This soup usually divides the masses. Some feel inspired – at times so much that they vow to reproduce it at their own kitchen. The others view it as a pure exoticism and will never relate to the action involved in its making. I am about to present arguably the most laborious Turkish soup and still.. if you want to treat yourself (and your near and dear) on a cold and dull weekend then do spare an hour and a half to make the soup with Turkish bulgur gnocchi (topalak çorbası).
A friend of mine said, the future of the food blog and cookbooks in the quick and practical cooking. And you can see this idea taken to the extremes already: luring (yet foreign to me) attempts to cook just about anything with 5 ingredients or claims that one can master cooking in 4 hours. It makes sense. If you are too busy blogging or consulting startups do you really have time to cook?
And if I stop clowning around I must admit that even if you are actually busy cooking you too want an ‘instant’ solution when it comes to making your own meal. Mix, shape and forget; chop, toss, send to the oven; or even better – take out of the fridge and reheat. But then there is nothing like a pleasure of setting aside the time that does not insult your dish and savoring a meal that took a bit of your effort to make. And I feel grateful to myself I have the kind of time for the kind of effort.
The other day I had a very engaging discussion with my clients (oh, I love my clients for they are always up for a good discussion). We talked about the new generation that is alienated from the land, manual labor and as a result – from the real food. Pat said, “In my family everyone used to make pickles and during the family visits people would always share a few jars with pride. This is something our children have no idea about“. I recalled our preservation spree this year and all of a sudden became very aware of the choice I had made.
I rant at times how difficult it is to be at the kitchen and that I am not learning much while chopping onions but then my commitment to be at the kitchen – along the side of my mother in-law or pursuing my own endeavors – makes me a link in the culinary tradition, a person who passes what my mother-in-law learned from her mother to my children.
I can be that link as I have chosen to commit significant time and effort to cook. The way I cook daily now used to be a once-in-a-while-weekend-feast I could put together only now and then when I worked as a strategy consultant full time. After every exhausting weekend when my mother-in-law and I feed another 100 people it’s not the peeling and chopping I take away but at least 3-4 recipes – well developed or presented to me as a rough idea – of Turkish dishes I have mostly never heard of (still, after all the extensive eating, reading and cooking done to date). To learn them, cook them, make them part of our eating routine rather that a rare delicacy, to enjoy and share them – this is what makes me happy and fulfilled.
Just as backwards as I feel at times I know I am also in trend. Over and over again I come across the stories of the people who have received good education, worked and traveled extensively only to go back to such a traditional domain as cooking. And it is such individuals that stir things up . No need to go far for the examples. Think Hande Bozdoğan, founder of Istanbul Culinary Institute who originally pursued economy as her area of studies. Or, Şemsa Denizsel who started her career in advertising and then opened Kantin where she rethought the traditional fare into a new Istanbul cuisine. Or Refika Birgül whose path from advertising to hospital administration took her to becoming first Western-style food writer and presenter in Turkey, a big milestone for the country that had only Emine Beder and Oktay Usta to admire.
Now, cooking after having a business degree and seeing the world it is not the same if cooking is the only background you have. Because you are more critical, you bring in ideas from the places you have traveled and eaten at and you know how to learn (having done it in other different domains). That makes you a quicker learner but also – instead of spending years to build your expertise and confidence – you can start creating while you are still learning and learn through that creating (rather than receiving knowledge and skill passed to you) too.
I am excited to think such learning will speed up even more in the coming decades. Because we are probably the last generation to learn in time-extensive ways – from informal sources, through observing, by being around. Our children will not have such a need any more since we will have everything documented – through the cookbooks, videos and blogs. Unless we document our children will have no point of reference we can still trace.
This is why I can barely hold my excitement about this soup. Such a discovery! I make it meatless (even though vegan is possible: vegans, this is your ultimate Turkish feast) but it is so hearty and flavorful you would bet there is meat inside. It can be easily turned into a stew if you make it thicker. It has grains, legumes, vegetables and generous seasonings. And it has wonderfully multipurpose balls made of very fine cracked bulgur – yuvalama, so characteristic for the south-east of Turkey.
