The flavor factor
It was the photograph of a fully ripe big tomato that inspired me. The photo was taken by my food writer/blogger friend Tuba Şatana, then responsible for the photography of a book I was working on. The book project was half way through, it was on the cuisine of the southeastern province of Gaziantep, but it still did not have a proper title, and I was desperately short of finding a catchy one that captures the true spirit of local dishes. Just as I was browsing through the pictures we selected for the book, I stopped at one, and as if the apple had fallen on my head, I had my Eureka moment. It was a picture of cut open big fat tomatoes, threaded like giant beads on a huge skewer, grilling deliciously over hot glowing embers with its oozed juices dripping. “A Taste of Sun and Fire,” I yelled what describes the cuisine of Gaziantep.
August is all about sun, no doubt about it! The heat can become unbearable, but we must not forget about one of its most important blessings: The flavor factor. The taste of many fruits and vegetables only develop and fully ripen in the presence of the sun. Tomatoes especially benefit from sun ripening; the flavor factor multiplies enormously. It is because of the tremendous increase in glutamic acids when tomatoes ripen naturally with the power of sun, compared to tomatoes picked still green and ripened by gas treatment. The rise in the glutamic acids equals to the existence of umami taste, which is now considered as the fifth taste following the usual four: Sweet, sour, salty and bitter.
Umami translates as good tasting or delicious in Japanese, a term coined in 1908 by Japanese chemist Prof. Kikunae Ikeda who first discovered its existence in dashi made from kombu seaweed. It is the glutamates that are responsible for this particular flavor, stimulating salivation and giving a long lasting aftertaste. The umami taste is often described as savory, meaty or brothy. Some foods are particularly rich in umami, such as dried or cured fish and fish sauces, soy sauce, aged cheeses, fermented foods. Among the plant-based umami-rich foods, mushrooms and tomatoes stand out. Tomatoes contain both aminos and nucleotides, particularly in their interior pulp. This gives the tomato its distinct flavor, also making it a perfect vegan choice opposed to meat-based umami-rich foods.
What tomato does to a dish is to round out the overall flavor of the dish. Tomato balances the taste of a dish not only with its high umami content, but also with its sweetness and sourness, making it ultimately mouthwatering. That must be the reason why the tomato took over cuisines of certain geographies, especially in the Mediterranean belt; it is now hard to imagine Spanish, Italian, and Greek cuisines without the tomatoes now. However, once it was a novelty that came from the new world, and a suspected one, the fully ripened one was thought to be poisonous. Here in Turkey, it was also a rather new entry, only beginning to appear in dishes in the 19th century. In the southeast, the tomato still appears with the name Frenk, meaning French, a tag often used for goods that are new, modern and coming from the West. Though a rather newcomer to that region, tomato is now fully embraced and totally loved, there seems to be not a single dish that is not dyed with its deep red color.
Coming back to the umami content of tomatoes, even a fully sun-ripened tomato can be surpassed by tomato paste. Processes like cooking, drying, fermenting or curing dramatically increases glutamates in foods, naturally improving also the flavor. Tomato paste is made by first cooking the pulp to a sauce-like consistency and then the pulp is sun-reduced by leaving the paste under the scorching sun of August. The result is an umami-packed spoonful of goodness that sneaks into almost every dish.
How Turkish cuisine was before tomato is hard to imagine, but we had a pale but not lesser ingredient: The yoghurt. Yoghurt has the tang and a certain buttery sweetness that comes from the lactose content of milk. With a similar sweet-sour balance to that of tomatoes, yoghurt was used abundantly in many dishes, so it must be this fondness of sweet-sour tastes that made tomato so well adapted to Turkish cuisine.
August is the right time to savor tomatoes. Just grill them over barbecue, and there you have it. A fully ripe umami bomb ready to explode right in your mouth!
Fork of the Week: GastroAntep Festival, now on its second year, is a great meeting of local and international chefs, which will be held in the southeastern province of Gaziantep on Sept. 12-15. It will surely be a feast of flavors, bursting with umami tastes, as by mid-September the local sun-reduced tomato pastes of the new season will be ready for chefs to experiment on. Note down in your calendar, and keep checking their website for updates. http://gastroantepfest.com/
As I mention below, tomato calls for a perfect Bloody Mary. Filling and satisfying, one can just have small bites and nibbles along with it, and that would be dinner. The best bites in town to go along with cocktails are surely in The Townhouse in Suadiye. Shrimp popcorns, fried olives, mac & cheese bombs, home-made chips, and crispy chicken are dangerously addictive, so are the tempura choices with vegetables, shrimps, calamari and courgette flowers. If still hungry, there are tacos and pizettas, but make sure to try Spicy Asian, another umami bomb to savor.
Cork of the Week: When talking about tomatoes, the drink of the day is surely a good old Bloody Mary. If I have the patience to make clear tomato juice, I like to make a cocktail a cross between a Dirty Martini and a clear Bloody Mary, using a special Bloody Mary-flavored vodka, infused with tomatoes, celery and black pepper. Just let the tomato juice settle a long time so there is a clear juice on top, packed with tomato flavor. It is unworldly, pure heaven!
Another mention has to go to The Townhouse in Suadiye where they make a hearty satisfying Bloody Mary, the bartender will be happy to adjust the spiciness and flavors according to your taste. But Hey Townie, as they like to call themselves, are all about bar bites to go along with their amazing cocktails.
When it comes to wine pairing, tomato dishes can prove to be hazardous, sometimes too overpowering with tanginess. Wine expert/consultant Levon Bağış recently conducted a tomato-wine pairing session, starting with a Blanc de Noir bubbly from Kalecik Karıs grapes made with Methode Champenoise, followed by a Narince grape white, and finally going into deep inky red ones from local Öküzgözü and Boğazkere grapes, the other from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot grapes from Thrace. Astonishingly, tomato taste proves to be perfectly matching with a great variety of grapes, making it indispensable on summer tables.