Turkish Memories, Jewish Food

For years, whenever I wanted old Sephardic recipes for Passover and other holidays, I would visit Ida Dana. I first met her at a cooking series featuring Sephardic cooks held at Magen David Synagogue in Rockville, Md. These events, like quilting bees, were a way for women to connect with each other, as they prepared food for bar mitzvahs, weddings, and other life cycle events. Dana, a native of Istanbul, was the lead Turkish cook at these gatherings, her quick fingers deftly molding burekitas or Passover bumuelos.

Dana’s niece, Beyhan Cagri Trock, is an architect by profession—but she remembers her aunt’s (and her mother’s) cooking. After her mother died, and Dana started showing signs of dementia, Trock realized that much of the food and culture she grew up enjoying—as well as her family’s own history—was in danger of being lost.

“I didn’t want to twiddle my thumbs,” Trock, 57, told me recently in my kitchen. “I thought that my sons don’t know anything about my history.”

To keep the history, and the recipes, alive, Trock has just published a culinary memoir called The Ottoman Turk and the Pretty Jewish Girl. It is simultaneously a love story about a Muslim Turkish man and the Sephardic Jewish girl with whom he fell in love—Trock’s parents—and a collection of 101 Turkish and Sephardic recipes.

It is no coincidence that the book is coming out just in time for Passover: This is the holiday where American Jews seem to connect with their roots the most. For Trock, Passover was the time where she felt that she really belonged to her Ladino Sephardic Jewish culture, cradled in the bosom of her mother and aunts, who did all the cooking for the family Seder.

“Turkish and Jewish Turkish food is pretty much the same—except at Passover,” she told me. “That is when the old recipes really come out.” For Passover, she said, Turkish Jews made wonderful vegetable and egg casseroles, meat and vegetable patties, and even matzoh-layered meat and vegetable pies.

As second- and third-generation immigrants get further from their roots, many of these traditions are being lost. “There are less and less people who do the Sephardic Seder,” said Trock, including her own family. “We used to do it in Ladino and Hebrew, now we do it in English. And my husband is Ashkenazi, so his customs are totally different.” Keeping her family’s recipes alive is vital to the survival of Turkish and Sephardic culture—and Trock’s own family history.

Her father, Zeki Cagri, was 35 when he met her mother, Beti Revah, who was 17, in Istanbul. Already in an arranged marriage to his new stepsister, with whom he had two sons, Cagri met Revah by chance in her father’s laundry shop. The two fell madly in love and ran off to Ankara, where he worked at the American Embassy as a chauffeur. Although they did not marry, they raised a new family with four children, Trock being the youngest. When Cagri retired, the embassy offered him either a pension or a green card. He opted for the green card and relocated the family to Washington, D.C. There, Cagri worked as the chauffeur for the Turkish Embassy and Revah became a secretary to the ambassador. (She went on to work as a secretary at the Iranian Embassy—where nobody knew she was Jewish; she was the only staffer remaining in the embassy when the Shah fell in 1979.)

Growing up in Maryland, young Beyhan became an Americanized teenager. Alarmed, her father took her back to Turkey for a summer—which is when she learned a trove of Turkish recipes and an appreciation of her background. As the Turkish and Sephardic community around Washington swelled in the 1960s, many immigrants, including her aunts, brought more recipes. “I grew up with this stuff,” said Trock, “stirring, serving, watching.”

Trock includes many of these recipes in her book, illustrating every movement of the hand for every step of the food preparation, and explaining Sephardic culinary culture along the way. Take a recipe, for example, like zucchini and cheese pie for Passover. Trock explains that it is a typical Sephardic dish of the cuajado variety. “Cuajado is a Ladino term for ‘coagulated, or having curds’ and refers to a number of savory baked dishes made from cheeses combined with lots of eggs, matzo meal for binding, and large amounts of grated fresh vegetables,” she writes. “They’re often made with spinach, eggplant, potatoes, or leeks. The texture is something like a savory bread pudding; soft but not mushy, with cheese forming a slightly hardened crust.” Trock peels the zucchini and uses the skin in kaskarikas, another dish where they are sautéed in a little olive oil and tomato, so that every part of the vegetable is used.

Or take this recipe: “My favorite dish is Albondigas de Pirasa (Spanish for ‘balls of’ and Turkish for ‘leeks’),” Trock writes. “They’re made with a seasoned ground beef and leek mixture or spinach, mashed potatoes or eggplant, formed into patties and fried. My aunts shape the potato patties round instead of oval so you can tell them apart from the leek ones.”

Words like this are priceless for those of us who want to record our oral history and culinary traditions. Turkish Sephardic food will survive—even beyond Istanbul, one of the few communities where Ladino is still spoken—thanks to Beyhan Cagri Trock.

