Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Istanbul's Culinary Delights
The food served in Istanbul’s homes and restaurants reflects the diverse cultures and ethnic groups that have populated the city from antiquity to the present day.
The first thing you will see on a well laid table is a plethora of appetizer dishes called “meze.”
There will be Cacik a yoghurt dish – also known as tzatziki in Greece or tarator in Lebanon and Syria. Actually, tarator is now commonly made with tahini and not yoghurt; the yoghurt use is a leftover from what used to be the kitchens of the Ottoman Empire. Strained, thick yoghurt is mixed with crushed garlic, shredded cucumber, shredded mint and a little parsley or dill and salt, plus extra virgin olive oil.
In southern Turkey, lemon juice is added to the yoghurt mix.
Another dip very commonly found on Turkish tables is patlican salatasi i.e. eggplant salad. The eggplant (for this salad usually Italian eggplant as opposed to the longer, thinner Asian variety) is cooked on a brazier or hibachi burning charcoal, so that a smoky taste will be imparted to the dish. The eggplant is cooked on a low fire and turned around until the entire skin is blackened and blistered. Then the skin is removed and the cooked flesh is scraped into a bowl where crushed garlic, salt, pepper, lemon juice, shredded parsley or cilantro and mayonnaise or a mixture of mayonnaise and yoghurt are mixed in and blended to a smooth paste. Many times grilled, very spicy long peppers are added as a side accompaniment to the dish. I very distinctly remember my mother, her sister-in-law and their female friends sitting around a brazier set on the veranda of my uncle's home overlooking the Bosporus, eating the hot peppers with tears running down their cheeks, exclaiming how good the salad tasted and how well the hot peppers were accompanying the dip. I guess… chacun à son goût!
Another of the dips also very commonly included in the meze is Humus also known in the near-East as humus bi tahini. Crushed cooked chickpeas mixed with tahini paste, lemon juice, powdered garlic, a touch of cumin, paprika, salt and pepper.
Pieces of warm pita bread are used to scoop up those dips.
Additionally, there is usually stuffed eggplant, Asian variety, hollowed and filled with rice, dried currants and herbs and spices then cooked in olive oil. It is much appreciated by meze aficionados. Other dishes that commonly make an appearance are yaprak dolma (brined vine leaves stuffed with a mixture of rice, shredded onion, pine nuts and spices) cooked in olive oil, as well as stuffed cabbage rolls (usually stuffed with a mixture of ground beef or ground veal, rice, pine nuts and aromatic herbs) bathed in an egg/lemon sauce.
Another ubiquitous Ottoman specialty found on a well laid appetizer table is fasulye piyaz – a salad of boiled white beans, fresh - preferably skinless - tomato chunks, fresh chopped parsley (or cilantro) and thinly-sliced sweet onion, sprinkled with sumac and very fresh extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice or cider vinegar. Sometimes sliced, hard boiled eggs (as in the photo above) and brined, cubbed, green olives are added but the classic recipe omits those ingredients; though the restaurant we ate in one evening, had eggs in their piyaz.
There is also, sometimes, a plate of manti – meat-filled dumplings covered with a yoghurt sauce – and even a plate of potato salad made with both cubed and crushed skinless potatoes mixed with shaved red onion and shredded parsley.
Another very common little dish is pasturma or bastirma, preferably from the Kayseri region of Anatolia. It is air-dried rib eye or beef fillet covered with a spicy red paste called cemen (pronounced chimen) made by pounding in a mortar garlic cloves, fenugreek, cumin, salt and a mixture of sweet and spicy paprika. Shaved very thin, pasturma is fairly ubiquitous on Istanbul's tables together with smoked, air-dried beef tongue sliced also very thin and sujuk, a fermented and air-dried garlicky beef sausage.
And let’s not forget salt preserved anchovies and pickled lakerda (fat bonito caught when they swim up the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara and the Bosporus to spawn in the Black Sea). Also deep fried baby calamari or calamari rings, deep fried mussels in an anise-flavored batter, steamed mussels in a wine, garlic and parsley sauce and other seafood.
And, of course, artichoke hearts (enginar a la polita) filled with carrot and potato cubes plus ever-popular pickled baby cucumbers and capers and brine preserved olives.
That type of spread is found in both restaurants and private homes. The upper classes would also add Sevruga or Ossetra caviar from wild sturgeon caught in the Black Sea and cold poached lobster rondelles, deviled eggs and dried apricots stuffed with Roquefort or Stilton or other blue cheeses.
Then come the main meat or fish courses, cooked vegetable courses, salads and dessert.
All are washed down mostly with annice-flavored raki, a potent distillate from fermented pomace left over when grapes are crushed to make wine. I like the classic Yeni Raki (New Raki) but nowadays there are many more brands available. Another ubiquitous drink is ayran, yoghurt diluted with ice-cold water and salt. It is very refreshing on warm evenings and is considered acceptable at the table as a substitute for wine or other alcoholic beverages.
After everything, a small cup of Turkish coffee – I take mine çok şekerli i.e. with lots of sugar. You can have yours sade (no sugar), az şekerli (slightly sweet) or orta şekerli (medium sweet). Turkish or Greek coffee is made and named in different ways depending on the amount of coffee powder, sugar and how long it is boiled.
In Istanbul there are high end eateries, traditional Kebabçi (grilled meats) establishments, sweets shops, dondurma (ice-cream) palaces, simit vendors, after hours neighborhood stalls dispensing kokoreç i.e. lamb offal wrapped in lamb intestines and spices, slow cooked over a charcoal fire plus the traditional hangover remedy, Iskembe, which is a lamb tripe soup fortified by cooking lamb trotters in it, street-food vendors selling roasted chestnuts and roasted ears of corn, you name it... everything is all there.
In Istanbul you’ll never go hungry!
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