Photo by Michele Humes
In today's culinary conventions, sugar may intrude upon meat dishes, particularly where chopsticks are involved--I'm thinking of General Tso's beignets, of pad thai that's a few raisins short of a kugel--but it's strictly a one-way street: the mains may be sweet, but the desserts won't be savory. It's been decades since mincemeat contained anything resembling meat.
Until recently. Suddenly, at least in the West's more rarefied culinary environs, meat has become dessert. In Paris, Pierre Hermé's extensive macaron selection includes a chocolate-and-foie-gras flavor, shimmering with gold leaf. At Chicago's Grocery Bistro, chef Andre Christopher tops a seared lobe of foie gras with shards of Heath bar. And out of her tiny boutique in New York City, Roni-Sue Kave sells handmade "pig candy": whole strips of deep-fried bacon coated in dark or milk chocolate.
Sugar was both a luxury and a novelty, and the few who could afford it would grate it over almost anything. A cook would add it to rabbit covered in gravy.
But these are almost culinary jokes. The confections seem to trade as much on the striking incongruity of their ingredients, each a paragon of sweet or savory indulgence, as on any natural harmony of flavors. One Turkish dessert, however, provides a more serious attempt to fuse meat and sweet.
A Turkish menu is a picturesque place, with dishes named for swooning imams (İmambayıldı, a meze of stuffed eggplant) and enraptured sultans (hünkar beğendi, pureed eggplant with sheep's cheese), lamb croquettes known as "ladies' thighs," and dimpled fritters they call "ladies' navels."
I suppose I was drawn to tavuk göğsü because of its unusually prosaic name, by florid Turkish standards. It means "chicken breast," a name almost misleading in its simplicity. The dish does contain chicken, torn into feathery shreds, but these shreds are encased in a sweet milk pudding. In short, this "chicken breast" is a dessert.
In her authoritative New Book of Middle Eastern Food, Claudia Roden devotes an entire page to describing the centuries-old dish, yet declines to provide a recipe. She evidently decided that tavuk göğsü couldn't possibly appeal to Western palates, and she may be right. Certainly, my palate struggled with it both times I prepared the dish. Objectively, I knew that the torn chicken brought relatively little in terms of flavor, asserting itself mainly as the stringy, grainy texture in an otherwise standard rice pudding--but, emotionally, I wanted that chicken out of my dessert and safely back in my entrée.
It wouldn't always have been this way. In the fourteenth century, Western Europe couldn't get enough of tavuk göğsü. Known in England as blanc-manger, or "white dish," the pallid chicken pudding appears in English, Italian, and German cookbooks of the period. It even manages a cameo in The Canterbury Tales. In those days, sugar was both a luxury and a novelty, and the few who could afford it would grate it over almost anything. A cook would add it to rabbit covered in gravy, and wouldn't have to think twice about whether a rosewater cheesecake would make a good accompaniment to roast fowl.
Photo by Michele Humes
All of this changed with the European colonization of the Americas, where sugar cane quickly became a leading crop. As sugar grew cheaper and more accessible to all levels of society, the wealthy no longer needed to demonstrate their status by sweetening everything imaginable. Sweet and savory diverged; blanc-manger remained a popular dish, but gradually lost its chicken. Today, a blancmange is a sort of sturdy panna cotta.
It's not clear why tavuk göğsü lives on in the East when it has died out in the West, but the answer just might be chocolate. When the conquistadors brought cacao back from the New World, they served it just as the Aztecs did: in unsweetened, liquid form, not unlike coffee. In The True History of Chocolate, Sophie and Michael Coe suggest that Middle Eastern cultures were so attached to their coffee that they had no use for a second, competing beverage.
Europeans, on the other hand, were more accepting, and it wasn't long before curious cooks began incorporating chocolate into their cakes and ices. Today, the Turkish pastry tradition continues almost unchanged since the early days of the Ottoman Empire, and Western desserts are dominated by chocolate.
It's one of culinary history's little twists, then, that chocolate, which drove the savory out of dessert, is now the vehicle for ushering it back in. It's too bad, too, as chicken breast blends into tavuk göğsü's creamy, soothing base better than it ever could into chocolate. But don't look for a full-fledged comeback of the meaty dessert, even in more unified recipes such as this one: the modern palate--or mine, at any rate--finds it difficult to get past the concept, especially when there's no irony to help it along.