Ottoman Express

Beet dip with Za'atar
Lately I've found my culinary tastes dwelling on a particular regional cuisine instead of drifting all over the world as it normally does. It might be easy to describe as Turkish food, but its more accurate to say Ottoman food, or, food created in areas previously encompassed by the Ottoman empire, from Southern Europe to the Middle East. (I should note that for many of this region, its not a particularly cherished historical memory. But it did make for some great culinary-cross pollination.) It means that incredibly vegan-friendly range of food that gets its taste from creatively concentrated vegetables, fresh herbs, and pungent spices. I'm talking the sweet-sharp hit of pureed eggplant, paprika and onion in Balkan Ajvar, the omnipresent fresh mint, parsley and lemon topping Turkish salads, and the smoky paprika-infused oil glistening in a Hungarian paprikash.

Living in Berlin means that all the needed ingredients for this Balkan-Middle Eastern binge is right at my fingertips, and quite inexpensive. (I defy you to find a cheaper source of Za'atar and sumac than my local grocery store.) It also means you can see the persuasive power of this magic region, as Germans here prefer doner kebab to currywurst as their beer companion, and are far too comfortable drinking salted yogurt beverages (Ayran), slurping lentil soup for breakfast, or binging on cups full of mint and bulgar on a fast food break. Which only means that when I serve something with tahini for the fourth time this week, my own German hardly raises an eyebrow.

I've got a couple recipes I want to share when I perfect them (my own versions of Persian crispy rice, Ajvar, Kibbeh, ect.) but for now, here's a few dishes that explain where my tastebuds are -somewhere on the Orient Express, it seems.

Pureed Beet Dip with Za'atar (veganized from Jerusalem)
3-4 red beets
1 garlic clove (or more to taste) 
1 small dried chili/ pinch cayenne pepper / dried chili
1 cup PLAIN soy yogurt
1 2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. pomegranate molasses OR grape syrup (pekmez)
Salt and za'atar

1. Preheat oven to 400F (200C). Rinse off beets and cut off ends. Wrap in tin foil and toss in the oven, cooking for 45 minutes or until easily fork-pierceable.
2. When beets are done and cool to the touch, remove peels with a peeler + your fingers. Roughly chop and throw in the food processor along with roughly chopped garlic, chili and yogurt. Whizz away until smooth, then transfer to a mixing bowl. Fold in syrup, olive oil, and pinches each of za'atar and salt. Taste, and add in more yogurt or spices to taste.

Serve topped with slices green onions and toasted hazelnuts (if desired) with some good toasted bread or pita.

Turkish Red Lentil Soup

Turkish Red Lentil Soup with Mint and Lemon
I make a veganized combo of this recipe and this recipe, serving it with plenty of extra fresh mint, lemon, and pomegranate seeds. Its hard to mess up something so simple and delicious, and it can be served any time of day but it makes a great breakfast! (Especially with Coca cola for some reason, I know, its weird.)

There are many spellings and versions of this homey rice and lentil dish, but its worth mastering your own because its difficult to find anything else so delicious that can be made so cheaply and with such few ingredients. Be sure to check out alternative preparations, but here's my version.

1 C. Brown or Green Lentils, rinsed 
3-4 medium onions, chopped into half-circles (cut off ends of each peeled onion, slice from end to end, then, laying flat on cutting board, slice through thinly from end to end, producing thing concentric half-circles.)
Olive Oil
1 tsp. cumin seeds
1 C. Basmati Rice, rinsed 
1 tsp cinnamon
Pinch each: turmeric, allspice, sugar
2 C. water
Salt and pepper

Plain soy yogurt
Roughly chopped cucumber and mint

1. You will need three cooking vessels: one large sautee pan for caramelizing onions, one small pot for cooking the lentils, and one larger pot for the rice and lentil mixture. To start, fill the smaller pot with cold, salted water and set on to boil. Set the sautee pan on medium heat and drizzle with a good couple tablespoons of olive oil.
2. Once pot of water has reached a boil, add the lentils and reduce to simmer. Cook for 15- 20 minutes, or until lentils are soft and chewy. Drain, and set aside.
3. -in the meantime (while lentils are cooking) we need to caramelize some onions. When your sautee pan is heated to medium heat with plenty of oil, add in the chopped onions and immediately lower heat to lowest setting. Stir frequently, watching for burning, and let cook for some 20-30 minutes, adding in a bit of extra oil or water if necessary because of burning. When done, onions should be brownish tendrils starting to get crispy in places. Using slotted spoon, remove onions to a serving bowl and set aside.
4. Place larger pot from step 1 on medium heat. Add in cumin seeds and toast for circa 1 minute, or until starting to turn brown. Add in a good drizzle of olive oil, then the rice, turmeric, cinnamon, allspice and sugar. Toast rice for a minute with the spices, then add in 2 C. water, and the cooked lentils. Stir, season with salt and pepper, and bring water to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cover. Cook for circa 20 minutes, or until water is absorbed and rice is cooked.

To serve, scoop a generous serving of lentil rice mixture onto plates and top with plenty of caramelized onions. Serve with a mix of cucumber, yogurt and mint. HEAVEN.

Megadarra, Mujedrah, Mejadra, ect. with cucumber yogurt
For more Ottoman Express inspiration, check out my posts from Budapest, Belgrade, and Istanbul.

Song of the Day: The Preatures- Is this how you feel?


Bianca said...

YUM! I love Middle Eastern food. I found a jar of Ajvar at an international market here and fell in love with the stuff. It goes on EVERYTHING!

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Ruby Qiu said...

I love Middle Eastern food.

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