Street Simit

We will be talking about “simit” today, which is also known as bagel, bretzel, djevrek, as it conquered many geographies in various different forms. However, we will focus on the genuinely Anatolian version of it – welcome to the world of “simit”!

(Selam Dünyalı, Ben Türküm! Vedat Özdemiroğlu – book)

It may get confusing to try to find the root of the word “simit” in Anatolian culture, because similar foods have always been popular in a wide range of cultures throughout many centuries. We can see traces from many cultures eventually merging as we analyse the etymology of the word Some of these words come from Ottoman Turkish سمید‎ (simit), Persianسمید‎ (semid, “semolina”), Arabic سَمِيد‎ (samīd, “semolina”), Aramaic סְמִידָא‎ / ܣܡܻܝܕܳܐ‎ (səmīḏā), Akkadian (/samīdu/, “a type of fine groats, coarse flour, semolina”), which is related to Akkadian (/samādu/, “to grind fine”).

(Susamlı Halkanın Sırrı, Artun Ünsal-book)

For anyone curious, here is a book written by a very valuable and internationally-renowned author of Turkish culture; Artun Ünsal. This detailed and well-constructed research book titled “Susamlı Halkanın Sırrı” (translated to English as the Secret of the Sesame Ring) helps us in identifying and expanding the art of research on Anatolian cuisine.

While the etymologists argue about the source of this word, our dear Artun Ünsal has come across an interesting fact during his research. Albert Gallatin was a Genevan-American politician, diplomat, linguist and ethnologist who worked on the Mexican and Central American ancient cultures. In one of his documents which was published in 1845, Artun Ünsal recognized a word “Semeet-eh” which meant bread in Poqomam language, spoken by Zacapa natives, in one of Gallatin’s documents, published in 1845, Obviously, this raises questions of relationship between Mayans, Arabs and even Greeks.

(Semi-Civilized Nations of Mexico, Yucatan A., Central America, Albert Gallatin – book)

But who was the first to make this simit? There is enough information to fill an encyclopaedia to answer this question and obviously, everybody has their own story, starting withArameans, moving on to the indigenous Sami People, then to Persians, to Greeks and to Polish. The fact that simit has been popular enough to be produced in many cultures throughout time is the main importance of this food, rather than its history or birthplace. This is a good enough reason for simit to be considered one of the most essential foods, in my humble opinion.

Greek historian Evangelia Balta published a work on the bread production in Greek territories during the Ottoman era. In her work, she states that that börek, bun , gevrek and other types of pastry production was prohibited in bakeries even though today simit making is not a usual baker job. It may be true that not all bakers make simit in its original shape; however, there are many similar pastry products in various cultures. For example, in Siirt; “kak”, in Diyarbakır; “kilor” and “destenan”, in Niğde; “Fertek” circle, in Kastamonu and Rize; “kel simit” … For instance, “Fertek” circle in Niğde, was actually used to be prepared in order to avoid the need to make bread all the time by stocking these little pastry circles at home. The one that has the shape of “U” is called the Fertek circle and is hung on a rope, while another type of circle one is called “Karamanlı”. In essence, these crunchy pastries that hang on the rope by their holes are a type of “peksimet”(a twice-baked, crunchy bread type).

And then there is “Gevrek”, a special name given to simit in İzmir, meaning “crunchy”. As we can see, even if we talk about the same thing, the name given to simit in every region is different. However, do not be fooled! Gevrek is not only used in Izmir; in its journey to the Balkans simit has come to be known as “gevrek” as well! In Albanian and Macedonian languages, it is called “gjevrek”, in Bulgarian it is “gevrek”, and in Bosnian and Croatian it is known as “djevrek”. The symbolic reason behind simit’s circular shape is something to focus on. Throughout history, the circle shape has represented the power of womanhood, the universe or mother nature. Since it has neither an end nor a beginning, it has been considered to symbolize infinity, unity and togetherness. Isn’t it mesmerizing? The traces of a circle meaning infinity can also be found in Jewish culture. There is a myth in the society of Polish Jews that eating a bagel with a hole in the middle represents eliminating hunger according to Maria Balinska in her book “the Bagel”. During old days, Jews believed the circle had the duty of protecting them from the evil eye and bad spirits as well as bringing luck.

