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Our Istanbul correspondent explores one of the world’s greatest but least-appreciated cuisines – and drinks coffee “so thick a water buffalo wouldn’t sink in it.”
Whirling dervishes spin during a Sema ceremony in Istanbul, one of the world's most vibrant, cosmopolitan cities. (Photo by Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters)
In Turkey, it is said that there are just three major cuisines in this world: Chinese, French and Turkish. Yet while you’ve likely experienced crepes and coq au vin, spring rolls and sweet and sour pork, little seems to be known about Turkish cuisine. Beyond the kebab, however, lies a wide range of unique regional dishes and restaurants with hints of Balkan, Caucasian and Middle Eastern cooking.
At a recent meal at Ciya, one of Istanbul’s temples to the country’s diverse cookery, a waiter in a chef’s hat stood behind a dozen or so steaming pots, arranged cafeteria style behind the glass counter.
“Here is Suuriya,” he said with a wave, pointing to a pot of nickel-sized meatballs simmering in a sauce of dark, sour cherries and cinnamon.
“Gaziantepe,” he continued, pointing his spoon at a variation of stuffed vegetable specific to the southeastern city. The plump, juicy dolma were made from dried eggplant that’s been rehydrated and filled with red pepper. Spicy and comforting, it was served with a dollop of thick yogurt on the side.
“Black Sea,” he said simply, moving on to a plate of sautéed kullubas, a type of wild greens sautéed with onions, as if his spoon were literally charting a course across the Anatolian plains.
There are few places in the world where a country’s evolution is so tangible – and so tasty.
People here are proud of the Turkish ideal their republic was founded on less than a century ago. They tend to lean quite heavily on the idea of a unified, even monolithic, culture. History, however, tells a different story. Early states founded by the Turks as they moved westward tended to have mixed local populations of Persians, Kurds, Arabs and others. The Ottoman Empire stretched from the gates of Vienna to Yemen, from Algeria to Baghdad.
Today, with no less than eight borders – framed by Bulgaria, Greece, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq and Syria – the culture, and cuisine, is a menagerie of influences.
It would take months, and many long bus rides, to sample all the country’s culinary hotspots. Fortunately, there is really nowhere better to taste the diversity of Turkish cuisine than in Istanbul itself. Spurred on by the urban migration that has hit the city over the past few decades people have come to Turkey's largest city en masse, bringing their own style of cooking with them.
From the Kurdish vegetable seller to the feast of Black Sea specialties on display at Pera Sisore, Turkish cuisine is as expansive as its empire once was. Come hungry.
Van Kahvalti Evi:
In Turkey it’s not breakfast without tomatoes, cucumber, bread and a white cheese. In Van, a city in Eastern Turkey, it’s not breakfast without olives, eggs cooked with tahini, candied walnuts, numerous cheeses, butter, jams, murtuga (a heavy wheat flour porridge that looks almost like scrambled eggs) and more. This is a serious breakfast, for serious eaters. Last time I visited Van’s famous Kahvalticilar Sokak, literally Breakfast Makers Street, (yes, they really named a street after it) I counted 24 little plates in front of me. Don’t miss the kaymak, Turkey’s version of clotted cream, and honey. Even with tables spilling out onto the streets this place fills up fast on the weekends. So come early. Or do it like they do in Van and grab breakfast for dinner.
In this sprawling city of over 15 million people, most Istanbulites will tell you that the best cooking is done at home. Ciya, the creation of chef Musa Dagdeviren, takes that idea to new heights. Something of a culinary anthropologist, Dagdeviren travels the country seeking out regional home cooking and bringing otherwise overlooked dishes back to the big city. Order from the cafeteria-style set up in the front of the restaurant (cold meze on the right of the door, hot dishes on the left) and be seated; the waiters will bring your selection to the table. What’s available changes daily so you can keep coming back for more tasty and unusual flavors.
Ciya Sofrasi is located on quiet, pedestrian-only street in the Kadikoy neighborhood’s bazaar, 20 minutes by ferry from Eminonu, on the Asian side of the city. Two other members of the Ciya family are located within 20 meters of each other on the same street. Look for the pots of bubbling goodness in the window of Ciya Sofrasi; the other two restaurants specialize in kebabs.
Like many homey lunch spots in Istanbul, Pera Sisore features a wide array of hot and cold dishes served cafeteria-style. The difference is that this place is pure Black Sea deliciousness. Forget the kebab here, the harsh mountainous conditions in the Black Sea make raising livestock difficult, so chefs tend to prefer fish. None is more honored than hamsi, or anchovy. With cornbread, pickled vegetables, muhlama – a take on fondue made with local cheeses and thick, yellow butter– and rich, heavy deserts, this is Turkey’s version of southern comfort food.
Jonathan Swift once said that coffee makes you “severe, grave, and philosophical.” In Turkey, it can also make you a bride. There is a longstanding tradition here that before a suitor’s family accepts his prospective bride she must serve them a flawless cup of coffee. As I’m still mastering the technique, however, I go to Mandabatmaz. A little cubbyhole of a shop off of the famous Istiklal Street, there is no place is this city that could satisfy a prospective mother-in-law so well. Heavy, dark and deeply satisfying, this is the perfect pick-me-up for a long day of exploring. And it should be – roughly translated mandabatmaz means, “so thick even a water buffalo wouldn’t sink in it.”
It’s rare in this city to find a place that is trendy without sacrificing taste; Antiochia seems to be the exception. Representing Antakya, a small city on the Syrian border, the food here is an incredible balance of spicy and sweet tastes you can’t find anywhere else in Turkey (remember, most of the spice routes through Anatolia went through the southeast). The meze plate offers the best of the regions with dollops of yogurt and crushed mint, pepper relishes, muammara – a thick spread of walnuts, red pepper and spices – and kekik salatasi, an intense meze of green olives, fresh thyme and olive oil. And unlike regions to the west, the southeast is all about meat. Try the minced beef wrap with onion and tomatoes if you don’t believe me.