Albóndigas de Pirasa (Leek Meatballs)

Albóndigas de Pirasa (Leek Meatballs) adapted from The Ottoman Turk and the Pretty Jewish Girl, by Beyhan Cagri Trock

6 medium leeks
1 lb. ground beef
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup matzoh meal or matzoh cake flour, divided
4 large eggs, divided
3 tablespoons vegetable oil, more as needed
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/3 cup chicken broth (optional)

1. Cut off the bottoms and tops of the leeks, leaving about 1-inch of green stem, and remove the toughest outer leaves. Slice into 1-inch circles and wash meticulously in many changes of cold water to remove the sand or grit.

2. Boil the leeks in a large pot, with enough water to cover, for 20 to 25 minutes, covered, or just until tender. Don’t overcook or the leeks will get mushy.

3. Drain well and allow the leeks to cool. Squeeze them between your hands to remove as much water as possible. Then finely chop and set aside. Resist the urge to use the food processor as it makes the leeks too sludge-like.

4. Put the ground beef, salt, pepper, 1/3 cup matzoh meal, and 2 eggs in a large bowl and knead well for at least 4 minutes. Add the leeks and continue to knead until the mixture is thoroughly blended. Add more matzoh meal if the mix is too wet to form into patties.

5. Have a small bowl of water nearby when you are ready to form the patties. Moisten your hands and grab about 1/4 cup of the mixture and pat it into a flattish, oval patty about ½ inch thick, rounding the ends. Set aside on aluminum foil. Repeat with the remainder.

6. Heat the oil in a large skillet over high heat. It should be ½ inch deep. As the oil heats, set out a shallow bowl with 2 remaining eggs, whisked, and a wide plate with remaining 2/3 cups matzoh meal for dredging. Also, line a baking sheet with paper towels for soaking up excess frying oils and have it ready.

7. Test the oil temperature by carefully flicking a tiny drop of water into it. It should sizzle. Dredge each patty; first in matzoh meal and then in egg. Gingerly put the patty into the hot oil. Continue with 4 to 5 more, and fry until they turn a deep golden brown (about 3 to 4 minutes).

8. Gently flip over, brown the other side, and drain on paper towels. Fry the remaining patties and serve immediately, sprinkled with a squirt of lemon juice.

9. If you are preparing them in advance, when the albóndigas have cooled, remove paper towels from under them and put on a baking sheet. Freeze for at least 3 hours. Then toss them into a large freezer bag and store in freezer until needed. Then thaw the patties in the refrigerator.

10. Twenty minutes before serving, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Arrange the patties in an ovenproof casserole dish. Pour the chicken broth over the top, cover, and warm in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes until all the broth has evaporated. Then sprinkle with the lemon juice.

Yield: 12-15 patties

Kabak Kalavasucho (Zucchini Pie)

Kabak Kalavasucho (Zucchini Pie) adapted from The Ottoman Turk and the Pretty Jewish Girl, by Beyhan Cagri Trock

6 medium zucchini, peeled
2 large eggs
1/4 cup matzo meal
1/2 cup cottage cheese
1/2 cup shredded Gruyère cheese
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese, divided
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
3 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more to grease the pan

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grate the zucchini. This can be done in the food processor with the grating disc attached. Placing small amounts of grated zucchini in your hand, gradually squeeze out as much water as possible before placing it in a large bowl.

2. Add the eggs, matzo meal, cottage cheese, Gruyère, half of the Parmesan cheese, dill, salt and pepper.

3. Mix the ingredients well and divide equally into 2 greased 8-inch pie pans or 1 greased 9 x 13 ovenproof casserole dish.

4. Sprinkle with remaining Parmesan cheese. Drizzle oil on top and bake for 40-45 minutes or until brown. (A larger baking dish will require a few minutes longer.)

5. Serve kalavasucho as a side dish, or with salad as a main course.

Yield: about 8 to 10 servings

Tanti Mati’s Haroset

Tanti Mati’s Haroset, from The Ottoman Turk and the Pretty Jewish Girl, by Beyhan Cagri Trock

24 ounces raisins
5 teaspoons sugar
1 apple, peeled and grated

1. Soak the raisins in warm water for a few minutes. Then change the water and cover with more water. Bring to a boil and simmer, uncovered, for about 10 minutes, or or until they are soft.

2. With a slotted spoon, remove the raisins, toss out most of the excess water, and put the raisins in a food processor with a steel blade. Add the sugar and the grated apple pulp and puree in the food processor to a mud-like texture.

Yield: about 3 cups haroset.


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