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Özlem Warren on her new book Sebze and why Turkish food is great for vegetarians

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

What are your earliest food memories?
I grew up in Antakya in southeast Turkey and spent childhood holidays there at my grandparents’ 450-year-old stone house. They grew walnuts, figs and pomegranates that my grandmother would use to make molasses. I absorbed everything watching her and my mother cook. My uncle and grandfather were food merchants and would bring cases of fresh produce home, which were used in meals or preserved — nothing was wasted. And I loved going to the bakery and the farmers’ market with my father, handpicking produce and chatting to the vendors.

Are markets still a big part of life today?
Very much so, you’ll find one at the heart of every neighbourhood. Each is different, depending on its location, the local demographic and growing conditions. They have regional ingredients straight from the producers and often a huge variety of olives, pickles and cheese. The bakery is a central part of our culinary tradition — fresh pide flatbreads or somun loaves are bought daily. Bakeries are also hubs where locals gather, and many act as community ovens where people can take their bread to be baked instead of doing it at home.

Spices in boxes at a market

Istanbul’s food scene is heavily influenced by its immigrant communities, evident within the city’s markets and street food stalls.

Photograph by Sam A Harris

Breads in bowls on a white clothed table

Bakeries are central to Turkish communities, with breads such as simit and lahmacun being popular sharing dishes.

Photograph by Sam A Harris

What are the key ingredients in Turkish cooking?
The Ottoman Empire made a big contribution to the way we eat. The sultan controlled the spice routes, bringing the best spices and produce to the kitchens at Topkapi Palace. Cumin and sumac are key flavours, but pul biber (aleppo pepper) is probably the most-used spice. We don’t just use it in cooking but also as a seasoning — you’ll find a pot on every Turkish table. We’re also a country of yoghurt-lovers. It’s in almost everything — dips, meze and desserts. And we produce the best nuts; I now live in the UK and whenever I visit home, I take an empty suitcase, which I fill with nuts to bring back with me — almonds from the Datça region, pistachios from Gaziantep and hazelnuts from the Black Sea.

Is there a difference in food across the regions?
It’s a vast land — the climate and soil differ greatly, as do the various ethnic communities that live across Turkey. If you go to the Black Sea region, you can feel the strong influence of the Ottoman Empire and there’s a focus on ingredients such as tea, corn and cornmeal, anchovies and butter. Southern Turkey has more spicy food, pomegranate molasses and bulgur, as well as the tradition of drying excess produce such as aubergines and peppers to preserve them or turn them into pastes. Mainland Anatolia is known as the home of wheat and hearty food, traditionally made to sustain people through the long winters, while southeast Anatolia is the home of baklava. Towards the Aegean, the influence of the Med and the climate brings lots of citrus, herbs and fish, lighter flavours and vegetables cooked in olive oil.

Rolled cabbage in a bowl with rice

Cabbage rolls are a popular European dish, typically consisting of cooked cabbage wrapped around an assortment of fillings.

Photograph by Sam A Harris

You lived in Istanbul for many years — what’s the food scene like there?
The city is welcoming and diverse, and its food is greatly influenced by its immigrant communities. There are amazing markets with different regional specialities. Misir Carsisi spice market in the Old City is a special place to visit; it’s a feast for the senses and has huge displays of spices, dried fruit and nuts. The city also has brilliant street food — one of my favourite things to do is to go to Ortaköy Square and grab a baked potato with delicious toppings from a vendor. Then I eat it with a glass of çay (Turkish tea) looking out over the Bosphorus strait. Or you can pick up a gözleme (filled flatbread) or simit (sesame-encrusted bread ring) to enjoy on a ferry trip across the water.

Book cover of Sebze

Sebze: Vegetarian Recipes from My Turkish Table, by Özlem Warren (£28, Hardie Grant).

What might surprise people about Turkish cuisine?
Most people think of kebabs when they think of Turkish food, and we do love them, but that isn’t what we eat at home. With my new cookbook I wanted to showcase the variety of vegetarian dishes eaten in the country. We love pulses, legumes and wholegrains, as well as vegetables, and make lots of casseroles, filled breads and pastries, vegetable meze and pickles. It’s very seasonal, naturally wholesome and frugal. There’s also a sharing element to Turkish food and a sense of community that I wanted to get across in the book. That spirit of hospitality underlines everything we do, it’s in my DNA.

Published in Issue 24 (summer 2024) of Food by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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