It’s the Turks again 

(Turkish minaret close to Parakila on Lesvos)

It is nearly impossible to spend a holiday on Lesvos without seeing the mountains of Turkey. It is only from Sigri that there is no view of a Turkish coast. From there you can only see an old Turkish fort that was built in 1757 by an Ottoman Pasha. Yes, Turks and Greeks, for ages, lived together throughout the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Not always peacefully, but amiably enough to enjoy the same music and food. 

A Bulgarian film maker, Adela Media, has made a documentary about a song that can be sung in nearly the whole world and is especially known in the Balkans, like Greece and Turkey. Whose is this Song? is about the roots of this popular tune, that has been claimed by many countries as their own. Wikipedia presents it as a Turkish folk song: Kätibim; about a handsome clerk who made many women fall in love with him. Greece has plenty of versions of this song with the same melody (amongst others Ήχασα μαντήλι, Ο Βαγγέλης, Εσκουτάρι).

Another example of Greek music with a Turkish past is rebetika, oriental music that came at the beginning of the 20st century with the Greek refugees from Smyrna. It became music for the resistance, as shown in the movie Rembetiko (Costas Ferris, 1983). Also the movie Djam (Tony Gatlif, 2017), which was partly shot in Skala Loutron (Lesvos) and in Istanbul and portrays this passionate music running through Greek as well as Turkish veins. 

Many Greek and Turkish dishes have a common past. It is nearly impossible to trace the origin of a recipe, many having been influenced by the Middle East and Central Asian. Only the aubergine dish Imam Bayildi might be traced back to a Turkish legend about an imam who loved this dish so much that he fainted from pure delight (hence this dish has the fancy name of ‘fainted imam’). But what if this dish had been prepared by a Greek Chef? 

The Greeks have fassoles, white beans that often, together with carrots and celery, swim in a tomato sauce, while the Turks serve plain white beans as kuru fasulye. I think that on Lesvos they secretly cook according to that Turkish recipe: nothing better than a dish of only white beans, served with a big splash of olive oil.  

I got pretty hungry reading about a Turkish recipe for dolma’s, the Turkish name for dolmades: obviously an Ottoman Sultan loved those vine leaves stuffed with a mix of cherries, raisins, cinnamon, parsley, dill, allspice, lemon juice, olive oil and rice, while the Greeks stuff their vine leaves with rice, fennel, mint, onions, lemon juice and olive oil.

Baklava, similarly named worldwide, originates from Persia. The Greeks wrapped this sweet in paper-thin filo pastry and the Ottomans further enriched it with cinnamon, cardamom and cloves. Nowadays Greeks prepare their baklava with walnuts, in the Turkish version you may also find pistachios and hazelnuts.

Turkish caciki is just like Greek tzatziki, made with yoghurt, garlic and cucumber. Greek and Turkish coffees differ only in name, like moussaka, which also has its origins in the Arabian kitchen. Some like it hot: the Turks add hot peppers to their salad, while the Greeks prefer to decorate their salad with feta. And I can go on like this. 

Greeks invented wine and were early to start cooking with olive oil. Ottomans were themselves seduced by the Persians with rice, sugar and other sweets. They stole the notion of kebabs and flat breads from nomadic peoples, while the Greeks began composing their own recipes. Greek dishes are not heavily spiced and tend to be more simple in using fresh products: the Turks like it more spicy. A romantic movie to make you hungry is A touch of spice (Tassos Boumetos, 2003). Partly about spices, partly historical, it’s about the last large groups of Greek inhabitants chased out of Istanbul together with their music, recipes and so on (1978). 

The century long Ottoman occupation of Lesvos ended in 1912, followed in 1922 by many Greek refugees coming from Turkey to the island at the end of the Turkish-Greek war. And again, now thousands of people cross the Aegean Sea, this time in the guise of Turkish tourists; last week alone there were some 13,000. Hunger has them attack the tavernas, some of the restaurants defending themselves with hugely elevated prices, whilst others beckoning them in with their menus written in Turkish. This time the Turks are welcome and can compare their recipes with the Greek ones. Maybe they’ll take some feta back to put into their salads, throw some tomatoes in with their white beans or try another stuffing for their vine leaves. A new generation of Turkish-Greek recipes.