Food & Drink: AUBERGINE WITH EVERYTHING

SUMMER SALAD DAYS 2: TURKEY

The word `meze' translates as `pleasant taste', achieved in

Turkish cooking not just through the freshness of ingredients

but the unique way they are cooked. Michael Bateman reveals

some of the secrets behind a selection of sublime appetisers

made with aubergine and other Turkish delights

he offers tips and recipes for the authentic taste of Turkey

In many parts of the Mediterranean salads are an integral part of the food culture. In the second part of our series of alternative summer salads, we travel to Turkey, home of meze.

The story is told of a first-time visitor to Istanbul. At the end of a very large and long meal he was asked by his hosts if there was anything more he would like. "I'd like a glass of water," he replied. "But without aubergine."

As a first-time visitor myself, I am able to judge that this is a gross slur on an exquisite cuisine. Rich as Istanbul is in history and architecture (it has 400 ancient mosques), the city's hidden agenda is its core of quality cooking in both the home and the restaurant. And was it not the Turks who invented meze, those delicious Middle Eastern appetisers? Tasting them in a Turkish restaurant in this country, you might think they are okay, but nothing to rave about. You've got to get to Turkey and see for yourself. We're talking about a country which was into haute cuisine centuries before the rest of Europe; the 15th century to be precise, when the Muslim King Mahmet II moved into Christian Constantinople to create the Ottoman empire.

This was the king who built the famous Topkapi Palace, where he created a luxurious style of living in which food was a symbol. His cooks developed a prodigious range of skills. Some specialised in sweet and savoury pastries (baklava and borek), others skewered meat and meat balls (kebab and kofte) and others still concentrated on intricate stuffed vegetables (dolmas). These are the specialities which live on today in Greece, Egypt, North Africa, Bulgaria and as far as Russia.

When King Suleyman the Magnificent set up his harem in the palace a century later, the notion of luxurious banqueting was raised to an exotic, indeed almost erotic, level. Prized desserts, those rich syrupy pastries, had names like Young Girls' Breasts and Virgins' Navels.

Every meal would start with a first course of appetisers and mixed salads, the meze (which translates as "pleasant taste"). The Topkapi Palace cooks developed no fewer than 200 meze dishes. And 40 of them were made with aubergine. Meze are still a major feature of every Turkish restaurant, and I sought out one which is dedicated to reviving traditional Ottoman cooking. This was Dilruba, a forward-looking steel and glass restaurant, built in a seven-acre pine wood overlooking the Bosphorous.

The director here, Vedat Basaran, taught himself Arabic script in order to research old cookery books - those written before 1923 when Turkey switched to the western alphabet. He also interviewed cooks of the older generation, in their eighties, to track down old recipes.

The result is a restaurant which is a living museum of village cuisine, with a wood-fired oven and charcoal grill as the only means of cooking used. A butter churn swings on a tripod in the wind outside the restaurant and shelves are stacked with rare pickles, such as whole garlic preserved in unripe grape juice (verjuice).

M Basaran exalts the ancient village skills, but, at the same time, points out the link between them and the palace cooks. Palace cooking is still the cooking of the people, he believes. "It is the same but done without regard to cost," he says. "It has simply been refined by wealth."

Whereas the peasant would use ordinary yoghurt, the palace chef would strain it, reducing 10 litres(1712 pints) to 112 litres (about 212 pints). The peasant eats old mutton, in the palace they cook baby lamb, where they'd only actually serve the left foreleg. "The sheep uses its right leg to get up, which develops the muscle," explains M Basaran. "The left foreleg is therefore the more tender."

Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the French gourmet philosopher, famously said that there are people who eat to live, and others who live to eat. And the latter is more true of Turks than any others, asserts M Basaran: "In country villages in Anatolia [central Turkey] people talk of nothing else but food all day," he says.

M Basaran shows me his cooks making the uniquely Turkish flatbread called "kunefe". Although the dough is rolled flat before baking, it should not rightly be called flatbread, for there is nothing flat about the result which resembles an inflated pillow.

Pieces of white dough the size of tennis balls are left to double in size. Then they are rolled so flat that they extend some 15 inches; they are brushed with egg yolk, sprinkled with sea salt and poppy seeds (or sesame seeds). They are put into the wood- fired oven where they start to bubble up in less than a minute. Then they are turned and at once balloon up to a prodigious size.

We sit down to a feast, beginning with the meze. The dishes include spinach and yoghurt spiked with mint, bean purees, tomato and green pepper salads, chunky bits of salted cucumber, grilled cubes of salty white cheese and, of course, aubergine in several guises.

One dish is made from dried aubergine, reconstituted and stuffed. Another is halved aubergines, baked with a filling of tomato and sauteed onion. One of the most delicious flavours is a simple puree, smoky, oily, garlicky, keen-tasting.

You never taste anything like this in Britain. Is it because our aubergines are insipid and watery, grown as they are in northern climes (in fact, in Dutch greenhouses)? Time for a tutorial from M Basaran and his chefs. It's not the quality of the aubergines. At this time of year, they explained, Turkish aubergines were being grown under glass in the south, resembling ours exactly. So could it be the way we cook them?

