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Powdered orchid and water-buffalo cream: Turks delight in Ottoman dishes

Authentic Turkish dishes, some going back to Ottoman times, remain popular with locals, but are hard to reproduce abroad.

In this age of globalization, most of the local tastes can be found in other parts of the world. But some local delights remain outside that trend — either because the basic ingredients are only available locally or the traditional and often laborious preparations are too much of a burden in modern-day life.

Three authentic dishes are among those mainly sold in Turkey. The first is the Turkish dish tavuk gogsu, which literally means chicken breast, a remnant from the Ottoman palace whose creative chefs regularly used meat and sugar in their dishes, just like their European counterparts at the time.

Tavuk gogsu is a dessert even the most courageous home cooks would not attempt making as only few possess the skill to beat the chicken into silk threads so that the meaty flavor is almost unnoticeable. Almost everyone in Turkey purchases the dessert from pastry shops, and only few establishments have perfected the proper consistency of the dish. The most prominent pastry shops, many located in Istanbul, that make tavuk gogsu use the Ottoman recipes. Konyali Restaurant, founded in 1897 and now a chain, used to be one of the few places that offered the dessert on its menu.

Mehmet Yalcinkaya, the executive chef of Wyndham Grand Istanbul Kalamis Marina Hotel, told Al-Monitor, “Mass production in some instances could lead to quick but unimpressive results of tavuk gogsu. The original recipe used wheat milk, but today rice flour is common and some even use cheaper options like starch. The taste suffers significantly."

Nowadays, tavuk gogsu can be found in well-stocked markets in most cities, but once you have tasted tavuk gogsu made from a traditional recipe all others pale by comparison.

A close to perfect tavuk gogsu is made of fresh farm-raised chicken breast, whole fat milk, rice flour, sugar and heavy cream; ground cinnamon is added once the desired consistency is reached through slow cooking. The result is a protein-rich dessert that could classify as a healthier alternative to other types of milk pudding. The use of meat helps generate a texture softer than gelatin and thicker than starch.

Another tasty dish is kaymak, a traditional clotted cream. Although clotted cream is widely used all around the Balkans and the Levant, most Turks believe the tastiest version is produced in Afyon province in central Anatolia. Here, kaymak is made of milk from water buffalos that graze on poppy plants and seeds, creating a unique flavor. Buffalo milk is simmered on low heat for hours, cooled off and then the cream rising to the top is skimmed off and chilled. Because buffalo milk is twice as high in fat as cow’s milk, the pure white Afyon kaymak resembles dense vanilla ice cream. It is much thicker than clotted cream, requiring a sharp knife to cut it. While kaymak can be made from cow, sheep or goats's milk, the water buffalo version is preferred. Only a handful of places in Afyon province produce the original kaymak due to the rising costs of raising water buffalos.

Yalcinkaya, one of the new generation innovative chefs in Turkey who works with local ingredients, said that kaymak produced in Afyon was registered in 2009 by the Turkish Patent Institute as a product of geographical origin.

“It is not mass produced and it is a perishable good that needs to be stored and consumed in a timely manner. Kaymak aficionados can instantaneously tell if it is not real Afyon kaymak,” he said.

Yalcinkaya and other fusion chefs are utilizing this delicacy in new ways in Turkey's upscale restaurants.

Kaymak is popular in Turkish cuisine and can be substituted for butter at breakfast or served as a delicacy in restaurants, alongside honey. Slow-cooked quince halves are served with a slice of kaymak, or poached dried apricots are filled with almonds and kaymak. Kaymak is also used in Turkish delight or it can accompany different types of baklava or kadayif, both traditional Turkish desserts. Traditionally, kaymak was used in festive fruit desserts to add a dense flavor packed with protein and fat. 

Another white-colored sweet that symbolizes the arrival of fall in Turkey is salep or sahlep, a hot drink traditionally sold by street vendors and pastry shops. Salep is a starch collected by grinding the bulb of the Orchis orchid into a white powder. Salep powder, which has a rather bitter taste, is also the main ingredient in traditional Turkish ice cream. The powder is available in a few well-stocked Middle Eastern stores in the United States.

Due to the long cooking process that requires the cook to stir for hours, pure salep is expensive and is often compared to gold. While there are cheaper alternatives, such as mass-produced ready-to-drink salep mixes that are widely available on store shelves, they contain little to no raw salep. The thickening agents such as corn starch in these mixes fail to produce a drink that tastes like the original.

The original salep recipe calls for salep powder to be mixed with sugar and starch, then gently added to warm milk while patiently stirred to avoid lumps. After it thickens, it is sprinkled with cinnamon and served warm in a small cup. Today, most restaurants and pastry shops have salep machines to make the drink for their customers.

Salep is said to cure all ailments, from broken hearts to digestive issues, and is also believed to be an aphrodisiac. Renowned chef Poopa Dweck explains in her book “Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews” that the drink was a popular tonic in 17th century England and was said to cure gastrointestinal ailments. As soon as fall sets in, salep is sold on the streets of Istanbul as an alternative to Turkish tea, and for those who can spare the time to enjoy the drink.

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