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Turkish Memories, Jewish Food

The new culinary memoir The Ottoman Turk and the Jewish Girl preserves an immigrant family’s history—and its treasured Passover recipes

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Kabak kalavasucho (zucchini pie) for Passover. (Courtesy Beyhan Cagri Trock)

For years, whenever I wanted old Sephardic recipes for Passover and other holidays, I would visit Ida Dana. I first met her at a cooking series featuring Sephardic cooks held at Magen David Synagogue in Rockville, Md. These events, like quilting bees, were a way for women to connect with each other, as they prepared food for bar mitzvahs, weddings, and other life cycle events. Dana, a native of Istanbul, was the lead Turkish cook at these gatherings, her quick fingers deftly molding burekitas or Passover bumuelos.

Dana’s niece, Beyhan Cagri Trock, is an architect by profession—but she remembers her aunt’s (and her mother’s) cooking. After her mother died, and Dana started showing signs of dementia, Trock realized that much of the food and culture she grew up enjoying—as well as her family’s own history—was in danger of being lost.

“I didn’t want to twiddle my thumbs,” Trock, 57, told me recently in my kitchen. “I thought that my sons don’t know anything about my history.”

To keep the history, and the recipes, alive, Trock has just published a culinary memoir called The Ottoman Turk and the Pretty Jewish Girl. It is simultaneously a love story about a Muslim Turkish man and the Sephardic Jewish girl with whom he fell in love—Trock’s parents—and a collection of 101 Turkish and Sephardic recipes.

It is no coincidence that the book is coming out just in time for Passover: This is the holiday where American Jews seem to connect with their roots the most. For Trock, Passover was the time where she felt that she really belonged to her Ladino Sephardic Jewish culture, cradled in the bosom of her mother and aunts, who did all the cooking for the family Seder.

“Turkish and Jewish Turkish food is pretty much the same—except at Passover,” she told me. “That is when the old recipes really come out.” For Passover, she said, Turkish Jews made wonderful vegetable and egg casseroles, meat and vegetable patties, and even matzoh-layered meat and vegetable pies.

As second- and third-generation immigrants get further from their roots, many of these traditions are being lost. “There are less and less people who do the Sephardic Seder,” said Trock, including her own family. “We used to do it in Ladino and Hebrew, now we do it in English. And my husband is Ashkenazi, so his customs are totally different.” Keeping her family’s recipes alive is vital to the survival of Turkish and Sephardic culture—and Trock’s own family history.

Beti Revah and Zeki Cagri in Ankara
Beti Revah and Zeki Cagri in Ankara. (Courtesy Beyhan Cagri Trock)

Her father, Zeki Cagri, was 35 when he met her mother, Beti Revah, who was 17, in Istanbul. Already in an arranged marriage to his new stepsister, with whom he had two sons, Cagri met Revah by chance in her father’s laundry shop. The two fell madly in love and ran off to Ankara, where he worked at the American Embassy as a chauffeur. Although they did not marry, they raised a new family with four children, Trock being the youngest. When Cagri retired, the embassy offered him either a pension or a green card. He opted for the green card and relocated the family to Washington, D.C. There, Cagri worked as the chauffeur for the Turkish Embassy and Revah became a secretary to the ambassador. (She went on to work as a secretary at the Iranian Embassy—where nobody knew she was Jewish; she was the only staffer remaining in the embassy when the Shah fell in 1979.)

Growing up in Maryland, young Beyhan became an Americanized teenager. Alarmed, her father took her back to Turkey for a summer—which is when she learned a trove of Turkish recipes and an appreciation of her background. As the Turkish and Sephardic community around Washington swelled in the 1960s, many immigrants, including her aunts, brought more recipes. “I grew up with this stuff,” said Trock, “stirring, serving, watching.”

Trock includes many of these recipes in her book, illustrating every movement of the hand for every step of the food preparation, and explaining Sephardic culinary culture along the way. Take a recipe, for example, like zucchini and cheese pie for Passover. It is a typical Sephardic dish of the cuajado variety. “Cuajado translates as either ‘coagulated’ or ‘having curds’ and describes any number of savory baked dishes made from a combination of mild, fresh curd cheese such as cottage or farmer, plus additional cheeses with varying degrees of saltiness, lots of eggs, a little matzo meal for binding and copious amounts of one fresh, watery vegetable or another–spinach, zucchini, eggplant, leek or tomato,” writes Janet Amateau, at SephardicFood.com. “The texture is soft but not mushy, something like a savory bread pudding with the emphasis not on bread but on grated, shredded or mashed vegetables. The cheese is used in a way that imparts flavor without dominating the texture.” Trock peels the zucchini and uses the skin in kaskarikas, another dish where they are sautéed in a little olive oil and tomato, so that every part of the vegetable is used.

