Turkey is a country rich in diverse culture, fascinating historical sites and of course amazing food. Everywhere you turn there is an interesting new dish or ingredient to discover, which is why Turkey is a truly inspiring destination for your taste buds.
Once you visit, you will quickly start to notice some commonly used ingredients that are very unique to Turkish cuisine and culture. One of these special and widely used treasures is the delicious and rich syrup of grape molasses, called pekmez.
Grape Molasses, or "üzüm pekmezi" in Turkish, is a very popular syrup that has had a sweet spot in Turkish culture and cuisine for ages.
Pekmez is a savory, thick molasses made from the boiled down juices of fruit. Traditionally, no sugar or additives are added, making it a natural sweetener. Pekmez is commonly made from grapes, but can also be made from different fruits including mulberries, plums, apples, pears, pomegranates and most recently Carob.
Each fall in villages across the country, grapes are harvested and then stomped to squeeze out all of the fruit juice. Once the juice has been collected, it is then poured into enormous copper pans, where it is pressed, stirred and boiled until it thickens into sweet molasses. Once the long process of boiling is complete, it is put into jars and stored for use over the winter months.
The art of pickling and preserving is a very standard practice in Turkey and you will commonly see this tradition being practiced throughout the summer and autumn months in almost all Turkish homes. People rarely buy their preserves from the store, as they prefer it fresh out of their own kitchen, so pekmez is produced to capture the essence of freshly picked fruits and to preserve them for the season ahead.
The highest quality of pekmez is made in the regions of Zile, Kırşehir, Kastamonu, Sivrihisar, Balıkesir, Afyon, Kahramanmaraş, Gaziantep and Hatay, so if you happen to be in one of these areas, grab a bottle or two form a local pazar, rather than a grocery store, because homemade versions of pekmez tend to be of higher quality.
The thick, sweet syrup is a staple item on every Turkish breakfast table. The delicious extract is either served alone, or more commonly mixed with a thick sesame paste called "tahini." Pekmez is poured into a dish with tahini and then swirled to create a marbling effect. Fresh hot crusty bread is then torn and dipped in this delicious mixture, which will send your taste buds soaring.
When eaten in the morning, this tasty concoction is a great energy provider for a full day ahead. The closest comparison in terms of taste for these two mixtures is sort of like the nutty and sweet flavor of the "honey and peanut butter" of the West, but much tastier. You can walk into any grocery store in Turkey and be sure to find jars of pekmez on the shelves, also commonly sold together in duo packs with tahini.
Pekmez can also be enjoyed in forms other than syrup. It is commonly used in desserts and tastes great as a substitute for sugar in baking.
Walking through the spice bazaar or kuruyemiş (nut) shops, you are bound to stumble across something that looks like long sausages, hanging from strings in shop windows. These are not dried meat as one commonly thinks at first glance, but rather a sweet and delicious traditional dessert called cevizli sucuk, meaning "sausage with walnuts" in Turkish.
The walnuts are strung on a string and dipped in pekmez, then left to dry. The result leaves it looking like dried sausage, hence its name. It is naturally sweet from the pekmez, so no sugar is added to this sweet treat, which is also rich in minerals and vitamins such as A, D, E and K, and not to mention calories.
Pekmez is not a new food craze; this delectable syrup has sweetened Turkish dishes since the 11th century. Before sugar was available, Turkish sweets and dishes were sweetened with pekmez or honey. For this reason, pekmez has had an important place in the Turkish diet for over a millennium. Rich in iron, calcium, and potassium, pekmez was an essential source of nutrition for the people of Anatolia.
Grape pekmez is generally made anywhere a vineyard is seen, and in Turkey, many families in rural areas and small towns tend to even grow the smallest of vineyards to produce this exquisite molasses.
Anatolia has been known for its lush vineyards since ancient times and continues to produce an abundance of grape varieties. Due to its geographical location, climate and soil, Turkey is a haven for producing grapes. Lush vineyards can be found in the regions of the Thrace, Marmara Sea, Aegean coast, and parts of eastern and central Anatolia, where grape production has been taking place since 3000 B.C.
If you happen to have Turkish-style breakfast in someone's home, chances are you will be encouraged to try pekmez and while you enjoy the delicious syrup, your host will tell you how good it is for your health and explain all of the great benefits that come from consuming it.
Not only does pekmez taste great, but Turkish families have also been using it as a health remedy for centuries. Often called, "the healing syrup of Anatolia," üzüm pekmezi offers many great benefits through the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants it contains. The main benefit is that it is a great source of iron and is very beneficial to people diagnosed with anemia, because eating pekmez increases the body's blood content.
Also very rich in calcium, potassium and magnesium, it is a traditional and natural source of energy that is beneficial for growing children, workers and athletes.
Pekmez contains simple sugar that is absorbed directly into the bloodstream without having to be digested, so for this reason, diabetics should avoid eating pekmez, so as not to spike their sugar levels. If you are feeling cold, don't be surprised if the Turkish women in the household suggest that you eat some pekmez to increase your blood flow. Mixed with warm water and consumed as a tonic, it is also given to people who are feeling weak or ill. Rich in natural goodness, it is locally renowned as a cure-all for colds and flu.
The healing syrup is most commonly used to help pregnant women recover after giving birth, which has been a long-practiced tradition among women in Turkey. You will often see mothers encouraging their daughters to eat pekmez to help restore their blood and energy levels.
Pekmez is just one of the many interesting and unique foods to discover in Turkish cuisine. Versatile, natural and delicious, it has been a part of Turkish culture for centuries. Once you try it, you will definitely be left wanting more, so stock up if you are visiting Turkey. Pekmez and tahini make for a perfect and unique gift to take home for your friends and family and will definitely impress your guests at your next breakfast get together.