- Published on Tuesday, 13 July 2010 17:00
- Written by Eren GÃ¶knar - Special to the Town Crier
Some people visit Turkey for the ruins. I go for the food.
Every year, I return to my native land hungry for the meatballs, kebabs, pilaf, dolmas, baklavas and boreks of my youth. The dishes all have poetic titles, like “The Priest Fainted,” a stewed eggplant entrée, or my Aunt Çolpan’s Kadin Budu Köfte, which means “Fried Lady Meatballs.” They provide a gastronomical feast for the taste buds.
OK, the awe-inspiring views, art and Istanbul nightlife beckon to me, as well.
However, a big part of the draw is Proustian, triggered by the sight of the ubiquitous tulip tea glasses balanced on swinging trays. I long for the food that fed an empire.
American newspapers report that Turkey may be turning East to cash in on relationships with its neighbors, in response to the European Union’s unwillingness to accept the country into its 27-member club. For decades, however, Turkey has been knocking at Europe’s door. The fallout from trying so hard to get cozy with Europe includes Julia Child-inspired dishes served in upscale restaurants that no longer resemble Turkish cultural heritage.
According to my book on Ottoman cookery, Turkish cuisine draws from the countries that were once under Ottoman rule, encompassing the Balkans, the Aegean, the Caucasus, Syria, Lebanon and Anatolia.
During a recent voyage to attend my brother’s big Turkish wedding at the Marmara Esma Sultan, I searched desperately for the breakfasts of my mother’s kitchen. I envisioned an elegant feast of feta and kasar cheeses, shriveled black olives, crusty bread and bowls of fruit preserves made from sour cherries, oranges and strawberries.
My first attempt was the House Café, 1 Salhane Sokak, Ortaköy, where the “Turkish breakfast, with tea” costs $12. Other menu selections included mista and Caesar salads and, yes, that American favorite, mac and cheese.
The curmudgeonly waiter served me a plate of French and Dutch hard cheeses easily found in the deli cooler at Draeger’s and some dainty artisanal bread. The blackboard menu advertised dietetic items with fresh, organic produce “to keep you fit.” I could have driven to San Francisco.
Another morning, we ventured into the posh “Kitchen” at the W Hotel in the newly renovated Akaratler district, where we were staying. Built by Sultan Abdulaziz in 1875, this neighborhood of row houses used to shelter manual laborers from the nearby Dolmabahçe Palace. Now the area includes designer shops like Marc Jacobs, and Haremlique, where you can buy thick Turkish towels for sky-high prices.
The W Kitchen listed a $25 Turkish breakfast, which also came with hard French and Dutch cheeses and artisanal breads, as well as tablespoonfuls of whipped butter to spread on them. Several large olives dominated the plate, but they were green-pitted and Kalamata varieties, more suited to salads. Although it included watermelon and cucumber and tomato chunks, this was not my mother’s breakfast, either.
When I told my mother, who was hosting wedding guests, how hard it was to get a decent breakfast, she suggested the cay bahçesi (tea garden) at the Kanlica dock. It was on the Asian side of the Bosphorus and we were on the European side, so we didn’t make it.
If we didn’t have a local guide, the Çiya Kebapçi in Kadikoy would have been too hard to find. But we made it through meandering, narrow streets – and the menu was worth it. Here, one could sample cooking from different regions of Turkey, like the casserole from Diyarbakir, the sour-cherry meatballs from Malatya and the bean dishes from Antioch and Adana. There are three different Çiya restaurants, all specializing in different food.
I hesitated to enter the kebapcis we passed, but we found tasty meatballs, or köfte, at the historic Sultanahmet köfteci (sultanahmentköftesi.com), 12 Divonyolo Caddesi. We also sampled an excellent çoban, or shepherd’s salad, and lamb shish kebabs, served with fried potatoes, all at reasonable prices. Shepherd’s salad, a staple in Turkish homes, includes chopped green peppers, onions and tomatoes. Another favorite is Turkish pizza, or lahmacun, which is thinner and less saucy than the American version.
On the way home, we saw the Besiktas fish markets, where one can buy fish sandwiches on baguettes. The vendors always take the time to arrange fish artfully, and one stall displayed small, open-mouthed whiting splayed like silver commas atop the biggest grapevine leaves I’ve ever seen. Most fish is sauteéd with butter and onions and accompanied by raki, which is called “Lion’s Milk” when mixed with water. Raki also accompanies the meze, or appetizers of cheeses and hummus or eggplant puree.
We often drank ayran, a yogurt drink, at fast-food places invariably marked by the name Palace, like Simit Palace, which serves the legendary pretzel-like bread covered in sesame seeds. These places seemed to offer cheaper food, more traditional fare eaten by the natives, not tourists.
I couldn’t leave Turkey without visiting Istiklal Street to buy pistachio lokum, or Turkish Delight, and badem ezmesi, almond paste, at the Haci Bekir pastry shop, founded in 1777.
More and more, some Turkish movers and shakers seem to have the attitude of “Who needs Europe?” At least in the culinary arena, they may have a point.