The rich flavors of Sivas

With an extensive tradition going back thousands of years, Sivas cuisine is especially rich in natural-growing herbs.

Interest in gastronomy is growing by the day in Turkey as in the rest of the world. Thanks to this interest, the sector’s professionals, official government institutions and individual efforts are all contributing to the world of Turkish cuisine. Such individual efforts take the form of articles published in the newspapers and magazines, papers given at scholarly conferences, television food programs and the publication of quality cookbooks.
One such splendid book is Müjgan Üçer’s ‘Anamın Aşı, Tandırın Başı’ (My Mother’s Cooking) on the cuisine of the central Anatolian province of Sivas, which she compiled taking into account the subject’s sociological and philosophical dimensions. As the book relates the vast tradition of a regional cuisine going back thousands of years, you see with your own eyes how the culture of food influenced the civilization of Anatolia. Sivas played host to the Hittites, the Phrygians, the Lydians, the Romans, the Seljuks and the Ottomans. A stop on the famous Silk Road, Sivas was also Anatolia’s salt depot for centuries thanks to the province’s rich salt beds. Exactly 20 large saltpans are known to have been in operation in Sivas in the 16th and 17th centuries. So precious was salt in history, and found in such small quantities, that the route of the historic Silk Road was laid with sources of salt always uppermost in mind. When giving advice for governors in his well-known book the  Kutadgu Bilig, Yusuf Has Hacib said that they should be generous and their tables always open to everyone, adding that they should feed their guests ‘bread with salt’. Another reason Sivas has been a strategic region is its rich water resources, which the local people have named for their physical features and assimilated into the local culture. Furthermore, although tea was a late-comer to Sivas life, it is interesting that many sayings, indeed hymns, have been composed to it. In the ‘Hymn to Tea’ that Müjgan Üçer collected from the women of Sivas, the infusion is compared figuratively to the wine of paradise, and the burning of the samovar to the suffering heart of the dervish - all metaphors that are right in keeping with Sivas as a city of aşık’s or Sufi mystic poets.

Sivas cuisine is especially rich in naturally growing herbs. With the coming of spring, a wide variety of tasty dishes are made from flavorful herbs such as Indian knotgrass, mallow, nettles, muirhead, field bindweed and a host of others without counterparts in the West. All are extremely popular. Indeed it is believed that those who consume dishes prepared from seven of these herbs just before a clap of thunder will not get ill that year. But Indian knotgrass (‘madımak’ in Turkish) has a special place among these herbs. Although unknown in many parts of Anatolia, in the cuisine of Sivas this herb is a veritable legend that sprouts every year as the harbinger of spring following a harsh winter. It is said to be a remedy for a thousand ills. Difficult to gather and to cook, its preparation demands skill on the part of the cook.
Müjgan Üçer’s book also includes a number of sociological asides. Two of the most interesting concern ‘baca’ and ‘stork’ pilaff. In the old days, the roofs of houses were covered with soil and called ‘baca’. Following the spring rains, various herbs would sprout in the soil and rice pilaff would be cooked on whichever ‘baca’ was the greenest. Stork pilaff was prepared to coincide with the return of the storks on their annual migration. Cooked in large quantities, it meant a holiday, especially for the children.
I would like to thank Müjgan Üçer for researching and writing in depth about the cuisine of Sivas and making this worthwhile addition to world food culture. I am grateful as well to Adnan Şahin, Assistant Director of the Tokat Special Provincial Administration, for organizing the ‘Taste of Sivas’ Festival and sending the ingredients needed for preparing the recipes in the cookbook, and to Fatma Pekşen, who was also very helpful in sending the ingredients.