Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Dessert Dance

Navigating Turkish meals is still something fairly new to me, but especially on this trip I'm becoming more cultured to the proper ways to respond to the invitations to eat the mountains of food presented to me.  For those that have not had the glorious experience of eating a home-cooked Turkish meal, I'll give you a little background information.  Meals are not lighting quick events, although they can be somewhat hectic with so many offers to eat this or drink that being thrown around from one person to another.  Turkish meals take a lot of time to prepare, accordingly each course is properly savored before moving on to the next.

A first course - Manti or Turkish Ravioli in a yogurt sauce
(Source: Turklish)
 Usually dinner begins with soup and bread, but the whole meal is already on the table complete with mezes, such as cold salads, vegetables cooked in lots of olive oil, pickles and pide bread.  The main course is usually some type of rice pilaf with cooked meat and vegetables.  There may also be many types of small dishes served such as lahmacun or içli köfte.   There are of course many variations to Turkish meals, below you can see a few examples of the types of food we have eaten at invited dinners here in Turkey.

Table is set with mezes and salad before the lamb shanks arrived.
(Source: Turklish)

One of my favorite dishes - rice with chicken and roasted almonds - simple yet oh so delicious.
(Source: Turklish)

Several varieties of dolma - stuffed mini squash, eggplant and red peppers. Also sarma, or stuffed grape leaves. Yumm!
(Source: Turklish)

Homemade içli köfte - meat, nut, sauce mixture inside a bulgur dough.  These were made by hand by several different ladies, each with a different içli köfte style, hence the variation in shape.
(Source: Turklish)

After navigating a Turkish meal - not eating too much, but savoring all the different flavors on the table - you may think that you are home free with just a small tea and dessert to follow.  After all, dessert is the perfect finale to every meal.  However, beware, in Turkey dessert is a whole new event.

After retiring from the dinner table to a comfy couch, first comes the coffee and tea.  This is to help digest that big meal and keep you awake for the next round.  Coffee is served with chocolate.  Then glass after glass of tea is served, sometimes with a salty or sweet scone or cookie.  Meanwhile dinner dishes are cleaned, and dessert trays are prepared.
A variety of sweets to accompany tea.
(Source: Turklish)

The table is reset with plates and silverware.  All return to their seats to the splendid array of fruits, nuts, and whatever main dessert was prepared, such as baklava, sütlaç, or even a chocolate cake.  Also, in Maras, Turkish chips or tarhana (Maraş style - another post to come soon about tarhana) is always center stage on the dessert table. 

A typical table set for dessert - many different types of fruit, nuts, two varieties of prepared dessert - cooked pumpkin and a coconut pudding.
(Source: Turklish)

This is where the dessert dance comes to play.  At this point it may be late in the night, as everyone spent several hours chatting with tea after dinner.  Everyone is full, no one really is physically hungry, but there may be a desire for something sweet to finish the meal.  I start slowly, sampling  a few pistachios or almonds.  However, if I do not take enough I am always encouraged to take more.

"Eat this orange; it is delicious."  I'm instructed by the host as the orange is put on my plate. 

I nod my head, smile and put the orange to the side as three huge pieces of baklava are put on my plate.

 I smile and murmur a "teşekkür ederim". 

Now I begin to slowly eat the baklava and I keep my eyes alert to quick movements to put anything else on my plate.  

Soon a hand swoops in with more nuts.

"Oh, no thank you, I've had enough."  I say as I shield my plate with my hands.

"Just eat a little."  I'm encouraged with eyes pleading.

I give in.  "Okay just a few." 

"Here is some more baklava."  As a spatula gracefully slides in towards my plate.

"No I can't!"  I squeal, barely able to finish the pieces I already have.

"Okay,  how about a banana."  As the banana is cut in half and peeled.

"No, please, I already had an apple, and I have this orange here on my plate."  I say to no avail as the peeled banana is already in my hand and halfway to my mouth.

Another hand reaches and grabs a few slabs of tarhana and gestures for me to take them.

"Thank you, thank you, I have enough, I'll take a few in a little bit."

This energy is not only directed at me, but at all the guests around the table.  All are encouraged to eat more and there are many helping hands to ensure that no plate is left empty and that plenty of fruit is peeled and sliced so that everyone can try all the different kinds. 

A typical serving of dessert - not baklava but similar with nuts inside and a thin dough soaked in sweet syrup. As always pistachios sprinkled on top complete the sweet.
(Source: Turklish)

Tarhana or Turkish chips Maraş style
(Source: Turklish)

I often find it downright hilarious and begin giggling as an orange is passed from one person to the next and as protesting guests shield their plates from the downpour of pistachios and hazelnuts. 

I call it a dance because it requires grace and coordination to sidestep all the offered treats.  While the nuts, fruit, tarhana and dessert are all delicious, for me it is all too much.  After that big meal I simply can't eat all the dessert options.  However, with time I am getting better at this desert dance and learning to eat my fill while pleasing the host and avoiding midnight stomachaches.

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