In Turkish, we start by making an allusion to geography when we are talking about ourselves and our culture: Our lands. This allusion is easy for those in the know but it is also loaded with many connotations. These “lands of ours” could possibly mean our village, our city or our country. This way, the physical distance between where we are at that point in time and where we mean by “our lands” is described while also making a point about the cultural difference between these two places, giving the listener an idea about the topic to follow. For example, saying “breakfast of our lands”.
Cemal Süreya’s famous short poem comes immediately to mind when talking about breakfast culture in Turkey. Or rather, the poem comes to mind before the idea of breakfast with a smile on our faces. Cemal Süreya is a modern Turkish poet. He is one of the most beloved poets. He writes about his ideas very straightforwardly, using daily language to illustrate his different perspective. Just as his poem above: “I don’t know what you think about eating food / But breakfast must have something to do with happiness.” This is the whole poem, but it tells about a very comprehensive culture; it is the breakfast culture of our lands. This culture isn’t limited to what is eaten or how, or in which order. Because the breakfast meal means more than just nutrition in Turkey, just as the poet writes.
It is possible to inspect the concepts and practices of breakfast culture in the geography of Anatolia with a comparison between urban and rural. For example, Turkish food culture has two different concepts: one is the general concept of breakfast and then the concept of Sunday breakfast. Another example illustrates how breakfast was carried out differently until recently, both in content and timing, in cities vs. rural residences due to the differences in living conditions. It is possible to give examples to each of these in socio-economic and socio-cultural terms and their emotional extensions while explaining the distinctions between classes.
At this point, we can reverse the meaning of Cemal Süreya’s poem “Kahvaltı” (‘Breakfast’). Because not having breakfast is a reason to be unhappy in Anatolia. It is such an unhappiness that it can be felt within the bones when there is no breakfast to be had that day, because unconsciously breakfast means family, it is what the family brings on the table; warmth, trust, joy, fun… This might be why people enjoy breakfast more the older they get; maybe it isn’t eating that they are concerned about but to recapture the memories of childhood. Luckily, the mosaic we call the Turkish cuisine is rich enough to satisfy this fondness with its food variety and flexible breakfast hours.
Sunday breakfast especially in the cities illustrates this richness of Turkish breakfast in the best way, because the weekday breakfasts are usually kept short, but never neglected, and therefore -especially in households- are meals that still require attention and effort to prepare. Some people enjoy it quickly with their families before leaving the house, some eat it at work, or grab a crispy simit (similar to sesame bagel) with a strongly brewed glass of tea, or a slice of börek or çörek (pastries) and dark coffee. Until very recently about 40 years ago, breakfast was eaten fastly during weekdays and daily plans and things to be done within the day were discussed. These breakfasts, aiming to be healthy, were positioned differently within the breakfast culture of the weekends and the breakfast concept of the family would evolve from ‘healthy’ to ‘social’.
Sunday breakfast bring the whole family together away from the stress of the weekdays where everyone would take their time and follow the meal’s unique rituals that tie to one another naturally with joy and lots of conversation. Moreover, beloved friends would be welcome to the breakfast table with the family. However, if the space is too small in the house, or if alternative places were being sought to unwind from the week’s stress and to gather energy for the upcoming week, this breakfast could take place on the waterfront, in a flowery garden or at a friend’s bigger house. If you are in a special geography like Istanbul, you will be spoilt for choice. For example you can enjoy breakfast on a beach at a cafe facing the Bosphorus, watching the Marmara Sea meet the strait. This are the usual expectations, however, sometimes situations don’t allow such an outing. Then the event could be done in a smaller scale, but there must be “eggs” involved in either case if a proper Sunday breakfast is in order.
Sunday breakfasts feature an expansive span of different food groups from dairy and pastry items to salads. The selection of cold foods are already placed on the table when the breakfast starts. Maybe only the bread and the tea are hot, the rest of the spread can be consumed throughout the meal. Then the hot dishes start to arrive. The first of these are egg dishes like ‘menemen’, a dish prepared by frying tomatoes, peppers and eggs in a generous splash of oil; variety of omelettes; grilled cheeses or meats, such as ‘sucuk’ which is a spicy sausage; fried or baked ‘börek’ varieties… Do not think that these are brought to the table all at once very fast. It couldn’t be further from the truth; Sunday breakfasts in our lands last a really long time. The meal takes such a long time that coffee and dessert are offered very late into it. A dessert is a must-have next to a sugar-free, foamy Turkish coffee. It is a tradition. A type of fruit dessert made with a limewater marinade, which is then hardened and boiled in little amount of sugared water or a more syrupy and rich pastry dessert such as baklava are prefered. Chocolate is a must to finish the meal for any lovers of breakfast or sweets.
