By Mehmet Birbiri, Host Nation Adviser
/ Published September 08, 2006
INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey -- Question: Mehmet, a while ago we were invited to a Turkish friend's house for dinner. We had stuffed eggplant there. The landlady tried to explain how to cook that dish. I totally forgot about it until I saw dried eggplant and peppers sold in the market the other day. Can you tell us about how the Turks sun dry the peppers and eggplants we've seen in the markets and how to prepare them? Also, although I asked for them, I haven't seen those dishes served at the restaurants. Why? The majority of the restaurants in Adana serve meat dishes and very seldom vegetable dishes. Where can I find vegetables dishes?
Response: Let me answer your last question first. As you have noticed the majority of the restaurants serve meat dishes in Adana. Adana is famous for its Adana kebap. Very few restaurants serve vegetable dishes. Cooking Turkish vegetable dishes needs some skill and takes longer, and restaurants want to serve their customers fast.
I want to remind you of something very important. I hear many times, especially from the newcomers, that they had some stomach problems after eating at a Turkish restaurant. The first thing they think is that the food was either not cooked well or not hygienic. They might be right. Another reason might also be the eating habits of the person. If your digestive system is accustomed to American food, it might have difficulties having Turkish food cooked in a different style with different spices. In a short time your system will adapt to the Turkish food as well.
But to be on the safe side and not get sick due to undercooked food, you should always keep in mind the hints given by the Public Health Office.
-- Always drink bottled water when eating off base (watch the waiter break the seal).
-- Avoid ice in the drinks since it is hard to tell the water source.
-- Avoid eating fruits you cannot peel yourself or wash in potable water.
-- Avoid eating fresh salad items.
-- Meat dishes should be served hot.
-- Items you expect to be cold should be served cold.
Back to your first question. All kinds of food associated with stuffing are called dolma in Turkish. It means stuffed. The most common dolma foods are eggplant, squash, peppers, cabbage and yaprak (grape leaves) dolma.
When we have stuffed chicken we call it chicken dolma. Shortly, anything stuffed is called dolma. The name of the most common transportation in Turkey - dolmus - has the same base; stuffed. If you have ridden on them you know what I mean.
Eggplant, squash and peppers are carved in big quantities during their season. There are special carving knives, or tools, for eggplant and squash. After carving inside, they are boiled in salty water and spread on a clean place, mostly on the roofs, to dry in the sun. After they dry, they are stored in a dry cool place.
Before cooking stuffed eggplant, squash or peppers, you should put them in fresh water for several hours, so they became soft ready for stuffing. To shorten the softening time you can use luke warm water.
The ingredients of the stuffing is mainly rice, meat (lamb or beef), some tomato or red pepper sauce, black pepper, salt and margarine. Of course, the type and quantity of the ingredients and spices depends on the wish and taste of the cook. Keep in mind to stuff the eggplant, squash and pepper only half. Because during the cooking they will absorb water and rice will enlarge and fill the cover. Put the stuffed ones side by side in a pan and add water to cover them before putting on medium heat fire. Within 45 minutes, it should be cooked.
When the eggplant, squash and peppers are in season, they are carved fresh and stuffed right away and cooked as they are. For stuffing cabbage and grape leaves, they are boiled when they are fresh, to get soft. The cabbage is cut in about four-inch wide strips. The ingredients are put on the leaves and rolled. Stuffing or rolling the leaves should be loose, so when rice absorbs water it doesn't break them.
Some cooks add different spices to the ingredients and use olive oil instead of margarine and serve cold.