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Essential Turkish Cuisine, and the True Beauty of the Mezze

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To accompany our very competitive, NCAA-style tournament of cookbooks, we asked you—our readers!—to get in on the fun and test and review 15 cookbooks dubbed Piglet Community Picks. Keep up with all the reviews here.

Whether you fell in love with Turkish food while traveling, or have just always wanted to try it, Essential Turkish Cuisine by Engin Akin is an educational primer, historical text, and stockpile of tasty recipes all wrapped up in a robin’s egg-blue cover.

Photo by Rocky Luten

Starting with the roots of Turkish food, Essential Turkish Cuisine takes you from the Ottoman Empire through modern day Turkey. Akin educates readers about the differences between Eastern and Western Turkish cuisine, as well as its Arabic, Persian, and Islamic influences; the reach of the Ottoman Empire was so vast that it influenced the cuisine by adding new ingredients from countries like Spain, Italy, and Hungary.

Akin goes into further detail with a description of the spices used in Turkish cuisine, broken down by region. There's a section on sweeteners and souring agents, and one on how to make other essentials like tomato paste. It also explained raki (lion's milk), something I had heard about but never tried. Here's a tip: If you ever come across it while traveling, it’s to be sipped prior to appetizers—the flavors are so distinct that it’s meant to be tasted alone.

A Fresh & Bright, Non-Guacamole Dip for the Middle of Winter
A Fresh & Bright, Non-Guacamole Dip for the Middle of Winter

The recipes are simple to prepare, especially if you’ve taken time to sit down and read the front of the book and Akin’s tips for sourcing ingredients or creating your own. The first recipe I prepared was the Muhammara (hot paprika and walnut spread), which is an all-purpose condiment used in eastern and southeastern Turkey. It’s a pungent yet delicate, sweet, tart, spicy, and savory flavor. I served it with bread, but found it equally pleasing as a cocktail sauce replacement for steamed shrimp. I then tried my hand at Circassian chicken, shredded chicken served with a walnut sauce. It was simple, yet complex in flavor. Akin’s recipes are written with a food processor, with suggestions to try a mortar and pestle—I opted for the latter, and doing so let the flavors have time to really meld.

Photo by Rocky Luten

At the end of it at, the explanation of the mezze table was the most profound for me: “…not only appetizing, but [it] also extends the time spent around the table with family and friends.” A great cookbook inspires you to try new things, and when you use those new things for meals with family and friends, it creates a common bond. No matter what your thoughts are on politics or life, a meal is a common denominator that brings you together, allowing you to forget those differences and find commonality in food. That is the true beauty of the mezze table—and of Essential Turkish Cuisine.

Here's what our other testers liked most about Essential Turkish Cuisine—written in list form:

Lists of what they loved! We transcribed below, since they're a little hard to read. Photos by Amanda Gubler , Susan Riecken

Amanda loved...
* Gorgeous blue cover
* Inspiring photos
* Tons of veggie recipes
* Whole chapter on stuffed foods
* Lots of Turkish history and culture
* Covers appetizers, desserts, and everything in between
* Includes interesting tidbits about each recipe
* Explanation of essential ingredients and where to find them

And calendargirl adored...
* Clear, well-written recipes
* Exquisite yet realistic photos
* Thorough ingredient tutorials * Headnotes that give both historical and contemporary context
* Deep cultural background
* Convenient size—a book for the kitchen, not the coffee table
* Favorite recipe = Eggplant Boats with Meat Filling: This is savory and satisfying, and stars eggplant filled with ground lamb, onions, tomatoes, and parsley. What's not to like!?

Have you explored Essential Turkish Cuisine? What did you love most? Let us know in the comments!

Tags: Community, The Piglet, Culture, Books