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Turks have an addiction problem. No doubt about that! The subject of addiction may vary greatly, mostly observed in chain smoking or binge tea drinking, but it is a fact that they have a tendency to overdo things.
Looking back to history they were the ones who picked the habit of coffee drinking in Yemen and brought it to Istanbul, and then introduced to the rest of the world. It might be their hunger for new things, or just curiosity, but when they develop a taste for a novelty, it seems that it turns to be an eternal love affair.
They knew the opium gum for ages, and used it pretty much like a chewing gum when a toothache popped up, probably also enjoying its sedative properties. When tobacco came from the Americas, the tobacco smoking became the new fad, but a permanent one indeed. The Ottoman merchants clustering on the waterfront of Fondaco dei Turchi in Venice must have been smoking like a chimney; that must be when the Venetians nailed the term “Fumare come un Turco,” literally “Smoking like a Turk,” meaning smoking like a chimney.
When it comes to the world of vegetables, the ultimate addiction for Turkish people is the eggplant, a taste they acquired early on, probably through their encounter with the Persians and Arabs. It was not native to Anatolia, but an introduction from India. As Charles Perry, one of the authors of Medieval Arab Cookery, notes, in 9th-century Baghdad, the eggplant was still an exotic newcomer from India with the name, bādhinjān. Originally derived from the Sanskrit word vatingana, it was transferred to Persian as bādingān, the word became bazincan in Ottoman Turkish, and eventually patlıcan in contemporary Turkish.
In the Ottoman cooking, we see that initially there was limited use of eggplants in the palace kitchen, but later on, the amount rocketed, showing an increasing passion for the vegetable. Ottoman historian Arif Bilgin provides us with exact amounts of eggplants that were bought by the imperial kitchen. Topkapı Palace registrars show that there was a purchase of only 720 eggplants in 1489, and about a century later in 1573 the number summed up to 48,140, and in another century it reached a whopping amount of 85,465 in 1642. That is really a huge number!
Today the eggplant is available all year round thanks to greenhouses, but we must remember that in the past it was a seasonal vegetable, only on the market for a mere two or three months in the peak of summer. When we think about the increasing number of eggplants that made its way to the palace kitchen, the amount for that short period indicates that there were indeed many eggplant dishes served forth at the royal tables. Apparently there was a growing passion for eggplant, and that explains why we have zillions of eggplant dishes, cooked with multiple cooking methods, fried, chargrilled, roasted, baked, stewed, braised, pickled, preserved and so on.
One of the earliest mentions of an eggplant recipe is strangely similar to mantı, the ubiquitous Turkish dumplings, and it bears the name manta. The recipe is in the treatise written in 1330 by Hu Szu-hui, the Uyghur Turk imperial doctor serving a Chinese emperor. Translated into English with the name Soup for the Qan, the treatise known as Yin-shan Cheng-yao (Proper and Essential Things for the Emperor’s Food and Drink) merges a recipe book with a manual for health care.
The recipe for eggplant manta combines sheep’s fat, sheep’s tail, onions, and mandarin orange peels all stuffed inside the eggplant and steamed. It is served with garlic and cream (probably sour cream or yoghurt) and finally sprinkled with ground basil. This recipe is thought-provoking as it can be likened to karnıyarık, a popular Turkish eggplant dish, meaning “split belly,” though today the eggplant is fried first, then stewed with stuffing but never steamed. This recipe alone indicates that the Turkish encounter with eggplants might have happened in Asia even earlier than anticipated.
The naming of this particular eggplant dish points to a stuffing as in the case of stuffed mantı, but other stuffed eggplant dishes have even more imaginative titles, such as the split belly/karnıyarık, and another being the world-famous “imam bayıldı,” which is often translated as “imam [Muslim priest] fainted.” This translation, I find, is totally misleading. The verb “bayılmak,” stands for both fainting, or liking a lot, so if one fancies something highly, it means that you faint for it with pleasure. So an imam bayıldı dish is simply to die for.
Apparently of all the vegetables, the eggplant turned out to be the one that seduced the Turkish palate most. There must be a reason for that, it could be the attractive satiny shine, or the round curvatures of its form, or the deep purple hue of its color often likened to velvet in Turkish culture, but there must more to that addiction. The reason might be hidden in the nicotine level of the vegetable. The eggplant has the highest nicotine levels amongst the edible vegetables. Though one needs to eat about 9 kilos of eggplants to have the same amount of nicotine puffed by a single cigarette, all the chargrilling, roasting, and scorching in open fire, compensates for the gap, and gives the eggplant that smokiness the vegetable naturally longs for. Maybe we should start a new culinary equivalent to the term “Smoking like a Turk,” and say “Eating eggplant like a Turk,” after all we like it with lots of smoke!
Fork & Cork of the Week
When it comes to eggplants it is tricky to pair it with wine; it actually depends on how you cook the eggplant. For me all wines have an eggplant dish to match, cool salads always with whites, cold olive oil-based dishes with roses, and meaty stews with reds. As usual my wine expert friend Mehmet Emin Türkat comes to the rescue, and here is our list: With a soothing satiny eggplant salad slightly smoky from roasting, laced with olive oil and sparked with a little lemon juice it would be a sharp white, Chamlija Quartz Fume Sauvignon 2016 will be ideal. For a cold slightly sweet oniony imam bayıldı, the only choice will be rose, Prodom Rose 2017 with its vivid acidity will be more than the perfect match, and if you have the carnivorous version of karnıyarık, split belly eggplants stuffed with minced meat, the only resort is a medium body red, Likya Merzifon Karası 2017 will just work great.