As modernity takes hold, traditions are falling to one side. Spirituality as a guide for conduct in everyday life is something of the past; now we turn to Science for answers. Ironically as Mac Donalds and Pizza Huts are popping up everywhere, the traditional way of eating is also making a come-back. What our grandmothers knew all the time is now being confirmed by modern science: a diet which is fundamentally based on grains, vegetables and fruits with meat and dairy products used sparingly and as flavoring, is a healthy one. Furthermore, some combinations are better than others, because they complement each other for perfect nutrition. The Turkish Cuisine sets an example in these respects. The recent “food-pyramid” endorsed by the United States Department of Agriculture resembles age-old practices in ordinary households. Even the well-known menus of boarding schools or army kitchens, hardly known for their gourmet characteristics, provide excellent nutrition that can be justified with the best of today's scientific knowledge. One such combination, jokingly referred to as “our national food,” is beans and pilaf, accompanied by pickles and quince compote—a perfectly nourishing combination which provides the essential proteins, carbohydrates and minerals. Another curious practice is combining spinach with yogurt. Now we know that the body needs calcium found in the yogurt to assimilate the iron found in the spinach.
Yogurt, a contribution from the Turks to the world, has also become a popular health food. A staple in the Turkish diet, it has been known all along for its detoxifying properties. Other such beliefs, not yet supported by modern science, include the role of onion, used liberally in all dishes in strengthening the immune system; garlic for high blood pressure and olive oil as a remedy for forty-one ailments. The complicated debace concerning mono- and polyunsaturated fats and the good and bad cholesterol is ridiculously inadequate to evaluate olive oil. Given what we know about health food today one could even envy the typical lunch fare of the proverbial construction worker who, like all his kind, shouts “endearing”” words to the passing-by females, while eating bread, feta cheese and fresh grapes in the summer and bread and tahini helva in the winter.
The variety of pastry turn-overs with cheese or ground meat, meat pide, or kebabs are the fast food for millions of working people. These are all prepared entirely on the premises using age-old practices.
One of the main culprits in the modern-day diet is the snack, that horrible junk food designed to give a quick sugar-high to keep one going for the rest of the day. Again, modern science has come to the rescue, and healthy snacks are now being discovered. Some of these are amazingly familiar to the Turks! Take, for example, the “fruit roll-ups.” Visit any dried-food store that sells nuts and fruits, and you will see the authentic version, such as the sheets of mashed and dried apricots and grapes. In these stores, there are many other items that await discovery by some pioneering entrepreneur to the Western markets. Another wholesome snack, known as “trail mix” or “gorp,” is well-known to all Turkish mothers, who traditionally stuff a handful of mixed nuts and raisins in the pockets of their children's school uniform to snack on before exams. This practice can be traced to ancient fables, where the hero goes on a diet of hazelnuts and raisins before fighting with the giants and dragons, or before weaving the king a golden smock. The Prince always loads onto the mythological bird, the “Zümrüt Anka,” forty sacks of nuts and raisins for himself, and water and meat for the bird that takes him over the high Caucasus Mountains…
As far as food goes, it is reassuring to know that we are re-discovering what is good for our bodies. Nevertheless, one is left with the nagging feeling that such knowledge will always be incomplete as long as it is divorced from its cultural context and spiritual traditions. The challenge facing modern Turkey is to achieve such continuity in a time of genetic engineering, high-tech mass production and a growing number of convenience-oriented households. But for now the markets are vibrant and the dishes are tastier than ever, so enjoy!
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