Indulge in Real Spa Food, Turkish Hammam-Style
Do a quick internet search for "spa food" and you'll find recipes for light, restorative dishes like lentil salad with citrus vinaigrette, chilled cucumber soup, and smoothies galore. Meanwhile, in Turkey, where my family is from, the spa is called the hammam, and abundance is on the menu.
For the uninitiated, Turkish hammams are opulent communal bathhouses that trace their roots to the Ottoman Empire. Think deep exfoliation—we're talking bright red skin, scrubbed and polished to the core—meets dinner party. While this bathhouse culture has evolved and some- what eroded as a result of time, modern plumbing, and a global pandemic, I've always been fascinated by hearing my mother's childhood memories of visiting the hammam on a weekly or even bi-weekly basis. Sure, hygiene was the driving factor for the countless afternoons she'd spend exfoliating, steaming, and scrubbing alongside family, friends, and strangers alike; many homes in Istanbul, including my mother's, didn't have a modern bathtub until the 1970s. But there was also nourishment and social connection: gossip to share, dolmas to consume, and self-care to prioritize in a time before jade rollers, face masks, and meditation apps made decompressing easy to do at home, on demand.
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Sharing food and being hospitable—even outside one's own home—was critical to the experience. In Istanbul, my family would bring finger foods to enjoy in between bouts of singing, dancing, and scrubbing. Hot tea was a constant, and gazoz, the traditional citrus-forward soft drink, would cycle in and out of glasses as the temperatures rose. During Ottoman times, when the hammam was an even bigger social to-do, şerbeti made with rose petals or saffron was also commonplace. On vacations to Erzurum, the eastern Anatolian city where my maternal grandfather was raised, my mother and grandmother were treated as special guests on visits to the local hammam, and therefore they weren't expected to contribute to the potluck-style meals shared among the women. Kete, a delightfully flaky, crisp flatbread that doesn't skimp on the butter, was traditional to the lineup there.
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While I've been to a few modern bathhouse-esque spots in Montreal and Brooklyn—a recent visit involved a menu as far from the indulgent Turkish experience as possible, with a rather chaste Little Gem salad and sharp ginger juice—I've yet to go somewhere that echoes my mother's experience from decades ago. These recipes help channel that feeling of hedonism and laziness from the comfort of my own home, and I'll admit I've been slipping into that mindset more and more as of late. I hope you'll feel inspired to do the same.
Bring Home the Bathhouse
Coyuchi Mediterranean Organic Towels
If I'm buying towels in the U.S. (and subsequently disappointing my ancestors), Coyuchi is one of the brands I trust. These super-absorbent patterned towels are similar to the peshtemal towels you'd find in a hammam. From $58, coyuchi.com
Turkish Tea Glasses
If you're doing the hammam-at-home right, you're having a cup of Turkish tea. These iconic thin-waisted glasses are easy to spot across the country. From $7, grandturkishbazaar.com
Soft Rib Slippers
Heavy wooden sandals that make slipping and sliding across a marble floor less of a danger are traditional to the public hammam experience, but there's no shame in opting for a plusher option—made with Turkish cotton—for home use. $49, parachutehome.com