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Turkish Cuisine (Part Six of Seven): The Black Sea Region

This is Part Six of a seven-part series exploring the cuisine of the seven regions of Türkiye. (Articles covering the first five parts of this series can be found on this site.) The culinary culture of Türkiye is renowned as one of the world’s best. Along with Chinese and French cuisine, it is considered one of the three main cuisines of the world because of the variety of its recipes and flavors. Fresh, local, and seasonal produce are at the heart of the Turkish cooking culture.

As a domestic chef and lover of all foods and cuisines, it has been an exciting adventure to discover the rich cuisine of this ancient, historic nation. While many of the foods and dishes carry the same name — for example, Kebabs and Türkiye’s legendary Lentil Çorbasi (soup) — the preparation and ingredients used in each dish can and do differ widely. These region-to-region variations are what prompted my initial interest in the food and cuisine of the seven regions.

The Black Sea Region (Karadeniz Bölgesi in Turkish; sometimes referred to as Pontus or Pontos) is bordered by the Marmara Region to the west, the Central Anatolia Region to the south, the Eastern Anatolia Region to the southeast, the Republic of Georgia to the northeast, and the Black Sea to the north. The region’s population is around 8.4 million; 4.1 million people live in its cities and 4.3 million people live in villages within the region. The Black Sea Region is the only one of Türkiye’s seven regions with a larger population in its rural areas than in its urban areas.

From the northern end of the Bosphorus just east of Istanbul to the frontier with Georgia, the Black Sea Region is an anomaly. The combination of damp northerly and westerly winds, confronting an almost uninterrupted wall of mountains south of the coast, has created a relentlessly rainy but extremely green realm. Although the coastline does have cooler water temps and cloudier skies, semi-tropical heat still sets in during July and August. The Black Sea remains an important maritime route. The ancient civilizations who ruled the waters here left behind castles, churches, monasteries and mosques. Along with these, the Black Sea Region’s charm lies in its craggy beauty, empty beaches, vibrant seaside towns, many unspoiled by tourism, and its low-key way of life.

Map of Seven Regions

The majority of the population of the Black Sea Region is Turkish. However, the eastern part of the Region is also inhabited by the Laz people who converted to Islam from Georgian Orthodoxy in the late Ottoman-era period. Part of the population also in the region is Muslim Georgians, Hemsin (Armenian converts to Islam), and Pontic Greeks (converts to Islam in the 17th Century). Some 25% of the population of Christian Pontic Greeks remained in the Pontus area (which includes Trabzon and Kars in northeastern Türkiye) until the 1920’s, and in parts of Georgia and Armenia until the 2010’s, preserving their own customs and Greek dialect. The majority of the Christian Pontic Greek population has since left, going mainly to Greece. However, much of the Muslim Pontic Greek population remained in Türkiye.

The Black Sea region has a steep, rocky coast with rivers that cascade through the gorges of the coastal ranges. A few larger rivers cut back through the Pontic Mountains with tributaries that flow in broad, elevated basins. Access inland from the coast is limited to a few narrow valleys. The mountain ridges have very high elevations both in the east and west. These ridges form an almost unbroken wall which separates the coast from the interior. The higher slopes which face northwest are densely forested. Because of these existing natural conditions, the coast of the Black Sea has historically been more isolated from the interior. Much of the region’s population is concentrated along the coast. 

Tea Plantation in Rize

Commercial farming in the Black Sea Region is profitable because of the mild but damp, oceanic climate of the Black Sea coast. From Zonguldak in the west to Rize in the east, the narrow coastal strip widens in several places into fertile, intensely cultivated deltas. Close to the midpoint in the Samsun area is a major tobacco-growing region. East of this area are numerous citrus groves, and the area of Samsun is world-renowned for the production of hazelnuts. Farther east, the Rize area has numerous tea plantations. All cultivatable areas, including mountain slopes that are not too steep, are sown or used as pasture. The western part of the Black Sea Region is the center of coal mining and most of the heavy industry of Türkiye.

The Black Sea Region’s oceanic climate provides a high and evenly distributed rainfall the year round. Summers are warm and humid at the coast; winters are cool and damp. The Black Sea coast in Türkiye receives the greatest amount of precipitation throughout the year of any area in the country. Snowfall is quite common between the months of December and March, sometimes falling heavily and continually for a full week or two. The water temperature in the whole Turkish Black Sea coast is always cool throughout the year.

The central portion of the Black Sea Region is somewhat lacking in character with the gateway to the region dominated by the dreary, hulking port of Samsun. However, the coast west of the interesting town of Sinop, towards the harbor of the old medieval town of Amasra, is filled with attractive villages and deserted beaches. To the east of Samsun are the old mercantile towns of Űnye, Giresun, and the ancient port city of Trabzon. Trabzon has more historical attractions than any other destination on the Turkish Black Sea, including the famed Sumela Monastery which is nearby.

