The artichoke

Actually a thorn, the artichoke is of special interest in Turkish cuisine, at every stage from the cleaning to the cooking.

Some fruits and vegetables that are mentioned in holy books or ancient myths have enjoyed a special respect down the centuries. One of them is the artichoke, which used to appear on the market with the coming of spring but is available now starting in February. Actually a thorn, the artichoke completes its maturation process to become a plant very similar to the broad-leafed 'devetabanı' thorn (Phlodentron). The experts debate whether the artichoke derives from the thorn or vice-versa. What is not debatable is that it is a plant of the Mediterranean.

Although there are differing theories as to the home of the artichoke, most of them agree that it is a vegetable of the Eastern Mediterranean. In an article he wrote after attending a seminar in Spain, writer Nedim Atilla tells us that the Persians call the artichoke 'kenger', a name also given to certain edible thorns in several parts of Anatolia today.

In Sicily the artichoke is known as 'sinar'. Legend has it that Zeus, enamored of the lovely Cynara (Sinara) who lived on the island of Zinara, transformed her into a goddess. But when she failed to take any notice of him, the king of the gods was incensed and turned her into an artichoke. The Latin name of the vegetable, 'Cynara Scolymus', is thought to derive from this legend.

In Arabic the artichoke is 'al harshuf' or 'al kharshuf', which is also claimed by western sources to be the origin of the word 'artichoke' in their languages. Venetian merchants at any rate are known to have traveled to Antioch and to have brought the artichoke back with them to Venice and Sicily, from where it later made its way to Spain. The Spaniards call it 'alcarchofa' after the Arabic, the Italians 'arccioffo', and in the Venetian dialect it is known as 'articioco', which is also the root of the French and English words.

The artichoke's arrival in Paris, the temple of western cuisines, dates to the 16th century. As Ahmet Örs points out in one of his articles, Catherine de Medici of the famous family that left its mark on Italian history, brought the first artichoke to Paris when she went there as a young bride. But since the artichoke was rumored to be an aphrodisiac in those days, the women of Paris were prohibited from eating it.

The artichoke's arrival in the New World coincides with the 18th century. Northern California in particular soon became a major center for raising the vegetable, and the state has held an artichoke festival in May of every year since 1950. Marilyn Monroe was once chosen queen of this festival long before she became a Hollywood star. In fact, despite having lived in different centuries, beautiful and powerful women like Sinara, Catherine de Medici and Marilyn Monroe constitute interesting links in the artichoke legend.

The place of the artichoke in both Turkish and Greek cuisine is somewhat different from that in other world cuisines. While the artichoke enjoys pride of place on the table in both Turkey and Greece, indeed is regarded by some as a luxury food, in western cuisines it is used more as a garnish or vegetable side dish.

Mainly two species of artichoke are grown in Turkey: the 'Sakız' artichoke of the Aegean region, and the Istanbul 'Bayrampaşa' artichoke. The two are quite different, the Aegean variety being small with more tender leaves, the Bayrampaşa variety being twice as big with very tough leaves. Even the stem is consumed in Aegean cuisine, which creates outstanding dishes with this vegetable. Indeed, tender fresh artichokes stuffed with uncooked rice and cooked are a specialty unique to Izmir women, who take a dim view of the Istanbul method of preparing the vegetable.  There is no end to their amicable disputes regarding the best method of cooking artichokes.

When cooking artichokes, it is regarded as proper to cook them whole, removing only the tough outer leaves. The fleshy parts of the cooked leaves are then sucked off to obtain the highest nutritional benefit. If the entire outer portion is to be removed, it is highly recommended that this be done just prior to cooking since a peeled artichoke quickly loses both its flavor and its nutritional value. Remember too that artichokes must never be cooked in aluminum or cast iron pots. Bon appetit!