With high nutritional value, even used to feed armies, tarhana is one of the rare millennia-old foodstuffs that are still consumed today.

Perhaps the world’s first dessicated soup, tarhana was invented by Central Asian Turks, inspired by the climate of the geography in which they lived. Its preparation is extremely easy. Just mix the dried (or doughy) mixture with water, add a little oil and tomato sauce, and boil. But of course the process of making tarhana before it reaches our kitchens is another story. Salt, mint and yoghurt are added to wheat flour, which is then cooked in a large cauldron. When it has cooled slightly, a little more wheat flour and some yeast are added and the resulting mixture is kneaded. The mixture is then left to ferment, and largish portions of it are spread out on sheets to dry; later it is strained through a sieve, dried once more, and stored by hanging in gauze bags. All that remains for us is to boil up this tasty tarhana, made by hand by our aunties and grandmothers in the Anatolian towns of Kastamonu, Kahramanmaraş and Uşak especially, and then to consume it with gusto.

No exact information is available concerning the provenance of the name of ‘tarhana’, which was brought to Anatolia and the Middle East by the Seljuk Turks. When I asked Georgia Kofinas, a Greek expert and researcher on traditional Greek cuisine, about tarhana, which is called ‘trhana’ among the Greeks, she said they were equally in the dark. One thing we do know is that tarhana entered Balkan cuisine as well during the Ottoman period. Legends are rife in Turkey concerning the meaning of the word tarhana. One of the most popular is that it derives from ‘dar hane’ (literally, ‘narrow house’, in other words, ‘house of little means’). Legend has it that one day while on a military campaign the Sultan was a guest in the home of a poor peasant. Having little to offer, the resourceful peasant housewife quickly boiled up a soup. Embarrassed at having to make such a meager offering, she said, “‘Dar hane’ soup is all I have to offer you, my liege. May you eat it with appetite!” In time this ‘dar hane’ soup became known as ‘tarhana’. Because it is so easy to make and store, tarhana soon came to head the list of staple nourishments of both settled and nomadic peoples. A product of the summer sun and an abundant harvest, tarhana is served at every meal from breakfast to supper during the remainder of the year. Tarhana also was also a key component of the food rations supplied to the Seljuk and Ottoman imperial armies, and during the Gallipoli campaign in particular it provided the soldiers with the strength they needed.

Methods of making tarhana involve adding yoghurt or sour milk to wheat products and then letting the lactic acid work its fermentation. In Turkey, several varieties of tarhana are produced which differ both in their basic ingredients and in the other additives used. When we say ‘wheat products’, we should explain what these are. Tarhana, of which there are different regional varieties, can be made either from coarsely ground wheat from which the husks have been removed, from flour, or from stale bread. Before the invention of the mill, tarhana was made from coarsely ground wheat, or groats. In this method, which is more labor-intensive, the wheat is first pounded into flour in a large mortar with a wooden pestle. The rest of the process is almost the same as that employed today.
Tarhana made from stale bread was known among the Ottomans as ‘Sultan’s tarhana’. In common parlance this variety later came to be known as ‘false tarhana’. As one can imagine, this is a method that was invented so as not to waste stale bread in times of privation. The name ‘Sultan’s tarhana’ originated with the loaves of bread that were made for distribution to the poor from soup kitchens.  Because the use of refined white flour entered the Ottoman palace from the West, bread made from it was called ‘Sultan’s loaf’ since it was eaten exclusively by palace residents. But the name continued to be used in the vernacular long after such bread became a common commodity. Consequently, the tarhana made from such bread is also known as ‘Sultan’s tarhana’ and does not indicate tarhana made in the palace. The tarhana consumed in the palace was made from flour and, after it was cooked, was garnished with curls of Turkish ‘kaymak’ or clotted cream.

Besides the tarhana-making methods described above, there is also Kahramanmaraş tarhana which can either be browned and eaten, prepared like boiled veal and consumed as soup, or nibbled on as a snack in front of the television. This tarhana, which is consumed in a variety of situations, resembles sheets of ‘güllaç’ (a sweet made from starch wafers). ‘Kahramanmaraş tarhana’, which differs from the traditional variety, has somehow never found its way onto the shelves of the big city supermarkets. But it is Kastamonu that is the leading city in Turkey for the making of traditional tarhana, and the ingredients used are prepared here with special care. ‘Aygut’, for example, the top layer of cream on fresh yoghurt, is set aside and dill weed that has gone to seed added to it for special flavor. The people of Kastamonu also add a number of other flavorings such as mint, basil, quince peel, tarragon seed, onions, parsley or beets to the tarhana mixture. Tarhana can be made from corn flour as well. There is even a variety made from Cornelian cherry which is widely regarded as a panacea. The people of Kastamonu, who are known for making wide use of mushrooms in their cuisine, have started selling mushroom tarhana in their local markets today. Mustafa Zeydanlı, who has devoted forty years of his life to Uşak tarhana, has engaged in strenuous efforts to promote tarhana all over Turkey, producing it industrially while nevertheless preserving the traditional methods that he developed with meticulous care. Tarhana has even become a subject of songs and poems in Turkey’s folk culture. Let us therefore conclude our account with Ali Yüce’s poem, ‘Tarhana’: “In the sky a little cloud / Tiny and white / I divided it into forty little pieces / My nurse spread tarhana in the sky / Birds, don’t eat my tarhana / Or I’ll tell my nurse on you.”