African Immigrants: Okra, Molokhia, Taro
This trio of vegetables of African origin have another common feature. They all get a gooey sauce if not properly cooked, yet this slightly slimy texture is what they are liked for. Of all, okra has become a popular vegetable in Turkish cuisine since the Middle Ages, but the latter two remain as a regional taste.
Okra, originated in Ethiopia and Eastern Sudan and made its way down to Egypt travelling along the Nile. The wild growing variety was first cultivated along the Nile by the Egyptians at circa 1200 BC. It was introduced to Anatolia through trade with the port of Alexandria. It was a much loved vegetable even in Selcukid period, and since Middle ages it was widespread and popular. The Ottoman dish of ‘aside’ was of Ethiopian origin and was brought by African nannies. The slave trade made the okra travel from Africa to the New World, and spread it to Southern states of America. The okra plant has two Latin names: one gets its name from its fragrant seeds,Abelmoschus esculentus, deriving from Arabic meaning “father of scents”, and the otherHibiscus esculentus, referring to the very pretty flowers from the hibiscus family.
TaroJute leaves, consumed as vegetables, are first dried and then reconstituted in warm water before cooked. Known locally as mülhiye, coming from the Cypriot or Arabic word molehiya, it is definitely a gift from Egypitan and Turkish-Cypriot cuisines. The soaked leaves are cooked either with chicken or lamb meat with lots of lemon juice, essential for preventing it to become slimy. This is a one pot dish, often just accompanied by a simple plain buttery rice pilaf.
Taro, known by the local name göleviz, which is derived from the Cypriot word colocassia, is a local vegetable that came originally from Africa. Actually, this root vegetable resembling celeriac is of Southeast Asian origin, but it was spread to the world via Africa, and went as far as Hawaii where it became the national stable food. It is known since Roman times in the region, and often cooked with lamb and lots of tomatoes, or the young tender ones fried like potatoes.
A rather new comer to the region, avocado is of Aztec origin, its mainland being Mexico. The avocado fruit can hang on the tree considerably long, as it ripens only after its picked and the flesh becomes buttery soft and creamy when it is stored some time. This Mexican plant found itself at home in Alanya and the market is full of even rare seedless varieties in fall. Perfect in salads, the avocado is also welcome to the Turkish meze table, with local interpretations such as crushed ezme with spring onions and tomatoes.