BEIRUT: Despite having spent hundreds of years as part of the Ottoman Empire, Beirut has a surprisingly limited number of authentic Turkish restaurants.
“There aren’t any that I know of,” Serpil Baassiri said as she fed people around her with forks full of flaky pastry balls filled with rice and vegetable pilaf, a dish called perde pilavi.
That changed for an evening Saturday, when Beirut’s Turkish community gathered for a lighthearted cook-off. The Yunus Emre Turkish Cultural Center in Downtown Beirut hosted the event as a way to honor Turkish culinary heritage and educate people about a cuisine built from many of the same fundamental flavors as Lebanese food, explained Baassiri’s daughter Najla, who works as a secretary at the center.
To an amateur eye, a glance over the tables of traditional Anatolian dishes revealed balls of meat, soups, dips and salads that could easily have been transplanted to the mezze spread on a Lebanese table.
Take the platter of stuffed vine leaves, which encased a rice filling in their typical vinegary outer layer. Unlike the Lebanese recipe, which comes in either vegetable or meat varieties, the Armenian filling is a spicy combination of vegetables, meat and rice.
“Meat, tomatoes, zucchini, rice,” listed the cook standing nearby. In addition to stuffed zucchini, also popular here, there were stuffed bell peppers and stuffed carrots.
One of the features that differentiates Turkish food from Lebanese is its reliance on and generous inclusion of heat, particularly spicy Aleppo pepper, Baassiri explained to The Daily Star.
Baassiri is Turkish but lives with her family in Beirut and is married to a Lebanese man. As a talented cook, she knows the nuances that distinguish Turkish and Lebanese cuisine.
The oblong-shaped kibbeh meatballs, for example, were filled with ground meat, pine nuts and onions, a typical stuffing for Lebanese kibbeh, with the addition of little speckles of hot pepper. They were also boiled and then baked, giving them a slightly healthier composition than their fried Lebanese cousins.
Baassiri picked up an oval cookie packed with sugar syrup and broke it in two to share. The cookie, sekerpare, has the Turkish word for sugar right in the name, and it is a densely baked dough soaked in so much aromatic syrup it dissolves in the mouth.
“Turkish sweets have much more syrup than Lebanese sweets, it makes them fall apart in the mouth,” she explained as she savored her bite. “Lebanese sweets keep their stiffness.”
There are even more similarities between Armenian and Turkish cuisine, one guest noted as she dove into a plate of mante, staple Armenian fare of tiny meat pies covered in a yogurt sauce.
The Armenians and Turks share other famous dishes, like a spicy bulgar and tomato salad, called kisir in Turkish and itch in Armenian. There’s also borek, similar to Armenian souboureg, which comprises layers of pasta-like pastry dough and cheesy sauce.
Many at the event were either Turkish or children of Turkish-Lebanese parents. For them, Saturday offered a moment to savor their plates from home.
Turkish-Lebanese Yusuf Karib showed off a piece of spicy cig kofte, a tiny raw, rust-colored meatball packed with flavor.
“Did you try this?” he asked. “It’s called cig kofte. It’s a specialty from Erzurum where my family is from. It’s my favorite.”