My senior year in college, I took a week off from classes to go to Turkey with my family. Just weeks before, I’d come home from my actual spring break–that was the trip to Tamarindo, Costa Rica, when Phoebe and I first made fish tacos together for the masses. Turkey was a different kind of trip, more exotic, in many ways, than tropical Costa Rica, which admittedly did have its moments of feeling utterly foreign.
Where Tamarindo had sustained us on cheap, ripe avocados, fresh fish, and black beans, Turkey kept me busy eating baklava, pita, and börek. For mid-morning, mid-afternoon, and early evening snacks, we’d pop into promising storefronts to try a small square of baklava each. When we visited smallish towns, prodded by my mom, I’d do my best to try a pastry from all the bakeries there. (She had similar expectations for me when we were tasting gelato in Rome and Florence.) One of the highlights of the trip was the day we spent in a suburb north of Istanbul with Engin Akin, a Turkish cookbook author and food personality. She took us to the nearby markets and then led us in cooking a vast Turkish feast. Everything from slow-cooked flat beans to flakey börek to homemade manti came out of her kitchen, and went into our stomachs, that day.
Once we left Istanbul and flew south to Izmir to visit Ephasus, Selçuk, and the beach towns nearby, eating demanded a little more guesswork. Turkish is not an easy language to dabble in; it took us days to even recognize the word for “bread” on menus. (The word for “black,” incidentally, was easier for me to learn–it’s “kara”. ) There was a lot of pointing at lunch at least; fortunately the hotel we were staying at had an extraordinarily large and fresh breakfast spread that came out without ordering, and a very limited menu for dinner consisting only of meat, chicken, or vegetable stew–all warming and delicious.
I loved the trip. But my little sister, Kate, turned out to be even more enamored than I. She returned to study abroad in Ankara the fall semester of her junior year, traveling enviably far and wide across the country. She got back in touch with Engin and visited her a few times in Istanbul. Then, while back in the States for spring semester, she landed a job taking care of Engin’s granddaughter that summer. From the perspective of the recipient of her text message updates, it turned out to be a dream job that involved only a smidgeon of child care and much more relaxation, boating around Bodrum and the Greek islands, and eating fantastic food cooked by Engin for an enormous group of friends and family.
Some of the food Engin had cooked for us seemed to be on the menu. But Bodrum in the summer is really, really hot, and so many of the dishes were meant to combat that. Kate wrote emails about the food that made our mouth water. Though back in New York, I was eating Summer Squash Angel Hair, Enchiladas, and the original Saddest Pantry Pasta, I found myself with cravings for food I’d never even tasted.
That was two years ago. Katie’s long been back, but between finishing college and moving to Arkansas, she hadn’t gotten around to cooking me all that much of the Turkish food she’d learned to make. This summer, during a slow, hot week by the beach, she started making us cacik (pronounced Ja-Jek) for lunch. With fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, and garlic from the farmstand, and yogurt straight from the fage carton, she recreated this cooling vegetarian dish she’d eaten all summer in Turkey.
It’s got very few ingredients, requires no cooking, and is halfway between a chilled soup and a salad. As you dive in, there’s a moment when you feel you might be eating a bowl of garnish. It has to be served tongue-freezing cold; Katie told us how Engin would be constantly calling for more and more and more ice cubes to add. I for one was skeptical, preferring high calorie dishes like grilled cheese and pizza to low-calorie ones featuring nonfat yogurt. But cacik, with its crunch of cucumber, zest of garlic, and dazzling design of olive oil on top, is ultimately satisfying. Eating it, I could just imagine that instead of the shores of Long Island, I was sitting by the shore of Bodrum, watching the sun glare over the Mediterranean as my yacht swayed gently side to side.
From my kitchen, importing Turkish traditions, to yours,
Cara, THE QUARTER-LIFE COOK
Serves 1; easily doubled or quadrupled
A lot of this can be done to taste–add additional vegetables if you like, cut back on the garlic, or go wild with the olive oil. It may remind you of tzatziki, but remember that’s Greek. This is Turkish.
1 clove garlic, made into a paste with 1/4 teaspoon salt
6 ounces low-fat Greek yogurt
Ice water and an ice cube
1 small kirby cucumber, quartered lengthwise and sliced
1/3 cup cherry tomatoes, quartered
Bread for serving
Combine the garlic paste and yogurt in a small mixing bowl. Stir in the ice cube and 2 tablespoons ice water to cool and thin. Add the cucumbers, then taste for salt, adding more as needed. You can also add more ice water if you’d like your cacik to be thinner. Stir in the cucumbers. Sprinkle the top with cherry tomatoes and another small pinch of salt, then drizzle about 2-3 teaspoons’ worth of olive oil on top (more if you’re a fiend). Serve with bread slices, cut into dippers if you like.