Angels on horseback

Angels on horseback

Aylin Öney TAN -
Angels on horseback

AFP photo

We all knew! We knew the horsemeat scandal sweeping through Europe would inevitably come to Turkey. Officially, horsemeat is not eaten in Turkey. Not that it is illegal, but it is sort of a taboo, the horse being a very respected animal that is not permissable for consumption by Islamic law. It’s simply not a part of the culinary culture, let’s say...

But who in Turkey can swear to having never eaten horsemeat?

I guess nobody! It is true that we do not have fancy horse steaks sold in butchers, but anyone who has eaten ever eaten sucuk (Turkish sausages) or pastırma (Turkish cured-dried meat) or lahmacun (Turkish, meat-topped flat bread), or döner (the ubiquitous vertically revolving kebab) or whatever non-vegetarian grub, might well have had a taste of the horse. The recent news is that there has been a series of tests on suspected meat that proved to contain horse. Many are outraged by the fear of having eaten a part of a horse, but nobody seems to be totally surprised. The horsemeat controversy reveals the split personality of Turks: Turkishness vs. Islamic identity.

Horsemeat is a delicacy in Central Asian cultures, especially in Kazakh and Mongolian cuisine. Nobody in Turkey can dare to deny their ancestral Central Asian roots. It is sort of another taboo. After all, we all grew up for generations facing the map in our school history books with ribbon like arrows sprouting from the belly of the Central Asian steppes in all directions, north-south-east-west, to conquer the world. Apparently we, the ones that ended up in Turkey, were the descendants of the west-bound arrow, still decidedly moving westward to enter the European Union.

It is true that for some, there is lingering pride in our Central Asian Turkic origins.

Who, in Turkey, preserved their ancestral lineage extending back to Central Asia is another question of course. Still, for many, it seems to be good to have such an ancestry to be proud of, an ancestry closely intertwined with the cult of cavalry and horseback adventures.

Those far-away “relatives” back in Central Asia surely loved their horses.

Horses, women, weapons. That cliché saying cited the top trio of a man’s honor and is still considered
to be valid in macho circles of contemporary Turkey.

On a more sportive note, “cirit” (horse javelin) supposedly used to be the national game; though very few in Turkey have ever ridden a horse, people like to brag about the ancestral talent of mastering horse riding.

Horse milk was the source of the first-ever national drink. Kımız or koumiss, fermented mare’s milk, was supposedly the former favorite drink of the Turks long before rakı, the anise-flavored knock-over spirit of distilled grapes.

Horsemeat was the ultimate protein of Turkish warriors back in the steppes, believed to reinforce them with unbeatable strength.

Yes, our mighty ancestors were true horse-eaters! So horsemeat indeed has a forgotten place in our culinary culture.

But then, there was a change. The acceptance of Islam brought Turks to crossroads of a culinary choice: Giving up on eating horses! According to Islamic law, religiously allowed halal meat has to be from animals with four legs, even-toed ruminant mammals – funnily, exactly like the Jewish kosher meat. However, in the Turkish interpretation of Islam, horsemeat was never frowned upon like pig and was sometimes even fondly named as lamb with a horseshoe.

Once the Turkish nationalistic movement’s motto was “We are as Turkish as Mount Tengri (Tien Shan) and as Muslim as Mount Hira.” The obvious question would be which is mightier? Tien Shan, also named as Tanrı Dağı in Turkish (God’s mountain) surpasses the mountain of the Prophet by a great deal. In that respect, Turkishness might overcome Islamic identity, and one can expect some to convert back to eating horses. Real Istanbulites at least have definitely savored horse in pides and kebabs unknowingly, especially in the old days when horse-carts almost outnumbered cars in Istanbul back in the 1950s or 1960s. Those were the years when the Istanbul city walls were turned into ad-hoc unofficial slaughterhouses for the not-so-efficient-anymore historical companions of Turks – ailing horses.

Oh yes; any meat-eater must surely have eaten lots and lots of horsemeat in Turkey; why should we abstain from eating some more in the future!

I still wonder, though, would eating horsemeat be less of a taboo if we served it forth as Equus caballus shish-kebabs?

Recipe of the Week: The recipe of the week could easily be for the name’s sake, “Angels on Horseback” – grilled, bacon-wrapped oysters. But of course bacon is out of the question and even oysters are questionable for strict observers of Islam. It’s hard to get decent oysters in Turkey – the praised oysters of the Princes’ Islands are long gone. “Devil on Horseback” could be a substitute, but again, it requires bacon to wrap around the prunes. So I came up with my own recipe and called it “Turks on Horseback.” Soak about a dozen dried Malatya apricots in a cup of freshly brewed Turkish tea. When plump, wrap each with a slice of pastırma (no matter if it is of horse), secure it with a pick or a sprig of rosemary, brush with olive oil and grill. So simple and very Turkish!

Bite of the week

Fork of the week

My first ever conscious horseeating experience was in Venice, where it is considered a delicacy.
If you ever go there, look for Macelleria Equina and order Sfilacci di Cavallo, spaghetti-like, thincut
threads of dried horsemeat. You can make a heavenly sandwich tucked in bread with a drizzle
of olive oil and a handful of rucola – rocket leaves. A true bliss for carnivores!

Cork of the week

I would recommend koumiss, the former national drink, but it is extremely hard to get hold of. You
need to have a few Kazakh friends to get the real stuff, but of course you can try to ferment your own, if you can get obtain mare’s milk. The only address that one can buy fresh mare’s milk is Köyüm At Çiftliği,, or order the real thing from Alaş Kımız Çiftliği Kazak Vadisi Kemalpaşa, İzmir,, or just pour yourself good old rakı, funnily nicknamed Lion’s milk, instead of Kısrak sütü, mare’s milk!