Keşkek: Food on the UNESCO World Heritage List?
/ By Josh
So I don’t normally blog about food but this particular dish that I’m writing about is as much about experience and culture as it is about the food itself. This dish is called Keşkek and it’s so tied to culture and tradition that it’s been inducted into the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List. But we’ll get to that later!
I went with my family to visit some friends in a village in the province of Balıkesir (which means Fish Prisoner, by the way) late in the fall just as the oak-covered hills had turned to gold. Our friends decided that we needed to try Keşkek in a neighbouring village that was particularly famous for making it well and often.
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Arriving in the Village of Gündoğan we stopped in front of a house with a couple of long rows of tables set out front on the street and a large crowd of women milling in and out. It turns out it was actually the one-year memorial of the passing of a local that was being commemorated with a feast and we were crashing it! That being said, showing up to small town gatherings like funerals or weddings for the free food is totally normal and we were made perfectly welcome.
As soon as the food started coming out the chaos began. Nearly all the village women (around 400) had arrived for the feast as it was announced over the loudspeakers on the minarets and began passing out plates, cutlery, and buckets of food. Everyone had one shallow bowl that would be refilled with the next course as the first was finished. Thankfully I had someone there to tell me to only take a little of each as there were many dishes to come, all of them incredibly filling!
The first course was a milk-based soup with rice in it, which was followed by a dish of white beans in a tomato sauce. Then there was a pasta in a yoghurt sauce, followed by the main dish of Keşkek topped with chickpeas in a tomato sauce.
As soon as we finished, I was pulled out to the back of the house so they could show me exactly what Keşkek is and how it’s made.
If I’m to be totally honest I doubt Keşkek would have ever become famous if it weren’t for the fact that it’s so deeply tied to elements of Turkish and Central Asian Culture. The food itself is a fairly bland mash made of wheat boiled in bullion with some onion and a small amount of spices. It’s not that it’s bad but it’s not exactly something that you’d go to a restaurant and order.
Behind the house, in the midst of the sounds of cooking, cleaning, yelling, and laughing they explained the long arduous process required to make Keşkek the traditional way.
The first necessity is an occasion. Keşkek is a food associated with ceremony and is most often made for weddings, circumcisions, or funerals. The process begins with washing the wheat grain in water while it gets prayed over. Then the grain is poured into a large stone basin where it’s beaten with long wooden mallets until it’s fine. While this is going on music is played and a crowd often gathers to watch or take turns with the mallets.
Then the crushed wheat is poured into a large kazan, a type of massive, wide-bottomed pot, where it’s cooked over a fire with meat (usually sheep, I’m told, as a cow would be too much meat even for 400 people) bullion, and onions. As it cooks the young men of the village mash the grains against the side and bottom of the kazan with long wooden paddles until the Keşkek becomes thick and sticky. This also explains why all the normally flat-bottomed kazan pots had become round!
With such incredible quantities of food being made many people made sure to bring their own containers to take home some of the leftovers.
While Keşkek tastes okay, the event that surrounds the preparing and serving of it is a one of a kind experience and with such religious and cultural meaning tied to it, it’s no wonder it’s on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List!