In my fourth year of college, I made the slightly unorthodox decision to study Turkish. Maybe it was because I loved Ottoman history, maybe because I loved the writing of Orhan Pamuk and Yaşar Kemal, and maybe because I was extremely obsessed with modern Turkish history for much of high school. Probably, it was for the food.So over the course of a year, I filled my elective slots in my schedule with an intensive Turkish language course. My Turkish is not fluent, but I have managed to get by in Turkey, watch a few delightful soap operas, and of course, read recipes.
Much of Turkey’s cuisine is very famous, but even more of it unfortunately rarely gets translated into English or taken outside Turkey. Turkish food is highly regional – after all, Turkey is a country twice the size of Montana with a huge diversity in climates, landscape, and crops. Turkish food also carries all the influences of the various ethnic groups, rulers, and trades the country has seen. In some ways, it is more accurate to talk about Turkish cuisines rather than a single tradition. In the north by the Black Sea, one finds heavy dishes with karalahana (collard greens) or pakla (corn bulgur). In the center, one finds deep meaty stews and gruels like the barley-based aşure. In the south, many dishes are prepared with tangy nar ekşisi (pomegranate molasses) and spicy peppers. Turks are often immensely proud of their home regions’ delicacies. This diversity carries over to the Jewish cuisines of Turkey.
Turkish Jews – who before the 1940’s were a major population in the country – are a diverse community: from Kurdish Jews in the East to Sephardim on the Mediterranean coast to Ashkenazim and Arab Jews who had fled persecutions or left economic turmoil further north or south. The vast majority of Turkish Jews are Sephardim, descendants of the Jews who were welcomed by the Ottoman sultan after the expulsion from Spain in 1492. Their cuisines vary significantly, but all make good use of the local products of Turkey’s incredibly rich agriculture. I have found many of my favorite recipes from across the Jewish world in Turkish collections – from tripe soups to candied pumpkin. And now, I have another recipe to add to that list: kestaneli kuzu, lamb with chestnuts, beloved by Turks Jewish and Muslim alike.
Chestnuts are found across the Mediterranean basin, but the ones most common today originate in the Taurus Mountains (Toros Dağları) of western Turkey. These have been eaten since ancient times, and are often found in Ancient Greek and Roman literature and ruins. In many poor mountain communities, they were the most common source of starch until the introduction of the potato. Indeed, in Turkish Sephardic cooking chestnuts make many appearances, especially in desserts. But this recipe, kestaneli kuzu, combines two old favorites: chestnuts and lamb stews. Jewish and non-Jewish Turks alike treasure this recipe for festivals, celebrations, and nice dinners alike.
In Turkey today, kestaneli kuzu is associated with the city of Bursa, as are all chestnut dishes, but it is common across much of the country. Jewish women often foraged in forests near their communities in Turkey (as they did for berries in Lithuania) and would include their finds in foods daily and festive alike. This dish, known widely among locals, was an easy way to use these finds. Today, this hearty stew remains common, and is particularly popular on the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. A similar dish exists in Moroccan-French Jewish cooking – in fact, in Israel it is associated by some with Aryeh Deri, the disgraced co-founder of the religious Shas party. It is, apparently, his favorite dish. The recipe by his wife, Yaffa (née Cohen), became popular after being published a few years ago. Though I strongly disagree with Shas’ religious-nationalist and conservative politics, the recipe is top-notch. (The recipe is cited below.)
Kestaneli Kuzu (Lamb with Chestnuts)
3 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
2-3 lbs (1-1.5kg) lamb stew meat, cut into chunks with the bones separated out
2 onions, diced
8 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon table salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground paprika
1 cup sweet red wine
4 cups vegetable or chicken stock (you can substitute soup powder)
9 oz (250g) roasted, peeled chestnuts
1 cup raisins, soaked in water for 10 minutes
- Heat a deep pot over a high flame. Then, add the oil.
- Add the meat but not the bones. Sauté the meat on high heat for ten minutes, until the meat is lightly browned on all sides. Remove the meat from the pot and set aside for a moment.
- Add the bones, onions, and garlic to the pot. Sauté on high heat for five minutes, or until the onions are translucent.
- Add the spices and wine, and cook for one more minute, by which time the wine should be boiling.
- Add the meat back into the pot and mix with the onions. Add the stock, and water to cover the meat about 1 1/2 inches/4 centimeters.
- Bring to a boil, then simmer for 1 hour, stirring regularly. Skim off the fat that accumulates at the top. (You can use the fat to make rice that goes with the stew, or dip bread into it.)
- Add the chestnuts and raisins after the hour is up. Then, simmer for 15-20 more minutes.
- Turn off the heat. Serve with rice and/or bread.