The Sumela Monastery

Many visitors come to the Black Sea Region in the summer to escape the high heat in the Mediterranean and Aegean regions of Türkiye. The region is appealing and attractive with rich flora and fauna (some 7,000 species of plants), rural retreats among its misty forests, glassy crater lakes and rivers, waterfalls and babbling mountain streams. Nature walks, rafting, canoeing, hunting and fishing, and grass skiing are popular pastimes for the region’s many tourists and visitors, along with tasting the region’s renowned local foods.

The cuisine of the Black Sea Region is a vital part of Turkish culture and cuisine. The ingredients used in its most distinguished dishes perfectly reflect the rich culture of the people of this region. Its cities, towns, and villages all have at least one delicious dish that can be identified with their name. Although there are many well-known, delicious dishes from the Black Sea Region that deserve mention, I am going to focus on the ten that I found most appealing. (Source:  https://www.tasteatlas.com/best-rated-dishes-in-black-sea-region)

Kuymak

#1 – Kuymak (Cheese dish; Black Sea Region):

This traditional Turkish dish combines coarsely-ground cornmeal and aged local cheeses such as trabzon or kashar. Grated cheese is mixed into piping hot cornmeal until it turns stringy, and the dish is then typically enriched with butter or kaymak, Turkish clotted cream. Kuymak is typical of the area surrounding the Black Sea, where it is mainly enjoyed for breakfast. It always needs to be made fresh and served warm.

Akçaabat Köftesi

#2 – Akçaabat Köftesi (Meatballs; Akçaabat, Trabzon Province):

This is a traditional Turkish dish originating from the town of Akçaabat in Trabzon. These fried meatballs are unique because the locals only use veal from the calves they breed and slaughter themselves. The meatballs are made from ground veal, bread crumbs, grated onions, garlic, salt, and pepper. Once formed into patties, the meatballs are grilled or cooked in a skillet until golden brown. Traditionally, the meatballs are served with a green salad, bulgur pilaf, roasted vegetables, and ayran (a savory yogurt-based drink) on the side.

Nokul

#3 – Nokul (Sweet Pastry; Black Sea Region):

Nokul is a flavorful Turkish pastry that reminds one of a cinnamon roll. It is made with flour, salt, sugar, yeast, vegetable oil, and a flavorful poppy seed filling that is dispersed throughout the swirls. The pastry is baked until golden-brown in color. It is served hot and sometimes even as an appetizer instead of bread.


Misir Ekmeği

#4 – Misir Ekmeği (Cornbread; Black Sea Region):

Misir Ekmeği is a savory Turkish cornbread that is especially popular in the Black Sea Region. Its texture is usually hard and dry because it is prepared without a raising agent. This bread can be shaped into circles, tubes, oblong shapes, or braided into plaits. Cheese, dill, sesame, poppy, and nigella seeds can all be added to the dough to enhance its flavor. A specialty of the region is cornbread with sardines; when used, they are traditionally baked right in the dough. Made this way, the bread is typically consumed with yogurt and considered as a full meal. 

Orman Kebabi

#5 – Orman Kebabi (Stew; Bolu Province):

Orman kebabı (forest kebab) is a traditional Turkish dish originating from the city of Bolu. The dish is usually made with a combination of lamb or beef cubes, carrots, potatoes, onions, peas, tomato paste, thyme, butter, olive oil, flour, and salt. The meat is rolled in flour, drizzled with olive oil, then browned in a pot. The vegetables are sautéed with the butter and seasonings, covered with water and then, mixed with the browned meat. The dish is simmered over low heat until the meat is fully cooked and tender. Orman kebabi is traditionally served with rice pilaf and yogurt on the side.

Hamsili Pilav

#6 – Hamsili Pilav (Rice Dish; Black Sea Region):

Hamsili pilav is a visually attractive Turkish dish of oven-baked pilaf encased in anchovies. The pilaf is usually prepared with long-grain rice, onions, raisins, pine nuts, mint, lemon juice, and spices. In order to prepare hamsili pilav, a baking dish is first brushed with butter, then layered with anchovies so they fill the whole bowl. The rice pilaf is then spread over the anchovies with the ends of anchovies folded towards the center of the bowl so the rice is completely encased inside them. After the baking process, the dish is typically turned upside down and served garnished with dill sprigs and slices of lemon. 

Tokat Kebabi

#7 – Tokat Kebabi (Meat Dish; Tokat Province):

Tokat kebabı is a traditional Turkish kebab variety originating from the city/province of Tokat. It is made with lamb shanks, potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes, green peppers, garlic, and olive oil. The meat is cut into chunks, the eggplants are cut into large slices, and the potatoes and tomatoes are cut into thick vertical slices.
The ingredients are placed side by side in a baking dish – or skewered, drizzled with olive oil and roasted until tender. The dish is roasted under a whole bulb of garlic whose juices drip down onto the other ingredients as it cooks. It is served with lavash flatbread. This type of kebab is traditionally prepared in special clay ovens which are in many of the old houses in Tokat. It is highly praised due to the high-quality of the local ingredients used.

