslim expansion, as it carried strong traces from the early Medieval Arabic cuisine, which also served as an intellectual and cultural model for the later Ottoman court culture. Two cookbooks, 13th century Iberian Al-Andalus and 15th century Ottoman Shirvani, were both greatly based on 13th century Baghdad text Kitab al-Tabikh, also known as Al Baghdadi. The Jews had left Spain for a land that they thought was totally foreign, but in terms of foods and foodways, their destination turned out to be far more familiar to them than they had imagined.
The examples of similarities between the two cuisines were numerous. Eggplant was the foremost shared popular taste, and other quintessentially Iberian Jewish tastes like chickpeas, spinach and chard were already very popular in Ottoman cuisine. Interestingly enough, many food names in both languages had their origins from the Middle East too. Like olives, zeytin in Turkish and aceituna in Ladino, and ıspanak in Turkish, espinaka in Ladino, many names were derived from Arabic and Persian. Both cuisines liked to use a splash of sour in their food, and many savory dishes were laced with a touch of sugar or a drizzle of honey.
Eventually there was a gradual adaptation to the new land, often indicated again by names, like albondigas becoming köftes, or empanadas becoming borekitas. One of the iconic Turkish Sephardic tastes is called either köftes de prasa or albondigas de prasa. In many ways, the name reflects the journey of Sephardic cuisine and the Ladino language. The word for leek, prasa, is the same in Turkish (pırasa) but the word is originally Greek. The Turkish name for meatballs, köfte, is derived from the Persian word for minced, but nobody remembers the ancient origin anymore; köfte is considered typically Turkish. Meanwhile, albondigas in Spanish still stands for meatballs, but they had long forgotten that it originally derived from the Arabic al-bunduq, meaning hazelnut or, by extension, a small round object. Similarly, dough with a filling defines both Turkish börek and Spanish empanada, Sephardic cookery incorporating both in their cross-Mediterranean synthesis.
Today Sephardic food mostly survives in celebration meals, and unfortunately Ladino survives almost only in food names. Under the challenge of the forceful winds of modernity, these two markers of Jewish identity are now merged into one, making Ladino principally the language of food for the young generation of Turkish Sephardic Jews.
Recipe of the Week: Our recipe is very simple but its Ladino names can be confusing. Sometimes called burekas de igo or igo kon muez by the Izmir Jews, or empanadas de igos by the Istanbulites, it is simply in incir dolması in Turkish, meaning stuffed figs. Soak 1/2 kg of dried figs in warm water only for a few minutes to soften. Take about 250 gr of halved walnuts and stuff each fig with a few pieces. Place stuffed figs in an oven proof dish. Dampen with a little water and bake for about 15-20 minutes in 180°C. After taking out of the oven, dust with some cinnamon and cover to sweat and cool to develop its flavors for a few minutes. Serve lukewarm.
Bite of the week
Cork of the Week: The newly launched Tatlıca by Vinkara can be translated as Sweetish. It is, as the name indicates sweetish, but not cloyingly so, though it is not kosher, is reminiscent of kosher wine and will be the perfect match for the nutty figs.
Fork of the Week: The oldest kosher restaurant in Istanbul is in Eminönü, the small eatery “Levi Koşer Restaurant” is hidden in the upper storey of a dilapidated old han, just on the alley near Hamdi Restaurant. Note that the place is open only for lunch on weekdays, though they can stay open for dinner upon request. (Tahmis Kalcin sok. Çavusbasi Han No: 23/10. Phone: 0212 512 11 96) Another address is La Casa de Barınyurt in Şişli. (Nakiye Elgün sok. No:15, Osmanbey Şişli; phone: 0212 246 22 25; 0533 233 47 36) Note that they are open for lunch every day except Shabat (Saturday). Alternately, Old Peoples’ House Barinyurt in Galata serves groups in their dining
room situated atop their building with a superb view. Call 0212 249 79 37 for further information, and note that Barinyurt is also the kosher caterer for Turkish Airlines.