I’m from Canada, where ‘grits’ aren’t really a thing, except as the nickname for one of our political parties. But, in the United States, it is a thing, especially in the southern United States. It’s uniquely American. It’s also very American in that it is an adaptation of an Indigenous dish whose tradition was carried forward by African slaves and their Black kin…
So how, then, do we end up with ‘Turkish grits’? This spring I went on a road trip through some of the northern States, which included a stop in Boston. In Cambridge, there is a little cafe that dishes Turkish and Middle Eastern food and has gained a reputation for its deliciousness. So, I had to stop. And, for breakfast I ordered what they called ‘Turkish Grits’ which was a Turkish take on that classic American dish.
Now, I often like the food that ‘fusion’ creates, but am a little hesitant about the idea of ‘fusion’ and how it gets wielded. I get the descriptive purposes and the didactic nature of calling something ‘fusion’ but what does calling food ‘fusion’ actually accomplish and what does it stifle?
We have lots of cultural markers to help us understand ‘fusion’. The United States is supposed to be a ‘melting pot’ where each person is a crayon of sorts, and once tossed into the hot pot of US nationalism they melt and join with all the other colorful crayons to form the beauty of the United States. Except, anyone who knows anything about mixing all the crayons at once knows that the color you end up with is something akin to shit. Here in Canada, we supposedly have a mosaic, where each color gets to shine to make the larger kaleidoscope of an image. Except the builders of this image, the makers of the frame which everyone is supposed to fit into, still prefer certain colors over others and make sure that certain colors end up on the margins or erased or totally subsumed by other colors. And who decided those folks got to be the frame makers anyways?! You get what I’m saying…
What each of these ideas is trying to map out is the ways in which we build community with people who are different than us. In some ways, I’m personally drawn to the ideas that the Cultural Rhetorics Theory Lab and my pal Jarrett Martineau describe ‘constellation’ in their work. A constellation, the Cultural Rhetorics Theory Lab writes, “allows for all the meaning-making practices and their relationships to matter. It allows for multiply-situated subjects to connect to multiple discourses at the same time, as well as for those relationships (among subjects, among discourses, among kinds of connections) to shift and change without holding a subject captive.”
We all move, but when we move it is in relationship to one another. We shift, and our positioning in relationship to one another changes. We create new pictures, new frames of reference, and new connections to one another. This recognizes that people, cultures, and knowledges are not static – they are dynamic and changing.
And when we recognize that cultures and people are always changing, it makes it easier to understand that food is always changing as well. As people change, as cultures change, as locations change – the food changes too. We create relationships with ingredients, cultural and culinary roots, and people. These grow, develop, shift, rotate, and move with time. We bring a wide array of experiences, encounters, knowledges, ideas, inspirations, and talents to the ways in which we prepare and think about food. We come to learn about difference and mutuality in particular ways.
What ‘fusion’ misses, and is important to take into account, is the power dynamic inherent when two cultures ‘fuse’. Who gets to do the fusing, who claims it, who gets to benefit from it… Certain cultures have always been seen as adaptable, able to change, and ‘modern’ while other cultures are seen as static, tethered to romanticized notions of authenticity, and unable to be modern.
So, perhaps this helps us see ‘Turkish Grits’ in a particular light, as a relationship between Turkish immigrants who are navigating American cultures and foods and using them to create new and wonderful Turkish food. Instead of American fusion cuisine borne from the melting pot, I choose to see this more as a Turkish dish borne of navigating America and all that entails. I obviously can’t situate what this means for everyone, but I think it’s worth thinking about the ways in which we understand ‘fusion’, the power imbalances often imbued in such encounters, and the ways in which individuals and communities are navigating these in creative and relational ways.
And delicious ways. Very delicious ways. This dish, when I had it at Sofra, was probably the highlight of my trip (and I ate a lot of very delicious food…). It was creative and comforting at the same time, showcasing a wide range of complementing textures and flavors. The creamy grits were studded with puffed cereal grains and Jerusalem artichoke chips, as well as crispy fried lamb and juicy fruit. The spiciness of the lamb was cut by the grits and complemented by the juicy bursts from the oranges. All of this was topped by a silky poached egg that burst and seeped its umami goodness over everything. It’s magical.
When I got home, I checked their menu and the dish was already gone – likely a seasonal dish whose appearance I was lucky to catch. I checked out the Sofra cookbook, Soframiz, and there was no recipe there. I Googled it online and there were no recipes for it. So, I had to make my own to bring this piece of Sofra into my kitchen. And, after playing around with it, making some substitutions to make it a little easier (and less seasonally dependant) to make, I too was able to make ‘Turkish grits’. Check it out, and tell me what you think!
Turkish Style Grits
This recipe is a recreation of the dish from Sofra Bakery in Cambridge, MA. Creamy grits are enhanced by a mild goat's cheese, paired with spicy ground lamb, and complemented by crunchy accompaniments, juicy fruits, and a silky poached egg. It's hearty, creative and - most important of all - delicious!
- 1 pound ground lamb
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon baharat (another spice blend such as one for merguez or makanek would work - don't have baharat? Substitute 1 teaspoon each of allspice, pepper and cinnamon)
- 2 tablespoons Aleppo pepper
- 1 tablespoon sumac
- 1 cup stone-ground grits (mine were white, but yellow works just fine and was what Sofra used)
- 3 cups water
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 cup milk
- cheese (I used one small round of a local, soft sheep's cheese and something similar like a brie or soft goat's cheese would work nicely)
- handful of sunchoke or cassava chips (to save time I used premade chips here and a mix of vegetable chips (cassava, sweet potato and beet) but you can also make your own as I've done before)
- 1 tablespoon of puffed amaranth (you could also substitute puffed quinoa or even puffed wheat as it's more about what it adds in terms of texture)
- 2 peaches nectarines or oranges (canned peach or orange slices would also work)
- 4 eggs, poached
- 4 stalks of mint leaves, chiffonade
Heat a frying pan and add the ground lamb. Stir in the spices. Fry until lamb is browning and becoming crispy - you want the crispy texture for this recipe.
In a large pot, combine the water, salt and butter. Bring to a boil.
Gradually stir in the grits, being careful to avoid lumps. Return the water to a boil, cover with a lid, and lower the heat as low as possible. Cook covered, stirring frequently, for about 15-20 minutes. Add milk and stir for an additional 10 minutes, until all liquid is absorbed.
Turn off the heat and stir in the cheese until all melted.
While the grits are cooking, heat a pot of water to poach the eggs. Crack each egg individually into a small bowl and, when the water reaches a gentle simmer, in one motion drop the egg into the water. For a soft yolk, cook for approximately 3 minutes.
Assemble in the bowl. First the grits, add the spiced lamb on the side, and garnish with the fruit, vegetable chips and puffed grains. Sprinkle the chiffonade mint over the lamb. Enjoy!