Soup for the soul
Soup is the core of Turkish cuisine. A bowl of soup bears values beyond being just a dish. The rich and the poor enjoy the same humble soup; social barriers dissolve around a pot of soup. In the rural countryside, a day usually starts with a soup as a quick and filling breakfast. Sometimes just a bowl of a hearty soup consists of a meal. Every single eatery, tradesmen restaurants, single-dish shops like meatball joints and kebab places have a daily soup to start the meal. The Ottoman imaret was a public soup kitchen, a charity institution feeding people free of charge, serving travelers, the poor, or anyone in need. Soup was omnipresent in the imaret kitchen throughout the empire, unifying the taste of all subjects of the empirical power.
Soup had a symbolic significance in the Ottoman army. The elite guards, known as the Janissary corps, held great power in the Ottoman Empire. The Janissary organization was based on the model of a kitchen. High-ranking commanders were called çorbacı, soupier or soup-man, as soup was the core of the Ottoman cookery. The emblem of the whole Janissary corps was a cauldron called kazan-ı şerif, the honorable cauldron, and the janissary headgear was ornamented with a spoon. Important decisions were taken while gathering around the sacred cauldron. Janissaries used to raise cauldrons to start a riot, tipping over the soup cauldron, spilling the soup, and banging it with ladles like a drum.
There are several proverbs related to soup. Soup represents the basic need of a person or even the right of a citizen. Soup represents the basic means of sustenance. The term “Soup Money” often translates for the basic needs of a man, sometimes meaning a tip or even an innocent-looking tag for bribery. It was once a common practice, an easy way to get things done. Soup money became the rightful little portion of a few coins in exchange for a small service facilitating something to go through in bureaucracy or similar. In that case, soup is not only soul-soothing but also pocket supporting.
Turkish soups are diverse. Usually, they are rich with legumes and vegetables, includes grains like rice, wheat, bulgur, or small-cut pasta, sometimes with a little meat or poultry. Even when meat is lacking, the restorative power of bone stock is on the stage. Then there is yogurt, which seems odd for Western palates that often associate yogurt with sweetness. Yogurt-based soups are unique to Turkish cuisine, an exciting technique, which the world gastronomy is yet to discover. The most popular, Yayla Çorbası, meaning Highland Soup, is named after highland pastures paying tribute to the nomadic life of Yörüks, who make exquisite yogurt. Though it is a warm soup, it is astonishingly refreshing flavored with dried mint, which can be enjoyed in both summer and winter.
There is a little understated secret to all Turkish soups, which is always visible but goes unnoticed. There is a final touch of drizzled hot butter flavored with red pepper or dried mint. The butter is melted to almost near-brown stage, then a spoonful or two of crushed or powdered chili pepper or dried mint is added, and the heat is immediately turned off to avoid burning of the spices and herbs but enough to release its aromas. The herb or spice preference may differ according to regional recipes, but almost all soups have this final touch, a touch of warmness and hospitality.
Recipe of the Week:
Lentil soup must be the most popular soup in Turkish cuisine. One can find it in almost all local eateries, accompanied by a wedge of lemon, sometimes served with a few quartered pieces of raw onion. Ezogelin Çorbası is another version of the ubiquitous lentil soup, based on a regional Gaziantep recipe. The name derives from a story about a young bride called Ezo Gelin who was sent across the border to marry a man from Syria and remained separated from her native town and family for the rest of her life. Although the tragic story of the poor bride is true, the connection to the soup is weak, only to give a folktale flavor to the local dish. The name was coined in the 1960s by some Istanbul kebab restaurants in order to distinguish it from Istanbul style lentil soup. The lemony tang combined with as much as a whole head of garlic is what gives this soup its distinctive taste.
Wash 1.5 cups of red lentils and 1/3 cup of rice. Put both in a saucepan with enough cold water to cover by 4-5 cm, about 6-7 cups, and bring to the boil over medium heat. While simmering, skim off any froth that rises to the surface. When the lentils and rice are tender, add 1.5 tablespoon tomato paste and ½ tablespoon red pepper paste blended with some of the cooking liquid. Add about ½ teaspoon salt to taste. Cook for 15-20 minutes longer. Peel 5-6 cloves of garlic and crush in a wooden mortar. Mix with the juice of one lemon and stir into the soup. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter or clarified butter, sprinkle with 1 tablespoon finely crushed red pepper flakes and 2 tablespoons of mint, and drizzle over the soup just before serving.