Culture Conflicts Cuisine

The Bosphorus is a view that makes you shutter when you think of the history, you feel it touch your soul, it tingles with magic. This is a place you need to visit, plan time to be there and explore the culture.

After several days in the heart of Istanbul, we were very impressed and you need a lifetime to explore the city. It was not our first time there, Istanbul is awesome except for the traffic. This city leaves you speechless, with more than ten million annual tourists, you watch Asia on the right side (standing in Europe) and Europe on the left.

The idea of one cuisine versus another is only as relevant as your interest lies in the two cultures. How they intersect, how they differ, how they have grown over history to a point that a certain tension is still felt by some.

I am not Greek, nor religious, I adore Greece and the people, I have traveled in Greece for 30 years, I understand the country up to a point. It is true that any new city excites a visitor, and some much more than others. Istanbul, is a place that blows your mind, if you keep an open mind. Many confuse Istanbul’s people with those who are Arabs, the Turks are not Arabs despite a fundamental religious undertone, and observance of Muslim laws.


I ask myself what are the fundamental differences between Greek and Turkish cuisine. In my analysis, the differences are vast, and beyond my understanding, not only because of the scale of the country but because of the various geographical regions that make up Turkey’s cultural diversity. Greece is small, and limited in comparison.

Is it their use of dill, or mint that strikes us as different, or the use of dried herbs, or nuts that give a dish a distinctive taste or odor, or turmeric’s yellow color in a pilaf, or the smoky taste of the charcoal grilled meats.

It is obvious that both Greek and Turkish cuisines have migrated from rural areas, some even shared territories, as most cuisines have around this region. Is it a Greek coffee, or a Turkish coffee, who cares really if it is done right. The issue of ‘right” is more the issue of using the purest domestic raw materials, the fire, the cup, understanding, experience, know-how, time and respect.

Today, city dwellers eat less fat, less innards and less traditional foods, enjoying the trendy kitchens in fancy restaurants. Clearly, the young generation is not particularity interested in Grandma’s cuisine when they go out for dinner.We understand that most young generations are tired to see the same menu. This why you find international cuisine in most international places. True everywhere, food’s expand our imagination of what is and isn’t possible, they spark our inner core, our soul, and food warms our bodies from the inside out.

The idea that a coffee is Greek or Turkish draws the line, the coffee in Turkey is not milky, it is darkened by a roasting unique to the Turkish palate. Not necessarily something I am used to, or would compare to the style of coffee I enjoy. But I spend little time smoking a Nargile, a habit of many living in the Middle East.

The Greek coffee has sadly lost its identity and now we have Starbucks, I call it “Star-kaka”, a sugar filled liquid rip off. Maybe I exaggerate but coffee in Greece is no longer about sitting down, it is about prêt–à–porter, take away and ready-made. Greek people drink frappe, a mixture of milk, sugar and coffee, this is not a coffee at all.

Before you read further, this is not a political debate, it is an unbiased perspective, a travelers view. I do admit, I still prefer Greek cuisine but this has more to do with what I am used to. Having said that, Turkish food and Turkish people are much more a “foodie” culture than the Greeks today. Although many Greeks are proud about their cuisine, in general they adore the fundamentals, calamari, octopus and feta cheese, sadly much of this is imported.

Everywhere you go in Istanbul they have food on their minds, shops and shops of sweets, Kebab houses, cafes, etc. The streets are a place where you’ll find push carts, well fashioned men selling freshly baked rings named “simit”, or freshly pressed pomegranate for juice, a-la-carte and perfectly fresh. The pomegranate symbolizes fertility, good fortune and a continuation of life, an excellent source of vitamins.

Moreover the offering and sharing of food is an expression of friendship and it is impolite to refuse. It is true in Greece as well, foods are for sharing, engaging conversation or making people feel at home. Wherever you go in Istanbul, you’ll find small containers of savory pastry or Turkish delights offered.

