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Whether or not it originated with Alexander the Great, pasta, in all its shapes and sizes, is a food that has known no boundaries of class, country or time, nourishing babies, delighting emperors and keeping armies on the move. Berrin Torolsan celebrates the Turkic take on a practical staple
With its hundreds of different shapes, pasta is today one of the most widely consumed and enjoyed of all the staples. The ultimate comfort food, it nourishes families, bachelors, students, babies, the elderly, convalescents and everyone else besides.
We owe the introduction and worldwide fame of pasta to Italy, and the countless forms it takes are still identified today by their Italian names. Trade in pasta seems to have started early. The medieval geographer al-Idrisi in 1150 reports shiploads of itriyya, dried pasta, being sent from Palermo, the old capital of the Arab emirate of Sicily, to countries both Muslim and Christian. And a Genoese soldier’s will from 1279 lists among his possessions ‘barixella una plena maccaronis’ – a chest full of macaroni.
The Turkish name for the pasta you buy in shops, makarna, is borrowed from the Italian maccheroni (anglicised as macaroni), the generic name for tubular pasta. This foreign import became part of Turkish cuisine and was transported, along with its Turkish pronunciation, to the Ottoman Empire’s Balkan and Near Eastern domains. Miss Julia Pardoe, in her book The City of the Sultan, describes a visit to the imperial macaroni factory near the Selimiye Barracks above Üsküdar in 1836: “the large hall in which we stood was entirely over-canopied with ropes of macaroni, and surrounded by presses and rollers”.
Back in the 18th century, however, the palace historian Ahmet Cavid remarked on the appearance in Istanbul of various products from Venice, Cyprus and Crete made with dough similar to traditional Turkish pasta, which he called erişte. It seems that Istanbullus took to this imported fast food, which even the city’s poorest families could afford. Although erişte was prepared in most households, it never became commercialised as it did in Italy.
Erişte consists of a simple dough of wheat flour and water, often enriched with eggs, rolled out with a special long, thin rolling pin called an oklava, then cut into ribbons similar to tagliatelle. These ribbons are placed neatly on top of each other, to be sliced crosswise into matchstick-like pieces called çöp, then left out to dry on clean flour-dusted sheets and stored in cotton bags for later use. Erişte can also be cooked fresh (see recipe). The soft dough is pliable and versatile, and has evolved over time into an endless variety of playful shapes – twists, pellets, butterflies and bow ties…
RECIPE FOR CEVIZLİ ERİŞTE
(Pasta with Cheese and Walnuts)
2 glasses durum wheat flour
Extra flour for dusting
Mature ‘kaşar’ or cheddar cheese, grated
The oldest form of pasta, erişte is traditionally prepared in the countryside in huge quantities, with basketfuls of eggs, after the harvest in late summer. The women take it in turns to help each other prepare the household’s erişte, turning it into a party with songs and jokes. The product of this shared labour is dried on clean sheets in an airy spot, or, in some regions, lightly baked dry to remove all the moisture, making it durable enough to last the winter without becoming mouldy. Durum wheat, which produces another winter staple, bulgur, is traditionally preferred. The erişte can also be simmered in less water to allow it to absorb all the cooking juices, like a pilav, which means that none of the goodness is wasted.
1 Knead a dough with the flour, a pinch of salt, the eggs and half a glass of water. If the dough is too firm, add more water sparingly; if too moist add flour. It should have the softness of an earlobe. Knead until elastic, shape it into a ball, and leave to stand at room temperature for an hour, covered with a damp tea towel.
2 Lightly dust a work surface with some extra flour and divide the dough into two balls.
3 Roll out one ball with a rolling pin to form a circular sheet of pasta one or two millimetres thick (old people say as thick as the blunt edge of a knife), then spread it out, without tearing it, on a clean surface to dry a little while you repeat the process with the second ball.
4 Lay the sheets of pasta on a flat surface and cut with a sharp knife into long strips about three fingers wide.
5 Dust these ribbons with extra flour and pile them neatly on top of each other.
6 Hold the stack down on the table with one hand, and with the other cut crosswise into slices the thickness of a matchstick (the uneven end bits are cut into smaller pieces either for soups or for immediate consumption).
7 Cook the pieces of erişte fresh in boiling salted water, or spread on clean tea towels to dry for later use.
8 Serve tossed with butter and a generous helping of cheese and walnuts.
Order Cornucopia 51 for the full illustrated feature plus recipes for uvmaç, tutmaç, kesme, mantı with chickpeas, su böreği, chicken soup and pilav with vermicelli, and a delicious, succulent baked macaroni.
Berrin Torolsan, firstname.lastname@example.org.
See cornucopia.net/cookery for cookery articles from past issues,
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Until the 20th century, visitors would sail serenely into Istanbul to disembark opposite the Topkapi. After this spectacular start, reality would set in. By David Barchard
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