Our department had a "Turkish night" yesterday, with members of a Turkish cultural association called "Anatolia Cultural and Dialog Centre" (or ACDC), which is like a British Council office for Turkey (but with better food). They demonstrated a number of food specialties, and Turkish tea. We had exchange students from NYU in the US (themselves, of course, of various ethnic backgrounds), and our mix of students, plus volunteers from ACDC, hosted by the CUHK school of hotel management in their wonderful teaching kitchen--one of the few examples in CUHK of collaboration across different faculties. A fun night for all.
I had two anthropological observations. One was of how "Turkish cuisine" was being constructed by the ACDC speaker. He began by saying that Turkish cuisine is one of the great cuisines of the world. I'm not a foodie or a food expert, so am perhaps ignorant, but I found this surprising. It made me wonder how many "world cuisines" there are, and if soon every nation-state will have its "traditional cuisine." He mentioned that Turkish cuisine is based on Ottoman cuisine, and that it is "rich" because it is "not just one taste" but incorporated many dishes and specialties from different parts of the Ottoman empire: the Balkans, Mediterranean, and the Middle East. He then stumbled slightly, and it became clear that, well, these dishes were not originally from Turkey, and are still eaten in Armenia, Syria, etc., so he added that though they are originally from different places, "they are still Turkish cuisine." It is not that the Turks "invented them, but they became Turkish." Everything he said was unobjectionable, but it does show the constructed nature of "Turkish cuisine," especially as it later turned out that not only are many "Turkish" dishes originally from non-Turkish parts of the Ottoman empire, but even within modern Turkey, there is great variation in cuisine. Southeaster cuisine is much spicier, for example. So what, really, is "Turkish"? It is clearly pointless to deny there is something called "Turkish cuisine," and yet, the variation in origins and in current forms makes it difficult to pin down. This is so typical of culture generally, that it could be the topic for a treatise on the nature (and ambiguity) of culture.
The second observation came as I discussed one of the dishes we saw prepared. This was çiğ köfte, a dish made with raw beef or lamb and eaten wrapped in a salad leaf. We had a vegetarian version, made with potato instead of the usual beef. As part of the preparation, they had explained that it needs to be mixed, kneaded really, and we had a strong young man demonstrating the heavy work that is required. We were also told that this tends to be a "male" dish, something men make when they get together, as opposed to sarma, which is more commonly made by women. So far so good; we know about gendered foods (in fact, when I tell Chinese that I like "sesame oil chicken", they usually laugh, because that is a food prepared for women in the month after childbirth, so not something men usually eat, or like).
In talking to some Turkish friends afterwards, they mentioned that it is supposed to be much spicier than the version we got, and that one recipe even calls for a proportion of 2 kg of meat (and they said the meat had to be special, high quality and lean, with no fat or tendons), 1 kg of bulgur wheat, and 300 to 400 gr of peppers. Then they said you need to knead the meat to cook it. I said, "Cook it? But there is no heat." "Yes." Start over. Why do you knead it? Another friend tries to help explain this, and he says you need to "kill the meat." What? The meat may be fresh, but once it is ground up, it is surely quite dead! After some further exploration, they explained that in Turkish, the word is literally to "cook" the meat, even though it does not involve heat. What changes in the meat, however, is that it no longer tastes like meat. I wondered if Turks thought beef tastes bad, as some Italians do (which is why they prefer veal, and why they often fry it or put lemon on it, I suppose). But they confirmed that Turks like the taste of meat, and that it is not to mask an unpleasant taste. In this case, however, it is raw (though very fresh), and so perhaps there is something in the taste of raw beef that needs to be hidden. I'm not entirely sure why raw beef that has been mixed with bulgur wheat and peppers is considered "cooked." But I found it fascinating that, in speaking in English, they borrowed words like "kill" and "cook" which made no sense to me, but that capture the idea of making the beef edible. And that was exactly how they explained the term: they said they needed a term to describe making it edible, and so chose those terms. Levis-Strauss (author of The Raw and The Cooked) must be smiling. He long ago described how the term "cooked" was used to describe making something edible, and here we have another example.