Ayran was my first love in Turkey. I discovered the yogurt drink at a touristy restaurant in the old town, Sultanahmet, when I randomly ordered it off the drinks list, probably attracted by the word “traditional” next to it.
“Would you like it salted?” The waiter asked.
I said no, I don’t know why. I’ve never wanted anything unsalted in my life.
“Have you had ayran before?”
“Yes,” I lied irritably. “Of course.”
The drink was disappointing, but I was determined to enjoy it. When the waiters weren’t looking, I shook some table salt into the glass. It was transformed. The real change, though, was when I first stopped at one of the ubiquitous kiosks and bought a prepackaged plastic glass of ayran and pulled back the foil top. I had found everything I was looking for in a beverage! Thick, rich, creamy and salty, it was almost like drinking alfredo sauce without the pasta getting in the way. I became an ayran fiend, drinking it in place of meals, sometimes twice a day. After returning home, I tried to recreate the drink. A friend had told me it was yogurt, salt, and water, so how hard could it be? I tried different ratios, but the results were disastrous. Later, I realized that I had been using vanilla flavored yogurt.
I don’t want to say that ayran single handedly drove me into Turkey’s arms, but in the back of my mind, I felt like if this drink fit me so perfectly, something had to be right with the country. Two weeks after my first trip to Istanbul, amid my failed attempts to recreate ayran, I bought a second plane ticket. In any case, ayran isn’t the only drink to blow me away here. Since we usually enjoy sweet drinks in the US, Istanbul is full of savory treats for those of us with more of a salt than a sweet tooth.
In my Turkish classes in the US, another girl told me things that seemed too good to be true about turşu, pickles. In Turkey, there are many pickle specialty shops, and the proprietors don’t stop at pickling cucumbers. There are pickled carrots, tomatoes, and peppers. My favorites are the pickled cabbage and garlic. But the best part is that you can stop in and order a cup of turşu, and he will give you a glass of brine with your favorite vegetables floating inside. Even more delightful, he’ll add hot spices too it, making it the perfect end to a night out.
Şalgam took me longer to discover. I had seen people adding it to their raki, and because of its purple color assumed it must be sweet, or something with pomegranate. In fact, it is made with purple carrots and turnips, and is sour and salty. It can be served with hot paprika or without, but it doesn’t seem to make much difference to me, perhaps because it is often eaten with ciğ köfte, raw spicy meatballs (which are often, ironically, meatless, made with bulgur instead). The tart flavor makes my eyes wince and my lips purse, but it gets better with every sip. My boyfriend suspects I’m faking to fit in, but it isn’t necessary anymore. The meatball shop’s motto, “This pain is enjoyable” sums it up. I suspect if I ever move from Turkey, you’ll find me growing heirloom purple carrots and fermenting them in my basement, wandering around absently sipping out of pickle jars and wondering what’s so original about Go-gurt.