In Greece, the sweets they prepare have become a miss-mash of today and yesterday. Both the Greek and Turkish pastries are not my favorite, I adore much more baklava, or delights when they are well made. The gelatin based delights are like chewing gum. Interesting is the history of Turkish Delights which dates back to the 1700’s in Constantinople. The Turkish have adopted all of the best, collecting ideas and combining them into one cuisine.

The strength of Turkish food lies in the simplicity and diversity, color, taste and tradition and incredible variety of raw materials and cooking methods. Recipes are passed down, as they should be. The Ottoman records refer to marrow stuffed in different ways, cooked in grape juice and served either hot or cold. The use of herbs, and nuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pistachio and superb Turkish walnuts. The use of roses in pastry is superb, the aromas and scents have been fused with oil, milk and sugar.

The people of Turkey are tribal, migrating across a vast country 783,562 km², compared with Greece that is, 131,940 km², a country that is small in population and lacks the intense diversity. Turkish people are a nation of 24 tribes so it gives some perspective to the notion of diversity. The Greeks people are disjointed, the people see their nation as a place that has let them down. Everyone has their own take on things and rarely is there a strong consensus. It is more on the islands in the Aegean we are sheltered from the hardships of the mainland. It breaks my heart when I hear the news, people suffering with little way out of this economic mess.

As we know, culture played an important role in the development of cuisine, the Seljuk Empire of the 12th Century was a warrior aristocracy, and the Osmanli, the Ottomans were opulent. They were recorded as feasting on pigeon, rice and stewed vegetables, the Osmanli under the rule of Mehmet II, who was only 21 years old at the time, he influenced the Ottoman culinary activity.

He held great feasts at the Topkapi Palace and filled his kitchens with specialist chefs to create Baklava, makers of pastry, and specialist in meatballs, all who experimented and perfected recipes. Suleyman the Magnificent pushed the boundaries by lavish banquets. It was a time when cooking was regarded as an art, not to mention his Harem in the Palace, sex and food, a dangerous combination. There is no doubt that great leaders (warriors) have inspired cuisine when it comes to sharing their power at the dinner table. Bad food is never a good sign, and as far as I am concerned you can judge a country by their kitchen and cuisine.

Turkey borders eight countries, stretches from southeastern end of Europe to the edges of the Middle East. Anatolia, the Asian part of Turkey it is divided into seven areas; Aegean, Marmara, Black Sea, eastern Anatolia, southeastern Anatolia, the Mediterranean and central Anatolia.

In the villages of Anatolia meals are often served from a communal pot on the floor, a tradition by early pastoral nomads in Central Asia. This tradition carried forward and even in the Palace of Topkaki, where sultans ate on the floor with low set portable tables. The traditional Turkish style is simple, sophisticated utensils are not needed, only a sharp knife and nimble hands.

There is no doubt that Turkish cuisine has a profound interest on the cross over from yesterday, their use of spices, aniseed, cardamon, cinnamon, cloves,coriander,cumin,nigella and saffron. In Greece the cuisine has been diminished to a more Mediterranean style, and the it seems that the “oriental flavors” and “spices” are avoided for obvious reasons of maintaining their own identity. Greek cookery, historically is a forerunner of western cuisine, spread its culinary influence via ancient European kitchens.

I want to take a quick look at some of the differences; the first important difference is the olive oil the Turkish use, the Greeks use fruity oil, while the Turkish oil is neutral or bland. I prefer the Greece oil by far, our preference. The Turkish olive oil was not used as readily as people think because it was expensive and was used as a lighting fuel in Mosques. The Turkish used sheep tail’s fat, and clarified butter or fresh creamy butter. Today olive oil is the product of choice and we will see a big improvement in the next years – just a guess.

But today the Turkish people use olive oil in a way I dislike, and so many foods are preserved under poor quality oils. Many dishes are served in oils and they are heavy. We adore olive oil, the center of the table’s heart, salt and oil, lemon and other citrus fruits balance it. Life without olive oil isn’t life, and a table without salt is a poor table.

