Self-care shouldn't mean deprivation. Take a lesson from the delicious and generous Turkish hammam experience and make dishes that nourish you inside and out.
Advertisement
Safran Serberti
Credit: Photo by Eva Kolenko / Food Styling by Carrie Purcell / Prop Styling by Jillian Knox

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.

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.

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

Recipes

Related Items

Kete Rolls

Kete Bread Rolls

Kete, buttery, flaky Turkish pastries, come in many variations, some sweet and some savory. This savory version adapted from The Turkish Cookbook (Phaidon) incorporates crushed walnuts and a hint of fresh thyme to make herbaceous, multilayered bread rolls with a satisfying crunch to them. When folding the kete, the most important step is rolling the dough into spirals to create flaky layers. The kete bread rolls are best enjoyed warm from the oven the day they're made, but leftovers are delicious gently toasted in the oven.
Zeytinyagil Yaprak Sarmasi

Zeytinyağli Yaprak Sarmasi (Vegetarian Stuffed Grape Leaves)

From the Turkish region of Mugla, these tangy, tender vegetarian rice-and-herb-stuffed grape leaves (Zeytinyağli Yaprak Sarmasi) can be made a day ahead, making them a great appetizer for easy entertaining. The brightness of the brined grape leaves is balanced by the rice filling, which is seasoned with fresh parsley and dill and slightly sweet cooked onions. If making the stuffed grape leaves the day before, refrigerate them overnight and bring them to room temperature before serving.
Safran Serberti

Safran Şerbeti (Saffron Cordial)

In Turkish culture, this floral, citrusy, sweet cordial is believed to have protective properties: If someone trips on a flat path, it's poured on the spot to ward off the evil eye. Magical properties aside, this chilled, sunshine-yellow drink gets its hue from saffron threads; grinding them with sugar helps them dissolve easily. If saving overnight, discard the lemon slices, as they can turn the cordial slightly bitter. During Ottoman times, şerbeti made with saffron was commonplace at communal bathhouses known as hammam; nod to its roots by making this cordial part of a moment of self-care, or enjoy it anytime you need a refreshing drink.