Plate of the Union: Mediterranean Munchies

August 29, 2013

I hail from the great culinary tradition of the American South, with our masterpieces of grits, cornbread, fried chicken, and peach cobbler. My friend Colleen is from Minnesota, where you can find fried everything at the State Fair. Through a series of conscious decisions, happenstance, and a little bit of spontaneity, we spent our last two weeks of summer traveling through the great nations of Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus.

While Turks and Greeks share both historical depth and culinary richness, they also share a rivalry whose roots are rife with hot-button political issues, and whose practical, day-to-day ramifications center primarily on football (not the American kind) and debates over who really created baklava.

So when Colleen and I decided on a whim to fly from Istanbul to Athens one Tuesday evening, we were intrigued by this idea of rivalry—especially when it comes to food. Both of us have lived in Turkey, so we attempted to push aside any prejudices and appoint ourselves, two American girls, as the arbiters of the Greek-Turkish culinary divide. Our Southern and Midwest culinary roots aside, we decided, rather presumptuously, to add our own judgment to the Greek-Turkish culinary debate. Here are three of our primary findings, dish by dish:

Döner/Souvlaki: A question that haunts many is how to properly pronounce the word gyro. While I cannot advise you with any authority there, I can tell you about the difference between gyro (souvlaki) in Greece and gyro (döner) in Turkey. In principle, döner is the same at most Turkish restaurants: a spinning column of meat, either chicken or lamb, sliced thinly and wrapped up in thin bread with tomatoes, onions, pickles, french fries, and sauce. Due to its budget-friendliness, accessibility, and high levels of protein, I ate a lot of döner in Turkey. Still, only a couple of times has it been anything especially memorable—overjoyed at my first discovery of french fries in the wrap, and I haven’t forgotten the secret sauce at a hidden stand in the back streets of Adana.

Souvlaki, though similar in concept, proved to be quite a treat. Per a recommendation from our kindly hostel owner, Colleen and I walked to an unmarked place by Victoria Square, where we went up to the counter and ordered two chicken souvlaki. To our delight, two thick, hot pieces of pita were laid before us and piled high with chicken, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and—the most important ingredient in my humble opinion—tzatziki sauce, a delicious mix of yogurt, cucumber, and spices. On my first bite, I was astonished by how delicious the ingredients were, how well they went together, and how quickly I was able to devour them. Throughout our days in Athens, we came back to this place several times, and we were never disappointed. Souvlaki stole our hearts—and our stomachs.

Dolmades/Yaprak Sarması: Both dolmades and yaprak sarması consist of grape leaves tightly wrapped around a mixture of rice, spices, and occasionally meat. The Turkish version, yaprak sarması, can safely be numbered among my favorite foods of all time. Squeezed into tiny, finger-like cylinders (traditionally, women are judged by how small they can squeeze their sarma), the Turkish version is served either hot or cold, often with a yogurt topping. My best sarma experiences have been in Turkish homes, with the grandmother and several neighbors working all morning to craft an entire platter.

The Greek dolmades that we ate at a rooftop restaurant in Athens were thicker, shorter, and meatier. Perhaps an avid carnivore would prefer them, but the taste of the meat overwhelmed the bouquet of spices that I came to appreciate in Turkish sarma. The best part of the dish was the tzatziki sauce that covered the dolmades. It’s safe to say that pretty much anything covered in tzatziki is delicious.

Baklava: Finally we come to baklava, a hotly contested issue on both sides of the Aegean. While living in Turkey, baklava was my downfall—it was difficult for me to pass up an opportunity to try it, whether served in a fancy Istanbul bakery or the back streets of Antakya. Every piece of baklava is a unique and overwhelmingly sweet experience. So of course Colleen and I had to try the Greek Cypriot version. We got some baklava to go one night in Lanarca, and the sugar high gave us enough energy to enthusiastically dance to Greek MTV before immediately crashing. The Greek baklava was packed with walnuts and was bigger, sweeter, and thicker than most Turkish baklava I have eaten.

On the baklava debate, I can only say that to make a proper judgment, I must certainly try more of the sticky dessert from both countries at every opportunity. This will be a lifelong quest for me, and I look forward to the sugar highs and the weight gain that will ensue.

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Excellent piece. My mouth is watering for good food, and my wings are warming up for some travel!