Yes, you read right. The term “breakfast tomatoes” is as common here as our “breakfast cereal.” Turks typically eat tomatoes for breakfast and we did just that for three days on trip to the coast with some new Turkish friends. The fruit that we consider a vegetable was peeled and cut into wedges, served alongside cucumber slices, white cheese, black olives, and fresh bread with a multitude of jams, including tomato, poppy, red pepper and mulberry. The jam part might have just been the hotel showing off.
I continue to be amazed at how many vegetables and fruits are eaten here. One of our trip companions was a 23-year old young man, and I will not forget the sight of him ordering and enthusiastically digging into a plate of cooked, spiced pea greens.
In the States, people who willingly eat green vegetables would probably not be considered picky, but the Turks I have met seem quite discerning. They have advised me not to buy tomatoes during the relatively short (4-month) winter here, and will go miles out of their way to buy the tastiest white cheese and the plumpest purple grapes. After lunch one day, I saw a grown man sip a completely ordinary cup of tea and then put it down and shake his head disapprovingly, commenting that establishment had served him a beverage that wasn’t as fresh as it should have been.
One of the things I like best about living overseas is that it can upend assumptions. The grocery store and pharmacy closest to our apartment are located in a gleaming new shopping mall. On one of our early visits, we wandered upstairs to the food court, and there alongside Burger King, KFC, Pizza Hut and a sandwich chain called Schlotsky’s, apparently based in Dallas, we found several Turkish buffets offering a wide variety of complicated dishes—and attracting far more customers than the chains. Our first foray, simply pointing out dishes that looked good and smiling teshekular at the end of the transaction, was successful, and we have repeated it several times. Thus far in mall food courts, I have eaten: the best lentil soup ever; a delicious eggplant dish stuffed with ground meat, onions and aromatic spices; a light and wonderful salad called piyaz that combines tomatoes, parsley, onions and white beans in a lemon olive oil dressing; incredibly rich and flavorful Turkish yogurt, and a warm, fragrant kind of round bread that is thicker and more substantial than pita.
Many of these items are beyond my current cooking capabilities, and preparing a meal of three or four of them is unthinkable. Why should I go to the effort? The price for two comes to only 23 Turkish lira, $15.
How am I satisfying my sweet tooth here? Delicious gelato is widely available–I love the dainty portions—and of course there is baklava in many forms, but on the whole, desserts play a less important role in the Turkish diet. No huge muffins and cookies tempt me at every checkout counter. In fact, foods that looks sweet have fooled me: scones were just that, but flavored with savory dill; and squares of pastry that looked like cake turned out to be hearty spinach boreks.
So don’t be alarmed if you visit and I drag you off to a shopping mall food court. Thanks to the Turkish refusal to eat anything mediocre, the food will be delicious.