What's the secret? As the aubergine is a watery vegetable, if you are going to fry it extract as much water as possible before you start. This, oddly, may be achieved by soaking in salt water. Cut the vegetable in half lengthways or in round slices or even leave whole, paring zebra stripes from the skin. Leave to soak for 30 minutes or so. Then squeeze out the surplus liquid as you might wring out a pair of socks.

Many meze are based on making a puree of aubergine. You can achieve this by different means, and then season it with garlic, olive oil, adding other ingredients such as a raw tomato or grilled or roast tomatoes.

Aubergine which has been boiled in water produces the blandest and least interesting flesh, Aubergine when baked develops some flavour. Grilled, it will have a much stronger taste. But charred in charcoal embers or placed over the flame of a gas ring, aubergine develops the most intense and smoky taste - which derives from the blackened skin (it's perhaps an acquired taste).

M Basaran's chef gave a demonstration, cooking an aubergine in the embers of the charcoal grill. Within five minutes the skin changed colour and began to blacken and burn. The chef prodded it to test for softness, then hauled it out. He had prepared a large steel bowl, in which he'd mixed two tablespoons of olive oil, a well-crushed clove of garlic, the juice of half a lemon, a pinch of sea salt and a turn of the pepper mill. He had ready a chef's balloon wire whisk.

In his fingers, tough as asbestos apparently, he held the vegetable by its hot stem and, between thumb and the blade of a small knife, he grasped the skin at the top and peeled it downwards in strips, until he was left with what looked like a large green fruit.

With a deft blow from his knife he severed the neck from the stem and the aubergine plopped into the bowl. He proceeded to whisk vigorously. The result was a sensuous whirlpool of deliciously seasoned pulp, the lemon juice acting to retain colour as well as sharpen the flavour.

Texture and flavour are sublime. But the use of a balloon whisk is essential. It would be very difficult to achieve the same result using an electric blender, And it's very easy to make, even if you can't enjoy it with a piece torn off a pillow of delicious kunefe bread.

The following meze recipes are from an inspiring new book by photographer Jonathan Basan and his Scottish wife Ghillie, which explores these and other serious national treasures. It's called Classic Turkish Cookery (published by I. B. Taurus pounds 19.95). See page 59 for your chance to order the book at a discounted price.

SMOKED AUBERGINE PUREE WITH YOGHURT

Serves 3-4

2 large aubergines

3 cloves garlic, crushed with salt

juice of 12 lemon

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 tablespoons thick yoghurt

salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place the aubergines directly over the charcoal grill or gas flame, using the stems to turn them from time to time. The grilled aubergines are ready when they become soft and squishy, sometimes oozing a little juice. If you are using a gas flame, they are ready when the skin becomes burnt and flaky. Move the aubergines to a wooden board and slit them open lengthways, using a sharp knife.

Carefully scoop out the hot flesh, removing any flecks of burnt skin. Put the flesh into a bowl.

Use a fork to mix in the olive oil, lemon juice and garlic and bind with the yoghurt.

Season it to taste, and serve while still warm with fresh bread.

BAKED AUBERGINES WITH YOGHURT

Serves 4

4 small aubergines

4 tablespoons thick creamy yoghurt

2 tablespoons lemon or pomegranate juice

2-3 cloves garlic, crushed with salt

small bunch of fresh mint, roughly chopped

salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C/Gas 6. Wash the aubergines and place them in the oven on a baking tray for 15 minutes. Take them out and slit them lengthways, still attached at the bottom so that they open out like wings (if using two large aubergines, separate the halves - one half is enough per person). Lay the aubergine wings on their backs and bake in the oven for a further 20 to 25 minutes, or until the flesh is soft enough to press in the middle to form a dip.

Mix the yoghurt with the lemon juice, garlic and mint and adjust the salt. While the aubergines are still hot, slit the toughened surface of each half with a knife and press the flesh down with your fingers until it resembles a hollowed-out boat.

Fill the hollows with the yoghurt mixture and eat with a spoon, scooping up the hot flesh with the cool yoghurt until only an empty aubergine skin remains.

FRIED VEGETABLES IN YOGHURT

This dish, known as Saksuka, has its variations all over Turkey. Along the Aegean and Mediter-ranean coasts, deep-fried courgettes and aubergines are bound together in a thick, garlicky, yoghurt sauce; in Cappadocia, deep-fried auber-gines, potatoes and peppers are served with plain yoghurt; and in Van, the vegetables are fried with tomato and served with hot yoghurt. Deep-fried cauliflower, carrots and pumpkin are also delicious served with a garlicky yoghurt sauce.

