Wed, 18 Oct 2000

A delicious taste of Turkey in Jakarta

JAKARTA (JP): As Turkey braces itself for yet another winter, a long way away on a balmy night in Jakarta guests sit fanned by a gentle breeze with the full moon shining above.

They sip chilled Turkish wine, nibble on a variety of small Turkish appetizers, chatting about this and that as an entire song and dance troop brought all the way from Istanbul performs in the background.

It is possible to sample today here in Jakarta more than 60 different dishes from the delectable kitchen of yet another restaurant from yet another ancient civilization, with the sensual encouragement of beautiful belly dancers who sway beneath palm trees to music both pop and traditional from different parts of the country.

It is no accident that Turkish cuisine and culture is so captivating. Turkey's fertile land, forever nourished by the waters of the Mediterranean, has produced an abundance of flora and fauna and has subsequently developed a rich variety of national dishes.

The fruits of this abundant land have needed little else to prepare them for country's tables than the Mediterranean sun. As a result, most of Turkey's food, from its dips to its main courses, is healthy and wholesome. What can be more pure than a handful of chickpeas boiled till tender, then ground and peppered with salt, sesame seed paste and green herbs and eaten with the famous oven-baked Turkish bread as a starter, or as an entire meal?

It is the wide variety, the simplicity and the generous use of fresh fruits and vegetables that make Turkish cuisine such a finger licking affair. As in other parts of the Middle East, lamb remains the basic meat. Pieces of lamb threaded on a skewer and grilled over hot charcoal is known around the world as shish kebab.

Doner kebab is to the Turks what the swarma kebab is to the Egyptians. It is not uncommon even in the remotest corner of the world to come across a roll of lamb wrapped around a vertical skewer turning parallel to a hot grill, sending appetizing smoke signals for miles before being sliced and packed with green vegetables and yogurt sauce into packets made out of pita-like bread.

Eggplant is also prepared in the most unique of ways be it as a simple paste, chopped into a thick tomato, onion and garlic sauce, or stuffed inside cabbage or vine leaves.

Throughout the history of Turkey, the imperial kitchen has held an exalted position, perhaps second only to the king's throne in Istanbul, inspiring many around the world to admit that the planet's three major cuisines are indeed Turkish, French and Chinese. And the evolution of Turkey's remarkable food range is also a result of its location at the center of the spice trade route and at the crossroads of the Far East and the Mediterranean, mirroring a long history of migrations to and from the steppes of Central Asia to the interior of central Europe.

The open nature of the Turkish people along with their creativity has resulted in a cuisine that is one of the richest and most varied in the world, easy to prepare and served in almost infinite combinations.

The same is true of the country's equally rich culture. Each region has a different characteristic that distinguishes its dances from the others. These traditions are born from separate ways of life of a people who once lived in small isolated pockets and who later came together, ultimately producing a united hybrid of five great cultural trends over a period of 900 years, according to scholars.

The first great cultural influence was that of ancient Anatolia inhabited for thousands of years by peoples of various civilizations like the Greek, Phrygian, Lydian, Cappodocian and Byzantine to name a few. The second most important cultural influence was that of Asia, particularly of China and the shamanistic rituals of the Ural-Altaic region which is the origin of modern Turkey.

As the Turkish Ottoman empire expanded between the 15th and 19th centuries sweeping across Asia, Africa and Europe right up to the gates of Vienna, it readily absorbed the different ways of life of the people it ruled.

It is possible to experience the on-going Turkish extravaganza here at the sprawling Sriwedari Garden Restaurant at the Hilton Hotel until Oct. 22, where a colorful bazaar of exquisite handicrafts and silver jewelry accompanies the exotic festivities.

--Mehru Jaffer