Pumpkin stories

Pumpkin stories

November is surely pumpkin time. Thanks to Halloween, which is now celebrated world-wide, we step into November celebrating with pumpkin, its images everywhere, with pumpkin lanterns, ornaments, and costumes. Thanksgiving is another time when pumpkin is celebrated, mostly in the pie form after the family dinner.

In Turkey, there is a strange habit in most local restaurants. The restaurants I’m talking about is called esnaf lokantası, which can be translated as tradesmen eateries, places that serve home-style cooking, usually only for lunch. These eateries have the habit of stacking a few huge handsome pumpkins at the entrance. When I see the pumpkins stacked, it gives me a feeling that winter has arrived. Always curious about the reason, it appears as if the place wants to display the quality of their produce and show their customers how meticulously they choose their kitchen supplies. Of course, it also implies that they do serve the much-loved pumpkin dessert, ever-present in local eateries throughout the winter times.

Pumpkin is bal kabağı in Turkish, literally meaning honey squash. Other names of pumpkin include helvacı kabağı (helva makers’ squash), or kestane kabağı (chestnut squash), which both are rather old usages now. Nevertheless, all names attribute a certain sweetness to the pumpkin and indicate that it is meant to be used in sweets. Pumpkin, Cucurbita maxima, is from the new world, originating in Mexico, and that is why it is included in the Thanksgiving menu, being a truly native crop of America. The same is true why it became the symbol of Halloween, the turnip and potato lanterns of Irish Halloween, or Samhain, was eventually turned into pumpkin lanterns when the tradition arrived in America.

When it comes to the Ottoman world, the history of pumpkin turns a bit awkward. The pumpkin, as we know today, became known in the Ottoman world around the 18th century, and began to appear more widely in the 1900s. Funnily one variety cultivated for more ornamental reasons was called “Turk’s turban” in Europe, referring to the Sultan’s turban. Of course, it had nothing to do with the Turks, actually, that variety was never popular in Turkish cuisine as its taste and texture were not favored. The varieties that were welcomed were the ones with a dense texture, not watery or fibrous, but having an almost meaty flesh. Long before the pumpkin, in Anatolia, there have been other known squash varieties, mostly of African origin, especially the long version with a creamy pale orange flesh and whitish green-grey skin, which was often called winter squash. We see such depictions of huge long squashes with one end round and a bit plump carved on Roman monuments. I spotted one such depiction on the stone carvings of the Antoninus Fountain in the ancient Roman city of Sagalassos. Even the restorer of the structure was not aware of that hidden squash figure, but of course, I had the curious selective eye, always scanning monuments for the depictions of edible stuff. Interestingly quick research in the neighboring village revealed that the same squash was present in every single backyard garden. Sometimes made into a sweet, sliced and cooked with grape molasses or grated and stewed with milk and sugar to make a halwa-like sweet, it was much liked in the village. One wonders if those recipes date back to Roman times.

It is obvious that these squashes have been around for ages, long before the American pumpkin. This local variety, which is sometimes called kış kabağı, the winter squash, can be kept for long, as its name suggests. It is used both in sweets, especially for jams and candy-like preserves, but also in hearty stews with meat. One such recipe belongs to Antep cuisine, a dish called kabaklama, which has a fun story attached to it. The dish is a meat stew made with chunks of winter squash, which was traditionally a wedding dish. The story is about a wedding where there was not enough kabaklama to satisfy the hungry crowd, and the groom was left without any. Kabaklama being his favorite food, he got furious, leaving the wedding ceremony shouting, “Let whoever ate my kabaklama marry the bride!”

Recipe of the Week: Local or American, all varieties of pumpkin are welcomed in November, It is time to enjoy its delicate taste, either sweet or savory. I have borrowed this recipe from chef Aylin Yazıcıoğlu, the former chef of Nicole, now making a comeback in Alancha, focusing her attention on Aegean cuisine, and bringing lesser-known Aegean regional dishes to a chef’s level perfection. This pumpkin recipe for bal kabağı sinkonta is a much-loved local dish, which layers thin slices of pumpkin with layers of caramelized onions and baked till tender. Sinkonta is usually eaten at room temperature as a meze, served with garlicky yogurt, but Aylin serves her with sharp cheese tarator sauce. Here is her recipe for Sinkonta:

Slice 6-7 yellow onions thinly and sweat in 50 ml extra virgin olive oil. Take care not to caramelize the onions too much, they have to take on a yellowish color, but not turn brown. Add one tablespoon tomato paste, salt and pepper to taste and continue to cook over low heat until very tender. Set aside and let cool. When cool, ad ½ bunch of chopped dill and the juice of ½ lime, mix thoroughly. Finely slice the flesh of 2 butternut squashes, or about half an average size pumpkin. Arrange sliced pumpkins in an ovenproof dish in an overlapping fashion. Spread a thin layer of onion mixture, and repeat with another layer of overlapping pumpkin slices. Continue to arrange the pumpkin slices and caramelized onions, up to 5 to 7 layers. Bake the pumpkins at 170 degrees for about 35-40 minutes until they are soft. Let cool and serve cold or at room temperature sliced in wedges like a pie, topped with thick creamy garlic yogurt, best sprinkled with more chopped fresh dill.