For all those traveling to Turkey and Greece, you may find that several of the foods resemble tastes, aromas, and most importantly names. This commonality between the two countries dates back over 500 years to the Ottoman conquest ruling most of modern day Greece, as well as the entire eastern Mediterranean. With the empirical regime brought an establishment of the Silk Road, offering new recipes and spices from Central Asia to the Aegean.
Flash forward to today, and the eastern influence still holds strong in both Greece and Turkey. As a descendent of Greek Izmir, the food in our household was mostly derived from the Ottoman influences. Dishes like mousakka, imam bayildi, turlu, borek, and many others symbolized centuries of shared history and culture. However, the distinctions between the two countries offered a variety of nuances to the final recipes, offering a different culinary experience in Greek and Turkish kitchens.
Here are a few examples…
Greek mousakka (an Arabic word meaning ‘chilled’) is prepared with a bottom layer of thinly sliced potatoes, topped with marinated ground beef called ‘kima’ (same as the Turkish word), topped with sliced eggplant and a thick béchamel sauce. When made right, the eating experience is to die for. The Turkish mousakka offers a slightly different approach. Unlike its Greek counterpart, the Turkish version is prepared with grilled eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, onions, and kima, served with a side of rice pilaf. Of course, there is room for different approaches with the ingredients, but the distinction between the Greek and Turkish versions is apparent.
Imam bayildi (meaning the ‘imam who fainted’) is an eggplant based dish, mixed with olive oil, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and spices. One of the best vegetarian alternatives in Mediterranean cuisine, the Greek version offers this dish as a main course, served hot with good use of sliced bread for dipping. The Turkish version is close to its neighbor’s version, however served as a meze (side dish), and is eaten cold or at room temperature.
Moving onto the desserts, a favorite of mine growing up was ekmek kadaifi. It is believed this dessert originated from Afyonkarahisar, known as Akroinon or Nikopolis in Greek, an area inhabited by Greeks for centuries before and during Ottoman rule. A delectable Izmir sweet, its nuances are visually obvious from the get-go. The Greek version, often referred to simply as ekmek, consists of several layers of yummy goodness. The bottom is a thick layer of shredded wheat, known as kadaifi, which is saturated in a honey-based syrup. The middle layer consists of a denser wheat based shredded wheat, topped with thick vanilla-like custard, which is then topped with a thick layer of whipped cream and shredded almonds. The Turkish version is a bit simpler, consisting of a thick bread pudding base, moist with sugary syrup. It’s usually topped with kaymak, a clotted cream with a buttery consistency.
In the end, no one is certain why the nuances have appeared, even when the dishes are named the exact same thing. However, when living or traveling in the Aegean, take a chance at having both versions of these classic dishes. You may love one more than the other, or the same, but just in different ways.