Çorba: The Turkish soul in a bowl
The love affair started six months ago. We had known each other much longer, but it was only then that I truly understood and came to appreciate the secret of this humble creature. And now it is until death do us part.
It was the sweltering days of August, when Turkey was celebrating the month of Ramadan. I had decided to partake in the fast to understand exactly what it meant to those that did so for the full month. As the time to break the fast inched closer, little kebaps, delicate baklavas and fountains of water started dancing in my head.
In the heart of İstanbul near Gülhane Park, I sat down with friends to break the fast. And before me appeared mercimek çorbası. The first sip, and it was as though the earth itself had hopped onto my spoon and was helping me reinvigorate, and that is when I discovered my love for soups à la Turk. A simple Turkish lentil soup sprinkled with some fresh lemon is to the body what a warm fire and a good book is to the soul.
And that, my dear friends, was only the beginning. Come join me now on a çorba-hopping adventure to Gaziantep.
This is the sheer delight of taking a bus trip across the country. That minute when the bus decides to pull over (and since I really don’t know exactly how the timing works, sometimes after two hours, sometimes after five hours), and make its way lazily up some unpaved path to a rest stop (although I use the term “rest” very loosely since no one ever seems to be resting) it is always a surprise.
It had been more than five hours and our kaptan maneuvered us into a parking stall in front of a large stop in Ankara. I quickly slid up and out of my comatose position, whipped on my jacket and jogged down the stairs. The site in front of me was delightful. It was crowded as it could be, if there was a place that could be sat on, it was quickly procured. There was the man whipping up gözleme (crepes filled with cheese, potato or spinach) outside with a somewhat haphazard line-up of eager diners.
Next to the gözleme hangers-on were families sitting on the tables outside, many enjoying the hot çay served up from the outside restaurant. Grandmas and grandkids, annes and ablas munching away on homemade goodies pulled out of Tupperware containers. I, however, had a mission and marched to the front doors, threw them open and bounded through, ready to partake in what was on the other side.
The smell of delicious, hot Turkish cooking wafted through the air, dancing with my desire for çorba. I picked up a tray and slid it next to two large pots filled with delicious Turkish soup. The choice was between a sade mercimek soup and another made from yogurt.
yoghurt soup is definitely a unique taste experience. There is nothing you can compare the flavor to. Spiced and cooked yoghurt is tangy mixed with a cozy heartiness. As I noshed on my delicious creamy, minty yoghurt soup I reveled in the fact that I was in the heart of this old country and enjoying a dish that people would have been enjoying at 1,000 years ago. This corba has been a part of local cuisine since the Selcuk period in Ottoman history. According to the Turkish Cultural Foundation, the original version according was made simply with wheat and called “buğday çorbası,” which is still found in restaurants today. However, during the spring months when yoghurt was aplenty, the wheat was mixed into yoghurt and with a sprinkling of mint, voilà; we saw the beginning of yoghurt soup culture in Turkey.
We continued along the rural roads of Turkey past Ankara and on to Gaziantep. It was around 3 a.m. and time for another stop. This time around the restaurant was not quite as busy as the last one and it looked like I had arrived there just in time for a fresh batch of soups. The steam wafting into the air from the mercimek soup beckoned and I answered the call. The nice old man across the counter ladled the steaming golden deliciousness into a deep ivory bowl. I added a dish of pirinç pilav, one slice of bread and ayran to my dinner before tucking in.
The first hot bite, just sheer hearty goodness coupled with a smooth silky texture and the warm, fuzzy feeling of being at home. That’s the thing about soup — it’s home in a bowl. Turkish chef Özlem Warren says because of their rich protein content, lentils have been a valuable food source in Asia Minor since Neolithic times. “This soup is most probably Turkey’s most popular soup, enjoyed not only for lunch and dinner but also for a hearty breakfast in Anatolia,” says Warren.
Good morning — soup’s on
Soup culture in Turkey is definitely different then that in the West. That is why I had no problem waking up for the third rest stop at around 7 a.m. and heading into the restaurant for a breakfast bowl of soup. Whether you’re in one of the numerous districts of İstanbul or far off in Gaziantep, you will find restaurants open in the early hours ready to serve you at least two to three different kinds of Turkish soups — tomato, mushroom, wedding soup, lentil, spinach — the choices are endless. It is also considered a perfect late-night snack.
In fact, there are restaurants dedicated to the art of soup creation like Shorba restaurant (www.shorba.com.tr), which can be found on both the European and Asian sides of İstanbul. According to Shorba manager Sim Aslanoğlu, they’ve perfected the art of making the soup and offer 20 different varieties, which can change depending on the season. Their flavors range from Yuvalama, which is yoghurt-based with tender bits of beef, and I found it delicious. Tandir is also another one of their specialties and reminds one of a rich tomato and buttery soup with Turkish flavor and flair.
Now back to my third stop close to Gaziantep for a breakfast soup. The sun was up, the birds were a-chirping and I happily headed over to the cafe for a little home in a bowl. This time it was ezogelin corbası — some might call it mercimek-plus — it is a mixture of lentils, bulger, tomato, onion and other spices. This particular çorba is also very popular and can be found in most restaurants. I chose a few slices of fresh, soft Turkish bread to go with my ezogelin çorbası and find a nice little spot by the window. A little bit of soup, a little bit of home and a little bit of Turkey in every bite.
Chef Özlem Warren’s recipe for mercimek çorbası
I like to add carrots and potatoes to this easy, delicious and nutritious soup. The lovely colors of red lentils, carrots and potatoes bring an array of sunshine to any cold winter day! The addition of cumin and red pepper flakes add a wonderful, energizing flavor, as we do in southern Turkish cooking. I recommend you to make a big batch and freeze some, as it freezes really well.
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 40 minutes
250gr/9oz/1 cup red lentils, rinsed and drained
15ml/1 tablespoon long grain rice, rinsed and drained
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 medium carrot, cut in small cubes
1 medium potato, peeled and cut in small cubes
1.2 lt/2 pints/5 cups hot water
15 ml/ 1 tablespoon olive oil
15 ml/1 tablespoon butter
1 ½ teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon (or more!) red pepper flakes
juice of ½ lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
extra wedge of lemon
(and if you’d like) croutons to serve
Put the olive oil, lentils, rice, onion, carrot, potato and hot water in a large heavy pan. Bring to boil and skim off any froth. Over a medium heat, simmer for about 30 minutes or until the lentils, rice and the vegetables are cooked. Please stir occasionally to ensure the lentils don’t stick to the bottom of the pan. Once cooked, add the lemon juice, butter, cumin and red pepper flakes. Check the seasoning and add salt and pepper to your taste, mix well. Serve hot with a lemon wedge for extra zing and red pepper flakes sprinkled over. Some nice crusty bread by the side or croutons over the soup would go very well.
You can cook this wonderful soup ahead of time and freeze some if you’d like.
Resource: Today’s Zaman