The Turkish Kitchen

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by Richard Tillinghast

Perhaps to be human is to forget. Perhaps every culture survives by forgetting. In America we have forgotten so many things that we are sometimes called a people without a memory. Modern Turkey sometimes strikes me as a culture based on forgetting as many things as possible about the country’s past. Since the late eighties, the place to eat in Istanbul for serious foodies has been Ciya, in Kadikoy, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. Ciya is the creation of master chef Musa Dagdeviren, whose mission is to restore to Turkish diners a cuisine that they have forgotten.

“Turkish cuisine” translates as “the Turkish kitchen,” so that’s what I am calling my blog entry. The roots of Turkish cuisine are threefold. First come the grilled meats that would have been part of traditional nomadic life. Then there is the sophisticated cuisine of Ottoman court cooking, which involves sauces, purees, methods of stuffing vegetables with rice, spices and meats. Ottoman cooking survives in the mezes that are served with drinks, in pastries like borek and baklava, and in the fabulous complex traditional dishes served in a few old-fashioned restaurants, most of them in Istanbul. Finally there is a kind of peasant cuisine from Anatolia which I’ll call hunter-gatherer food. It is the kind of food that Turkish grandmothers used to cook, and most people have forgotten what the ingredients were and how to cook it.

Recently a group of five of us ate a huge meal at Ciya with beer, Turkish coffee, and desserts, and ended up spending 45 YTL or $30 per person. You can get by for less, but we went all out. The restaurant itself is simple and functional; the emphasis is on the food. The meze and salads are displayed on one side as you enter, while the main dishes are set out in tubs in a kind of open kitchen, with perhaps a dozen choices on either side. On the meze side we found things like the familiar but delicious yogurt-based eggplant ezme, or puree, cold chopped greens of several kinds with unfamiliar names and in unusual combinations, such as purslane with barley and lentils. They put your plate on a scale and charge you by weight. I loved the pazi, which is a kind of chard prepared with grated carrots and radishes, and another salad of something like black-eyed peas stewed with greens and served cold. A soup that must be tried is Ezo Gelin corbasi, a hearty peasant lentil soup with meat, lemon, oregano, red pepper and yogurt.

As main dishes mumbar, sheep’s intestines stuffed with bulgur, was terrific, as was lamb cooked with ayva or quince. I love eggplant so I ordered the patlican kebabi, eggplant cooked with lamb. (Kebab can describe any kind of meat dish, not just grilled meats.) Another night I had the kuru sebze dolmasi, dried eggplant stuffed with meat, rice and vegetables. Plums stuffed with ground lamb were delectable. When you go, see if they have the kofte made with cherries.

Any cuisine with roots in antiquity must be to some extent a hunter-gatherer culture. A lot of what goes into the dishes at Ciya is not grown but gathered: greens, roots, and herbs—that’s the hunter-gatherer part. When I was growing up in Memphis, “gatherers” from the country used to come around in winter selling little bundles of sassafras roots that you would make tea from. Mr Dagdeviren incorporates in many of his dishes “gathered” herbs and greens that one would hardly know the names of.

This chef is a bit of a scholar, a serious archaeologist of forgotten dishes, and the cuisine he sets out to acquaint or reacquaint Istanbulites with is the cuisine of Anatolia. Mr. Dagdeviren is from Gaziantep in southeastern Anatolia, and he describes what he serves as “Southeastern and East Mediterranean Cuisine,” which his website calls “a reflection of a vast geography from Anatolia to Mesopotamia and the variety of culturally prosperous people that have existed on that land. Here, all the Azerbaijani, Georgian, Turkish, Arabian, Armenian, Ottoman, Syrian, Seldjukian and Jewish dishes are prepared according to the original customs and beliefs.” Ciya’s website cites the origin, geographical and ethnic, of each day’s featured dishes. He owns fields where he grows his own beans and grains, he shops seriously for ingredients in markets, and he travels all over Turkey to get the ingredients he wants.

The night we were there he offered two different kinds of sherbet—not what we call sherbet in the US, but a drink one made from fruits—one with blackberries, and one with sumac. Another night he offered tamarind sherbet. The concept of using recherché ingredients comes especially to the fore with the desserts. We were presented with five choices, and we ordered all five. First came a walnut, shell and all, stuffed with aubergine, that had somehow been preserved and candied. I don’t know how he made the shell edible, but he did. Then, amazingly, a candied chunk of zucchini, candied green olives, eggplant, and tomatoes. Amazing, that meal. Never had anything like it.

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