Breakfast was always enjoyed as a family in metropolises until the recent past and the table spread would feature brewed tea, cheese, olives, butter, honey or molasses. The sons or the father of the house would go to the bakery to buy fresh warm bread. The contents and timing of the Sunday breakfasts were especially made to be expansive and the father would go to the grocery to shop for the occasion. I remember clearly that there was usually a Western movie on the TV at 11:00 in the morning 40 years ago. The whole family would have breakfast together, this movie would be watched and then the father would read his newspaper while the mother cleaned up the table. Of course these were routines of a middle-class family which occupied a large percentage of the city demographics in these years. The dynamics of the daily lives of people living in the countryside were different, shaping the breakfast habits and practices uniquely.
The word breakfast is a meal in Turkish and also the name of the food consumed during this meal. Etimologically, there are two suggestions about the root of this word: either “kahve altı” in mainland Turkish (direct translation would be ‘under coffee’) or café au lait (coffee with milk) in French. The foods enjoyed during breakfast have their own unique cultures independent of breakfast as a meal. The traditional foods consumed during a Turkish breakfast are known to be products made in “preparation for the winter” in Turkish cuisine. Cheeses, jams, butters and similar; even some of the pastries are food prepared for winter. Their production is long and hard, sometimes taking up to months.
I can say that the idealized breakfast tables in the daily urban life are prepared on Sundays almost as a condition of the period, or at least that is the aim, and other venues other than the house are utilized for this as well. It is evident that the number of restaurants known as ‘breakfast rooms’ or ‘breakfast places’ increased in number exponentially with the increasing popularity of having breakfast outside. The mode of service can be different in these places compared to in the house. The method of service in which all the dishes are brought to the table at once like in homes is called ‘serpme kahvaltı’, a mixed breakfast spread, and the a la carte method is called ‘tabak’ or similar, meaning plate.
The dishes in the breakfast meal are grouped in the same way no matter where it takes place or how rich it is in variety. These groups include dairy products, eggs, olives and olive oil, sweet products, meat products, pastries, salads, soups and mezzes to be spread of bread on occasion, and of course tea. Each of these groups has their own lists. However, let’s leave that to future articles.
One of the trademarks of Turkish breakfast, or even Turkish cousine: a glass of tea and a simit. Humble but proud. Because it is one of the most accessible breakfast foods pairs, or even the most popular go-to snack. Not many food pairs have achieved the same amount of success as this common duo as easily; ah effortless harmony.
Tea is the most common beverage in a Turkish breakfast today. Many books have been written on it. Simit, on the other hand, is a savory doughy pastry produced commonly around Anatolia with little nuances. The one made at home differs from the one baked in a wood oven. Tea-simit usually refers to the latter kind. What comes to mind when ‘simit’ is mentioned in this context is the crispy ‘street’ simit, with its dough marinated in molasses water, dipped in heaps of sesame, baked in a fire-controlled wood oven. I call it ‘street’ simit because nowadays there is a type of ‘bakery’ simit as well. It is sweeter not at all as crunchy as the former, pleasing mostly sweet tooths. The real star of Turkish breakfast is the ‘street’ simit, which is called as such because it is sold on the streets. Also, due to the fact that it is baked in neighbourhood ovens. Not all bread bakeries are able to properly made simit. Making it requires a different kind of mastery. Not all dough masters are able to pull it off anyways.
This simit used to be sold by travelling salesman who either hung a baskets filled with it on their shoulders or in mobile glass carts. Nowadays, it is sold in carts placed permanently on Street corners along with a variety of cheese. One simit is usually bought per person but if there are several people enjoying them, an extra would be bought to be shared afterwards.
Tea-simit duo is the gastronomic symbol of hurried times, the joy of being outdoors and even lazy Sundays where I am from. A sip of tea, a bit from the simit. Less is more. It is enjoyed the most on a paper sheet, with a glass of tea without a saucer on a wooden table. The sesame would spill on the paper, and more tea is ordered as the conversation gets deeper. It is time to leave only when that last extra simit is shared.