Or take this recipe: “My favorite dish is Albondigas de Pırasa (Spanish for ‘balls of’ and Turkish for ‘leeks’),” Trock writes. “They’re made with a seasoned ground beef and leek mixture or spinach, mashed potatoes or eggplant, formed into patties and fried. My aunts shape the potato patties round instead of oval so you can tell them apart from the leek ones.”

Words like this are priceless for those of us who want to record our oral history and culinary traditions. Turkish Sephardic food will survive—even beyond Istanbul, one of the few communities where Ladino is still spoken—thanks to Beyhan Cagri Trock.

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Ruth says:

Fried patties, egg pies/frittatas, or potato and meat pies are typical sephardic dishes in North Africa too. These dishes are served on shabath, Passover, and other holidays. We don’t use feta cheese though which is more typical of East.Med. cooking.
I find it interesting that Turkish Jews marry Turkish Muslims with no stigma attached. In North African communities, it is or was just unheard of. Of course a Jewish man could not marry a muslim woman at all. And as for a Jewish girl girl, she usually eloped, never to be heard from again.

Amazon does not have this book–where can we order it?

I am not sure that there was no stigma in marrying a Jewish gal, but Turks tend to be more exogamous than Arabs.

For the Ottoman upper class in a particularly close-knit family, there was a benefit in such out-marriages. Sons-in-law often came to live with the bride’s family, but such an arrangement would be out of the question if the bride’s family were non-Muslim.

In a particularly famous cross-confessional love story Talat Pasha had an affair with the daughter of the headmaster of the Alliance Israelite School in Edirne.

Bruce Trock says:

My wife Beyhan wrote this book. There WAS a stigma of inter-marriage between Jews and Muslims. Beyhan’s parents eloped in secrecy.

You can order the book from her website http://www.ottomanturkjewishgirl.com

I can vouch for the recipes – she tested them all on me!

Amalia & Avi says:

We loved the book–it is both a culinary feast as well as a deeply personal account of intimate life details.
It is a blend of wonderful visuals, anecdotal stories, beautiful family portraits, and obviously mouth-watering recipes that we can’t wait to cook ourselves.

guest says:

I frankly find the story appalling.

35 year old army officer runs off with 17 year old daughter of a owner of a Jewish laundry. She’s light years beneath him in social status, she is his CONCUBINE! In Fascist Kemalist Turkey. He already has a wife and two sons – how did they feel about this “love story.”

Let’s at least be straight about the very bad habit of Muslim men taking pretty Jewish girls as secondary wives and concubines. The Jewish families lost their beloved child. But they could do nothing about it because they lived on sufferance in a Muslim land.

The girl reared four children out of wedlock. But has to conceal her Jewish origins and, apparently, her status as an unwed mother in a traditional society.

This is not a love story. It is the story of a powerful 35 year old male Muslim officer who took a very young Jewish girl from her family. Because he could. She apparently made the best of it.

A love story? Color me skeptical. 17 year old girls can be very stupid. On the other hand, this seems to have been a major upgrade in the girl’s social and economic status. And I accept that they made a life together.

But, please, a little context. Joan Nathan can’t be ignorant enough to believe that this is a simple and charming love story.

Bruce Trock says:

Response to “Guest:” You make a lot of wrong assumptions for someone who hasn’t read the book. The Pretty Jewish Girl of the title did not have to conceal her Jewish origins – in the US she became the nexus of a vibrant Sephardic Jewish community. She was not abducted by a “powerful army officer” but ran off as a willing participant with a chauffer with whom she was in love. Is this a “simple” or “charming” story? No. Was it a bed of roses? No. It’s a memoir of an unusual family in rare circumstances who brought a rich history to the US and a cookbook of the dishes and tastes they brought with them.

Dear Respondents, Thank you all for your sincere and passionate posts. I am so glad that this book has inspired such a dialogue. And, of course, I can understand “Guest’s” point of view and concerns. All I can say is that I tried to present this complicated story fairly. I would be most interested in hearing your opinion after you have read it. And please let me know how the dishes turn out! Sincerely, Beyhan

My sister in law comes from Turkish Jewish stock. I posted her Quajado recipe on my blog http://kosherhomecooking.com and it’s kosher for Pesach

There doesn’t seem to be any information on the price of the book? Nothing here nor on the ottomanturkjewishgirl website. If I’ve overlooked it, could someone please let me know.

Thank you

Barbara and David Bloch says:

I know the family. It was a love story. And those four children? One has her PhD in linguistics; Another daughter is an architect; a third daughter is a successful businesswoman; and the son works for a travel agency. They all grew up in the U.S.  The three daughters are married with their own families.

I just ordered the book, and I ended up paying $41.83 USD via Paypal.

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Turkish Memories, Jewish Food

The new culinary memoir The Ottoman Turk and the Jewish Girl preserves an immigrant family’s history—and its treasured Passover recipes

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