This is Inside the Breakfast Bowl, a series in which Eater profiles breakfast soups and porridges from around the world. First up: ezogelin çorbası.
If you've ever cooked a meal to impress someone, you might relate to the woman who invented the legendary Turkish breakfast soup "ezogelin." The delicious, stick-to-your-ribs dish completes the breakfast trifecta: it's cheap, warming, and filling. And it's rooted in one of the food world's best backstories — complete with an evil mother-in-law and a beautiful bride who wanted desperately to please her, experts on culture and cuisine say.
Ezogelin çorbası, also called "Ezo, the Bride Soup" and "Turkish Bride Soup," is said to cure morning hangovers, soothe stomachs, and even bring good luck. Slow-simmered with red lentils, bulgur wheat, paprika, onions, tomato paste, chicken or beef stock, and mint, there are dozens of regional variations based on climate and lifestyle. (Pro tip: garnish with olive oil, sea salt, and lemon.)
"In Turkey, we have a legend for almost everything — and all know the story of Ezo the Bride."
The zesty, soul-soothing soup is nearly as much a part of Turkish folklore as the American hot dog. It's referenced in film, song and poetry, studied by scholars, slurped by kids in pajamas, and toiled over at kabab houses, said Turkish-born chef and food culture expert Ozlem Warren, who also runs the blog Ozlem's Turkish Table. "It's hugely popular," she said. "In Turkey, we have a legend for almost everything — and all know the story of Ezo the Bride."
The soup's dark, whimsical origin story reads like it was lifted from the pages of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale with romance, bad guys, and (most importantly!) a delicious meal. As the legend goes, Ezo, a stunningly beautiful but unlucky-in-love young woman from the village of Dokuzyol, in south central Turkey, was first to make the spicy soup in the early 1900s. Like a real-life Snow White, she had fair skin, rosy cheeks, and dark hair that made men swoon.
Many handsome suitors, traveling by camel through her small town, begged for her hand in marriage — but her parents insisted she wed a man "worthy" of her, according to Harvard University's Center for Middle Eastern Studies. So at age 20, Ezo, who was actually a real documented woman who lived from 1909-1952, tied the knot with a wealthy man, according to the Ezogelin Barak Cultural Center. But he turned out to be cruel, sadistic, and cheating on her with another woman, or so the legend goes.
Luckily, Ezo — whose full name was Zöhre Bozgeyik — was granted a then-rare divorce and soon fell in love with a Syrian man. He proposed to her with one catch: She would first meet his mother, who was notoriously impossible to please. To win her over, she made the soup — and it worked, at least enough to convince the moody matriarch that Ezo was worthy of her son. The lovers got hitched and Ezo went on to have nine children with him.
Elements of the story may sound old-fashioned, but the tale still hits a nerve in modern Turkish culture, Warren explained. "Years ago, it was more difficult to get into a family and, traditionally, food was the first way to impress. Of course, it was different back then — but in some ways, it's still the same. Our culture is close-knit with tight family ties, and it's important to feed your family well. Food is a big focus. Hospitality is high on the agenda," she said.
Over time, the soup evolved regionally with a range of recipes and textures, including blended and smooth or chunky and thick. In Istanbul, diners top it with melted mozzarella or feta cheese. In the South, it tends to be more veggie-centric; heavy on the tomato, dressed with lemon and fresh, instead of dried, herbs. Southern Turks make it spicier and sometimes top it with shaved carrots or red pepper. In the north, it is usually heavier on meat stock.
According to Aylin Tan, author of A Taste of Sun and Fire: Gaziantep Cookery, poor Turks were first to popularize the soup as a breakfast dish because it's inexpensive to make. "Peasant breakfast is usually a soup, and lentil soups are very much consumed in the Anatolia region," Tan said. "There is a tradition of having breakfast with soups, one of the favorite being beyran, but lentil soup is also common. It is no new trend."
The name "ezogelin," however, didn't hit the food world until midway through the 20th century. "Ezogelin is a typical Gaziantep lentil soup, originally named malhıta çorbası. 'Malhıta' is the local name for lentils. To call the soup 'ezogelin' is a later invention of Istanbul restaurants, probably by cooks from Gaziantep," she said of the region where Ezo was born. "It was to differentiate [that dish] from the strained lentil soups of Istanbul."
The soup is now most popular for breakfast in rural parts of Turkey. "Farmers like it because they do physical work and it's hearty, warming, and it keeps you full all day," Warren explained. In the cities, nearly every kebab house serves it as an appetizer at lunch. And the soup is still said to bring good health and fortune. Some brides-to-be eat it for breakfast on the morning of their wedding day to fortify them for what lies ahead. "There are certain Turkish foods that are associated with good luck and prosperity and this is one of them," Warren said. (It's hard to see why, considering Ezo died of tuberculosis in the 1950s, according to HUCME.)
In America, it's not easy to find ezogelin on breakfast menus, said Tony Seven, who owns Seven's Turkish Grill on Manhattan's Upper West Side. But Seven's beloved neighborhood eatery serves the $4.75 soup for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. "It's one of our top-selling items," said Seven, who grew up in Istanbul. "It's a cultural thing: Turkish people can eat soup for three meals a day. It helps digestion and it keeps the calories down."
"There are certain Turkish foods that are associated with good luck and prosperity and this is one of them."
In Manhattan, the soup also helps melt away the winter blues. "It really warms you up — and all day you feel healthy," Seven said, adding that he makes it with top-shelf organic butter and free-range beef stock from New Zealand. The restaurant sometimes serves it alongside a traditional Turkish breakfast spread with a boiled egg, pita, cherry jam, and feta cheese. According to Seven, the flavor of the soup is drastically different depending on who is cooking it and where he or she is from: "It's like the difference between food in New York and Alabama."
Nearby, the owner of Istanbul Kitchen in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn said his tasty ezogelin recipe was inspired by his mom. "My mother always blended the lentils and made it with tomato paste," said Gokhan Kara, who also grew up in Istanbul. The warm and hearty soup serves the same function as oatmeal in the morning, he said.
According to Kara, ezogelin could catch on as a breakfast item in the U.S., if it was just easier to get. "Americans like warm, light stuff in the morning," he says. "People would really like it for breakfast, if they just gave it a try."