Another interesting fact: In the studies made on simit in the Ottoman era, it has been found out that there were specific members of the staff in the palace kitchen called “Bursa simit makers”. This fact is exciting as it shows that people from Bursa were already masters of simit centuries ago. However, in reality; “simit” meant white flour in Ottoman era, whereas I was hoping that the invention of simit came from Bursa. This means that these simit makers were responsible for making bread for the sultan and simit meant white flour used to make the said bread. This special flour had to be sieved through silk, which is why it was called simit. It is still the same these days; the flour for simit is different from any other flour. In fact, if you talk to the master simit makers, they will say “this flour melts in front of the fire”. What a beautiful portrayal! The flour used for making simit has very important characteristics. Master simit makers are concerned with the fact that the flour can endure the fire, crack (the dough) while cooking, ensure the specific quality of the dough and is easy to handle. Often flour factories produce their products according to the specifications that are desired by the bakeries, meaning; not only the bread but also simit has various flour types.

Another important ingredient like the flour is the sesame seeds. Sesame seeds used abroad in order to make tahini are not suitable for making simit since they do not give colour to the simit. Usually, raw sesame seeds are used in simit making while some producers also prefer using sesame seeds with molasses. Even these sesame seeds with molasses have varieties as well. Talking about molasses, it is important to mention that the majority of simit masters claim that the essence of simit is the molasses, because every type of molasses is used differently and are unique to their own right. For example, if the process includes heat, a different type of molasses should be used, and same goes for cold processes. Fig molasses is the type that is generally preferred. Personally, I prefer beet molasses.

The substance that makes simit delicious is the molasses and old masters used to say that molasses is made from sugar. Who knows how many rookies burned themselves for the sake of burning sugar? This process requires very special handling; you must use a wooden spoon with a very long stem and you cannot mix it like you mix a soup. The sugar is caramelized slowly, then the water is added. If you are not experienced, you will definitely burn yourself. Did you know that this method is now prohibited? In 1992 French Chemist Louis Camille Maillard randomly found out that when amino acids and sugar mixtures are heated, they create a very dense, brown blend which gives food a unique taste and smell. He named this occurrence MRU Maillard reaction.

This is the scientific explanation of the process of molassesthat was previously mentioned. Hold on, hold on. If this traditional process of simit making is way more delicious, why is it prohibited? Well, because sugar burning is thought to produce carcinogens, so they restricted this process and the fine for using it today is indeed very expensive. In 2002, Eden Tareke from Eritrea found out that the fried potatoes and breads that are heated until 120 degrees Celsius contain a substance called “Acrylamide”. This substance was recorded as “food products with a high probability of causing cancer”. Moreover, this is apparently a man-made substance instead of a natural one.

So the question now is: “So we cannot no longer eat simit?” The answer is of course no; only the process that involves the burning of sugar is prohibited, not simit itself. Like we mentioned before, there are ways to make molasses with a cold process. Compared to the hot processes, simits produced from cold processes are fluffier and crunchier.

Even industrial production of simit involves this process of using molasses. Germans dip their bagels in a liquid similar to molasses. This liquid is a diluted sodium hydroxide… You may also know it as drain cleaners in the market. Therefore, only the Turks use real molasses. In Europe, some also use malt molasses, however this product is still processed. The topic of simit is somehow like bread, as you realize. There are Turkish simits on one hand, world simits on the other, simit dishes, simit culture…it goes on and on. Let us stop our story here and continue with an original simit recipe for all!

Ingredients are 100 g simit flour, 150 g all-purpose flour, 120 mL water, 6 g salt and 5 g yeast. First, we put all of our ingredients in a large bowl and pour the water all at once, since this is going to be a rigid dough. It must be a very rigid and tight dough. In the old days, people used to cover their feet with plastic bags and knead the dough using their feet. Thank God we have machines for that now. Once the dough starts shining, cover it with cloth and leave to rest. After it has rested, we divide the dough into 4 pieces and start rolling out (the process of lengthening the dough). After rolling out, we cover the pieces with cloth and let them rest again. This way it will be easier to handle, and the dough will be fluffier. While waiting; we prepare the molasses. I use beet molasses and dilute it with hot water in1:1 ratio. There are many ways to prepare the simit, let us mention them one by one. Method 1:Two cords simultaneous preparation. Here we roll the two cords out and eventually twist them together and close the ends to create the simit shape. Then, dip the raw simit in the diluted molasses mixture and finally cover with sesame seeds (here you can use many different types of sesame seeds). Method 2: One cord technique. This is a method involving first twisting one long cord of dough and then linking the ends. Method 3: Two cords, separate preparation. This involves two different cords which are then connected to one another. Trust me, there are many other techniques, but for now these are enough. After dipping our dough in molasses and sesame seeds, then comes the loosening of the simit. This is said to be one of the most difficult and important processes of simit-making. Often the act of loosening the simit is somehow metaphorically related to the act of counting rosary beads (a religious tradition of counting beads, called Tesbih in Turkish), because it requires patience and a delicate touch. Before putting them in the oven, raw simits are left to rest again. Finally, we put our simits into the oven heated to 230-240 degrees Celsius for 12-14 minutes. Enjoy your simit!