In Turkey they use seeds and nuts as a symbol of their rich culture and in Greece we rarely use nuts except for pine nuts. This is not to say that some chefs are using the idea of fusion in order to expand their flavors, yet I have the impression that too many spices would confuse their cuisines identity with Turkish cuisine.

In terms of overall cuisine, I prefer Greek cuisine but that is my gut speaking. You can judge for yourself and do what best fits your preferences.

Ask yourself this question, why does such a small country (Greece) have such a popular cuisine, known all over the globe. There is a good reason!

Here are some observations;

  • The preparation of lamb meat, the Turkish people often mince it for Kebab, a technique that is clever. The Greeks eat lamb on the bone and use the other cuts to make soups or meatballs. The roast lamb on the spit but this is more ceremonial.
  • Shepard’s Salad in Turkey is the equivalent of the Greek salad except the Greeks cut the salad more crudely in larger bite sizes, a knife is used to enjoy a Greek salad, while the Shepard salad is chopped and a fork is used only.
  • The focal point of a Greek salad is the Feta cheese and in Turkey the salads focus is the parsley mixture and the herbs added. The Greek salad is infinitely more diverse; a hearty salad can be a meal.
  • The Greek cuisine doesn’t have much Arabic influence or Persian or Asian touches. The Turkish cuisine is very much influenced by this.
  • The BBQ with charcoals is commonplace and in Greece they use a gas grill.
  • Primitive cooking utensils are still used in Turkish kitchens and in Greece more modern equipment.
  • The labor force in Greece is less and less in the kitchen, foreigners (i.e. Albanians, Indians, etc) are taking these roles. In Turkey they still have locals.
  • In Turkish cuisine you can find yoghurt in any meal and in Greece it is exclusively with breakfast. The Yoghurt nourishment originates from the nomads of central Asia.
  • The Greeks do not drink Yogurt, while the Turks drink it or sprinkle sugar and cinnamon over it.
  • The Greeks have Meze but they are informal about it. The Turkish people use meze as an introduction to their meals. In principal Greeks and Turks have the same raw materials except in Turkey they have plenty more variety and abundance of agriculture and incredible seafood. In Greece much is imported and seafood is scarce due to over fishing, etc.
  • Desserts in both countries are similar but the Turkish seem to make it a focal point, the Turkish delights are a symbol of the country.
  • In Greece they are named Locumia and seem to be more scarce and less symbolic. But if you visit some islands in Greece it is a magical delight.
  • Ironically the Turkish have the upper hand but they haven’t figured out how to improve and modernize their cuisine in a way that respects tradition, so it remains oily and heavy in comparison to Greek cuisine.
  • The fish preparation in Greece is far superior yet both need to improve their techniques. It is too easy to make mistakes when grilling a fish, a hot flame dries the fish as the fish’s surface is dehydrated by the fire. In Turkey the grilling of fish often involves saturating the fish’s surface before grilling. These grills dry out the fish and hinder the potential.
  • Turkish have what we call Pastrami, they call it “pastirma”, cured veal encased in cemen, a thick dark red paste made from fenugreek, cumin, oil and roasted red pepper, and garlic. In Greece the cured meats are mostly made in villages and sausages are the preferred type. The preparation is more European and the styles more simple.
  • The cheese in Turkey is excellent but I prefer the cheese in Greece. Although the cheese in Turkey can be fascinating, they are made in traditional ways whereas in Greece they are more modern, more about strained milks.
  • Turkish regional cheese is interesting, they produce cheese flavor them by storing them underground, so cheese can be dry and crumbly. The variety in Turkey is more interesting.
  • Turkish sit around eating nuts, they have an abundance of trees, and hence their culture is more focused on quality and personal preferences.
  • The markets in Turkey are incredible, in Greece many products are imported, scale of economies makes it difficult to do affordable agriculture.
  • Technically speaking farming in Turkey is advanced in comparison to Greece.
  • Spice market is a focus and in Greece spices are important but a more narrow field of spices are used, oregano, star anise, etc.