Deli Bal (“Mad Honey”)

#8 – Deli Bal (Honey; Black Sea Region):

Deli bal (or “mad honey”) is a Turkish honey variety originating in the Black Sea Region. This honey is produced by bees from the nectar of the Rhododendron ponticum and luteum, which contains a natural neurotoxin called grayanotoxin. Some honeys are stronger, especially during Spring and Summer.

Deli bal is typically amber red in color with a smooth, rich flavor but slight hint of bitterness. Some use it like a medicine believing it can treat hypertension, stomach diseases, and diabetes. Other use it as an aphrodisiac. When used in other drinks such as milk, or eaten on its own, deli bal can give a sense of euphoria and sometimes even hallucinations. When too much is consumed, one may exhibit symptoms of diarrhea, seizures, vomiting, and even loss of consciousness.

Kavut

#9 – Kavut (Porridge; Breakfast; Trabzon):

Kavut is a traditional dish originating from the eastern regions of Türkiye but is mostly prepared in the villages of Trabzon. It is usually made with a combination of whole-meal wheat and barley grains which are roasted and ground, often by stone milling. The kavut is cooked with milk, butter, and sugar until it reaches the consistency of a porridge. It is then removed from the heat source. A well is made in the center and honey or light sugar syrup with butter is poured into the well. The dish is eaten with a spoon by dipping it into the syrup. Another way to eat kavut is to make holes in the top, pour the honey or light syrup over it, then dip into it with a spoon.

Çarşamba Pidesi

#10 – Çarşamba Pidesi (Savory Pie; Samsun):

Çarşamba pidesi is a Turkish savory pie from the Çarşamba district in Samsun, Turkey in the Black Sea Region. It is known for its soft texture. This pide is shaped into a long, thin loaf, about 30-32 inches long and two inches wide, weighing around 7 ounces. It is made with a dough leavened with sourdough. It has a raw filling of minced beef and onions squeezed of their juice, and salt and pepper. It is baked in a wood-fired oven. After baking, butter is spread on the hot pide to enhance its flavor. The final product is a soft, buttery bread that is distinct from other, crispy varieties of pide.

The equilibrium of the Black Sea Region was upset when the area entered the history books as a theater of war. Imperial Türkiye and Russia clashed four times between 1828 and 1915. Between 1918 and 1922, Greeks attempting to create a Pontic state fought with guerrillas loyal to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s Nationalists. Following Atatürk’s victory and the formation of the Republic of Türkiye, the Greek merchant class was expelled. As a result, the region experienced great economic disarray which bordered on famine during the 1930’s. Much of the credit for the decades of recovery goes to the hamsi – the Black Sea anchovy caught in large numbers during the winter – and to hazelnuts. Some 75% of the world’s demand for hazelnuts is met by Türkiye, with the Black Sea Region being the principal area of production of this commodity.

Culture of Turkish Cuisine: It is said that three major kinds of cuisine exist in the world: French, Chinese and Turkish. Fully justifying its reputation, Turkish cuisine is always a pleasant surprise for the new visitor to Türkiye. Turkish cuisine is world renowned for its diversity and flavor, drawing influences from all corners of the former Ottoman Empire. Turkish people are passionate about food with each region taking pride and boasting about their own specialties.  Generally, the further south and east you travel, the food is spicier and richer. In the western regions, the use of olive oil, and seafood and vegetable dishes are more prevalent.

First and foremost, food in Türkiye is always a special occasion and always to be enjoyed with great gusto. From home-cooked meals shared by family and friends, symbolic religious or celebratory feasts, or from the street theatrics of roadside sellers, food is closely intertwined with the fabric of society in Türkiye.

Ottoman Houses at Yesilirmak River; Amasya, Black Sea Region

Stay tuned for Cuisine of The Eastern Anatolia Region (Part 7 of 7).

__________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Copyright (c) by North America TEN and Mary Bloyd.

All pictures and video clips belong to their original owners, where applicable. No copyright infringement intended. Please ask for permission before reprints.

A retired corporate manager, Mary lives in Centerville, Ohio. She loves cooking for family and friends. Taught by a professional chef how to use spices and herbs, makes stocks and mother sauces, she developed a curiosity about different foods and cuisines. After discovering the wonderful storytelling in Turkish dizis and films, Mary became interested in and has written numerous articles about Turkish cuisine, culture, and traditions. She loves to travel, is a creative writer and poet, editor of books and articles, and is currently working on her first book, a personal memoir.

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