Serves 3-4

2 aubergines, partially peeled in zebra stripes, cut into quarters lengthways and sliced

1 courgette, cut in half lengthways and sliced

sunflower oil for deep-frying

1 red bell pepper, cut into bite-size pieces

1 tomato (optional)

3-4 tablespoons thick strained yoghurt

3-4 cloves garlic, crushed with salt

salt and freshly ground black pepper

Soak the aubergine and courgette slices in salted water for one hour. Drain and squeeze out the excess water. Heat the oil in a shallow pan and fry the aubergine, courgette and red pepper until golden. Drain on kitchen paper. Grill the tomato, remove the skin, and chop roughly.

Beat the yoghurt with the garlic and season to taste. Put the aubergine, courgette and pepper in a bowl and fold in the tomato and yoghurt mixture. Serve with pitta bread or fresh bread.

SPINACH WITH PINE NUTS

Serves 2-3

225g/8oz spinach, washed and steamed

1 small red onion, finely chopped

12 teaspoon sugar

12 teaspoon cumin seeds, crushed

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon currants, chopped

1 tablespoon pine nuts

salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the dressing:

2 tablespoon thick creamy yoghurt

squeeze of lemon juice

2 cloves garlic, crushed with salt

To make the dressing mix the yoghurt with the garlic and lemon juice. Add a little salt to taste and put aside. Chop the cooked spinach to a pulp. In a small shallow pan soften the onion with the sugar and cumin seeds in the oil. Stir in the currants and pine nuts. Cook for two minutes and then add the spinach. Mix well, season to taste, and cook for two to three minutes. Transfer the spinach to a serving dish. Spoon the yoghurt over it and serve with pitta bread while the spinach is still warm.

COURGETTE AND APPLE IN HAZELNUT SAUCE

Serves 3-4

2 courgettes, cut into thick sticks and soaked in salted water for 30 minutes

1 red apple, cut into segments, peel on

For the dressing:

60g/2oz hazelnuts

2-3 cloves garlic, crushed with salt

2 tablespoons olive oil

juice of 1 lemon

2 tablespoons thick creamy yoghurt

small bunch of parsley, chopped

salt and freshly ground black pepper

Drain the courgettes, squeeze dry, and steam with the apple for five minutes. Refresh them under cold water and drain well. Pound the hazelnuts with the garlic, and mix in the oil and lemon juice (or blend in an electric mixer). Bind with the yoghurt to the consistency of double cream, stir in the parsley, season to taste. Arrange the courgette and apple on a plate and pour over the dressing.

TOMATO SALAD WITH TAHINI

Serves 3-4

4 large ripe tomatoes, skinned, halved and sliced

6 spring onions, roughly chopped

For the dressing:

2 tablespoons tahini paste 2-4 tablespoons water juice of 12 lemon

2 cloves garlic, crushed with salt

12 teaspoon cumin seeds, crushed

salt and freshly ground black pepper

Lay the tomato slices on a plate with the spring onions on top. Bind together the ingredients for the dressing until smooth and of pouring consistency. Season to taste, then pour dressing over the tomatoes and onions and serve. (Tahini paste is obtainable in Greek Cypriot and specialist shops.)

GRILLED PEPPER AND FRESH PEACH SALAD

Serves 2-3

2 green or 2 red bell peppers

2 large ripe fresh peaches, skinned and stoned

For the dressing:

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons lemon or pomegranate juice

a few mint and dill leaves, chopped

salt and freshly ground black pepper

Grill the peppers over charcoal, directly over a gas flame, or under a conventional grill. Place them in a plastic bag to sweat for two minutes, then peel off the skin under a running cold tap. Halve the peppers, remove the stem, seeds and pith, and cut into thick slices. Cut the peaches into similar sized pieces and add them to the peppers. Mix the dressing, season it to taste, and pour over the peppers and peaches. Toss and serve.

CUCUMBER WITH MINT YOGHURT

This refreshing and versatile dish is served as a salad, a cold soup or as an accompaniment to meat, when it arrives in small, individual bowls and is eaten with a spoon between mouthfuls of meat.

Serves 2-3

1 cucumber, finely sliced and salted for 5 minutes (to drain the excess water)

300ml/12 pint thick yoghurt

2-3 cloves garlic, crushed with salt

small bunch of fresh mint leaves, finely chopped

salt and freshly ground black pepper

Beat the yoghurt with the garlic. Season with salt and pepper and stir in the mint. Rinse the cucumber and add it to the yoghurt. Serve as a salad. To accompany meat dishes or to serve as a cold soup thin the yoghurt with a little water to get the consistency you require, or chill it with a few ice cubes.

BOOK OFFER

Classic Turkish Cookery by Ghillie Basan with photographs by Jonathan Basan contains all the above recipes and covers every area of Turkish cuisine. Readers of the Independent on Sunday Review can receive their copy of Classic Turkish Cookery, published by I. B. Tauris, at the specially discounted price of pounds 17.95, including post and packing. The recommended retail price is pounds 22.95.

Orders can be made by credit card on 0171 916 1069, or by sending a cheque payable to I. B. Tauris & Co Ltd to: I B Tauris & Co Ltd, Victoria House, Bloomsbury Square, London WC1B 4DZ.

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