First of all, I feel it’s very important to start off honestly and point out that I am normally not really a huge veggie person. I generally tend to go towards the heavier spicy meat options for dinner, always choosing a yummy lamb dish over the vegetarian option when dining out here in Istanbul. However, these days I honestly cannot get enough tomatoes and cucumbers, both of which are shocking in color and so refreshing right now. It’s also summer here… translation: it’s HOT. Another important note, air conditioning isn’t as easily available as back home in the states. So, how do you keep cool? You eat food that cools you down, which brings us to my love affair with the Çoban Salatası, or as translated in English, the’Shepherd’s Salad’.
A few years ago, my mom came to visit me in Istanbul. I was beyond excited and planned so many restaurants to take her to. I can honestly say that I proudly took my mom to the best of the best, and when I asked her what her favorite Turkish meal had been, she replied “Oh Ash, definitely my favorite thing was that tomato and cucumber salad”. I’m not gonna lie, I was disappointed. Actually I was kind of devastated. We had eaten some of the best kebabs- amazing spiced meats with nuts ground into them to make them moist and yogurt slathered on top and sprinkled with ground pistachios…and my mother liked a salad the best! I couldn’t get over it and was questioning how I had been birthed by this person who chose salad over meat.
Now, here I am making my very first entry about this very same salad. What can I say…my mom was right (isn’t she always). I have since come to understand that as simple as this is, I can eat this every day, any day, and I crave it when I don’t eat it. In general in this part of the world, tomatoes are not merely tomatoes. They are truly something heavenly. You can cut them up and eat them like eating grapes, you don’t need anything else, not even salt. Cucumbers are a staple of Turkish cuisine and are served all the time, even at breakfast. They are shorter and smaller than the huge hot-house varieties at grocery stores in America, and they tend to be much sweeter and with fewer seeds.
This salad is served with nearly every Turkish meal-you don’t have dinner without a salad, it’s just not done, and while there are other salad varieties, this is the one most often seen. I wish I had a brilliant story to share with the reason for the name of this salad and its true origins. However, it seems to be one of those foods that ‘has been and will always be’ if you get my drift, being that it’s so common and widespread that it’s hard to know the true background.
You make it with a combination of equal amounts chopped tomatoes and cucumbers, with one spicy pepper chopped finely (a green bell pepper also works) and some fresh flat leaf parsley tossed in olive oil and lemon juice (no vinegar!). Some people also add onion but I don’t like it that way, so when I make it myself I always leave it out. However, one very important thing I learned is the ‘secret ingredient’: Nar Ekşisi Sos= Pomegranate Molasses.
Yes, such an amazing thing as pomegranate molasses, or syrup, does exist. Not everyone uses this in the salad, but once I had it like this, there was no going back. Nar Ekşisi Sos is normally found in cuisine coming from South Eastern Turkey, specifically Hatay or Gaziantep. It’s sweet but also pretty tart, and in combination with the lemon juice on top of the salad, it gives a juicy depth to the whole experience that truly transforms this from ‘a salad’ to ‘THE BEST SALAD I EVER ATE’. Sprinkle a dash of salt and some dried mint on top (to really make it fragrant) and you’ve got yourself a meal that as my mom can testify to, might just become your favorite Turkish food! As always, Afiyet Olsun.
Keep reading below for a recipe…
*I don’t have an official recipe for this, just more or less the ratios that I use and work for me. One thing I do that might be a bit different is that I always lightly salt the chopped tomatoes and cucumbers and leave them to sit for a few minutes. Then I drain out the extra liquid before I start to dress the salad. I do this anytime I make a salad with veggies other than lettuce-seems to keep it from being soggy. Also, so many things about this could be changed. It does usually have white raw onion in it, so you could add that. You can leave out the bell pepper. I always sprinkle crushed red pepper flakes and dried mint on top to serve it.
Ingredients (this would serve 2 people so double it if you want more):
*3 small tomatoes
* 3 cucumbers (American ones are much larger than the ones I have here so just try to visually match up the size of the cucumber to tomatoes, you want the same amount of both veggie.)
*1 small bell pepper or hot pepper
*A handful of fresh flat-leaf parsley
*A dash of salt
*good olive oil (the amount here is up to you… I like about 1-2 Tablespoons).
*1-2 Tablespoons Nar Ekşisı Sos
Chop the tomatoes and cucumbers, lightly salt them. Thinly slice the pepper. Chop up the parsley. When you want to serve it, squeeze the lemon juice on it, add in the oil and the pomegranate molasses, and enjoy!