Sephardi Spices in the Sultan’s Shadow

Unique Classes and Tours Spotlight Turkey's Jewish Cuisine

Turkish Lunch: Selin Rozanes runs tours and cooking classes that highlight the cuisine of Turkey’s Jews.
Turkish Lunch: Selin Rozanes runs tours and cooking classes that highlight the cuisine of Turkey’s Jews.

By Katherine Martinelli

Published June 13, 2012, issue of June 22, 2012.
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We also made spinach “flan,” a clear Spanish-Turkish hybrid that can also be made with zucchini. Spinach is combined with eggs, flour, olive oil, and plenty of feta and local mozzarella-like kashar cheese, and then baked. Once finished it made a savory and satisfying side dish. Other Sephardic dishes Rozanes sometimes puts on her menu include bulemas de berencana (“rose borek,” so named because they are rolled up to resemble the flower) and armiko de tomat, a hearty tomato-and-rice stew.

When asked about the difference between Sephardic and Muslim Turkish food, Rozanes had a hard time putting her finger on it before explaining: “In Sephardic cooking, you don’t have a lot of onions and garlic and spices; it’s blander.”

Sheilah Kaufman, author of such cookbooks as “The Turkish Cookbook” and “Sephardic Israeli Cuisine,” explained in an email that “as far as foods are concerned, you have to remember that foods are not assigned a religion. There was a huge fusion of Sephardic and Turkish dishes [and] they influenced each other.”

Indeed, when the Jews of Spain arrived in Turkey, they were pleased to find similar spices and ingredients, and even culinary doppelgangers to many of their traditional foods. Turkish börek, for example, resembled their beloved empanadas, and both cultures share a love of syrup-bathed desserts.

In his seminal book, “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food,” food writer and historian Gil Marks says, “Before the expulsion from Spain, Sephardim commonly prepared ground meat in the form of albondigas (meatballs) and rollos (meat loaves). Upon arriving in the Ottoman Empire, they adapted the concept of the Middle Eastern kufta (meatballs and patties), but added their own special touches, resulting in keftes.” Rozanes’s köftes de prasa are an example of this fusion and include the Sephardic “special touch” of including vegetables — in her case leeks.

Compared with the 150,000 Jews who fled to Turkey after the Spanish Inquisition, today’s population of 20,000 is meager. In fact, there are more Turkish Jews presently in Israel (77,000 according to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics), than in Turkey.

Rozanes says she feels the effects of the diminishing population. “We try to keep the culture alive through holiday gatherings and holiday foods,” she explained. But the “elderly members of our family have all passed away. They used to do the prayers in Hebrew.” Rozanes said there is no one left in the family who can say the prayers during the holidays.

Her aunts and uncles still speak Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, though the language is largely disappearing. Also, there is only one kosher restaurant, Levi, left in Istanbul, and few that serve Sephardic-style cuisine. Very few Turkish Jews keep kosher.

Despite her community’s diminishing numbers, Rozanes plans to keep trying to keep the Sephardic Turkish traditions alive, one dish at a time.

Get Rozanes’s recipes for Turkish beef and leek patties and for zucchini flan here and for Turkish Shabbat recipe, visit The Jew and the Carrot.

Katherine Martinelli, a native New Yorker, is a food and travel writer currently living in Israel. She is a frequent contributor to the Forward.


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