Yuvalama (or yuvarlama, meaning ‘something rolled’) is your Turkish gnocchi or trickled pastry. Tiny balls – ideally size of a chickpea – are made of dough based on rice or bulgur. The particular ones used in this soup are made of cracked fine bulgur (sefer kitel) that is also used to make içli köfte (stuffed bulgur patties) and hence referred as ‘içli köftelik bulgur‘. When you add boiling water to this bulgur it does not remain grainy as the köftelik bulgur used to make kısır but turns mushy instead. And mush is exactly what we want to make the dough and roll the tiny balls. Içli köftelik bulgur is slightly more coarse semolina that can be used as a replacement (good news for those outside of Turkey).
So welcome to Turkish home cooking which mostly assumes there a generations of women at the kitchen and they are totally committed to roll, shape, stuff and then sip their tea and gossip as the pot is steaming on the stove. Even though last time I set a solo record by rolling the midget bulgur balls when cooking for a crowd it is more fun to share cooking. Something I have learned after entering my big Turkish family and I am going to pass to my children.
If there is one Turkish dish you must cook this winter be it this hearty soup with bulgur gnocchi
Prep Time: 20 Min
Cook Time: 1 Hr 20 Min
Total Time: 1 Hr 40 Min
For bulgur gnocchi/köfte:
- 1/2 cup very fine bulgur içli köflelıik, may be replaced with semolina
- 1/4 cup boiling water
- 1/2 tsp tomato paste
- 1/2 tsp red bell pepper paste replace with tomato paste if not available
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper
- 1/4 tsp freshly ground coriander
- 1/3 tsp ground cumin
- 1/3 tsp dry mint
- 1 small egg
- 1/3 cup + 1 tbsp all-purpose flour + 1/2 tbsp more for shaping
For the soup:
- 4 tbsp butter
- 1 medium onion finely chopped
- 3 garlic cloves unpeeled
- 1/2 cup leeks green part only (replace with other vegetable of choice)
- 1/2 cup chard stems finely chopped (replace with other vegetable of choice)
- 1 tbsp tomato paste
- 1 tsp red pepper paste
- 10 cups water / stock hot
- 1/2 cup green lentil PRE-cooked (simmered in plenty of water for 20 min)
- 1/2 cup cooked chickpeas (soaked overnight and cooked for 2 hours)
- 1 tsp dry mint
- 1 tsp red pepper flakes
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tbsp pomegranate molasses or lemon juice
- Prepare bulgur gnocchi (köfte) dough: In a large mixing bowl combine very fine bulgur and boiling water. Set aside for the bulgur to puff up as you handle the rest of the preparation (chopping etc). In 15-20 min add the rest of the ingredients to the bulgur and knead well until the dough comes together – it will still be a bit sticky so just dust the dough ball with a bit of flour.
- Shape bulgur gnocchi (köfte): Prepare a tray and sieve in additional 1/2 tbsp flour: this is where you will be releasing your perfectly shaped bulgur gnocchi-köfte. Now divide the dough into 4 parts: take one part to a clean flat surface and with your hands roll it into a log (index finger thick). Cut into 0.5 cm (0.2 inch) wide pieces. Dust your hands with flour and one after one roll the pieces into small balls size of a hazelnut or a large chickpea. Release the ready balls into the tray with flour. When done toss the tray energetically: the gnocchi/köfte will be sliding back and forth and getting completely covered in the flour. Set aside. Congratulation – the harder part is over!
- Prepare the soup: Simmer the onions in the butter until translucent (3-5 min), add garlic (I love using unpeeled cloves), leeks and chard stems and cook until the vegetables soften slightly and the moisture evaporates (5 min). Then stir in the tomato an pepper pastes and let them caramelize (about 2-3 min). Now add the hot water / warmed up stock, bring to boil and add the cooked green lentils. Let simmer covered on high heat so the lentils start falling apart (30 min). Add the bulgur köfte, cooked chickpeas and seasonings; reduce heat to medium and let simmer covered until the köfte are soft and cooked inside (30 min, or try and you will know for sure).
- Note: If you reduce the servings skip the egg altogether and just reduce amount of the flour used. Egg does help the bulgur gnocchi hold the shape better but then you can do without egg too especially when making vegan version of the recipe.