Crossing to Asia

Crossing to Asia

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
16 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740669276
Photographer
Lisa Cohen and William Meppem

Before there was Byzantium there was Chalcedon, a small colony perched on the southernmost shore of the Bosphorus at the threshold of Asia. It had been happily settled since ancient times, until Greek colonists arrived on the scene in the seventh century BC, establishing a bigger and better city on the opposite – superior – shore. They named this city Byzantium. These two colonies worked in partnership for the next few centuries to control trade through the Bosphorus, but the reality was that Chalcedon just wasn’t as well positioned geographically. And so, as Byzantium grew to greatness, Chalcedon sank into obscurity.

Ancient Chalcedon is modern Kadiköy, in the Asian part of Istanbul. Even today it has less obvious charms than the European suburbs, being primarily a residential area with little evidence remaining of its ancient past. But we’d been advised to miss a visit to Kadiköy at our peril. For here, we were assured, was some of the best food to be had in the whole of Turkey.

So late one March afternoon, we met up with our friend Sedat at the Eminönü ferry terminal. The waterfront was thronged with commuters going about the business of daily life. In the jostling queue for the Kakidöy ferry, men in suits and thick knitted skullcaps rubbed up against students with dreadlocks and little old ladies in raincoats. Even though the sun was shining, everyone was rugged up in scarves, gloves and boots against the chill.

Swept on board the lumbering old ferry by the crowd, we clambered up the wide staircase to the top passenger deck. The ferry chugged off on its journey across the Bosphorus, and we had just enough time to enjoy a glass of hot çay from the wandering tea seller before we spied the grand old Haydarpasa railway station looming up ahead. Then suddenly we had arrived. The ferry was docking and we stepped out onto Asian soil.

After negotiating the roaring traffic behind the ferry terminus we ducked down a narrow laneway, emerging into a crowded street market. Dusk was falling and the market was full of shoppers stocking up for dinner. From all sides, we were offered tastes of honey or halva; roasted chickpeas; slivers of tasty white Turkish cheese; green, pink, brown and black-hued olives; and the famous Istanbul mussels stuffed with dill-flavoured rice.

It was hard not to be tempted, but we were set firmly on course for Çiya where we’d been invited to dinner with legendary Turkish chef, Musa Dagdeviren. It turned out that Çiya is actually a cluster of three small restaurants: a sofrası, which specialises in soups, salads and stews; a kebab köfteci, or bread and meat restaurant; and a third that seems to do a mix of everything. The Çiya restaurants have earned wide and lavish praise for their menus of authentic regional dishes, sourced from villages all around Turkey – the sort of food, we’d been told, that you just don’t find on other menus around town.

We were warmly welcomed by Musa and his wife Zeynep, who offered glasses of a refreshingly sour–sweet sumac sherbet as we took our seats. Zeynep, who manages the three busy restaurants, was small and bursting with energy. Musa was tall and lean with a healthy-looking moustache and a charming, gentle manner. But there was also an intensity gleaming in his coal-black eyes, and it soon became apparent that here was a man with a mission.

Over our sherbet, and with Sedat translating, Musa began to tell us about his life, his restaurants and his passion for what he calls ‘the forgotten peasant dishes of Anatolia’. He’s not interested in the stuff churned out by traditional Turkish restaurants, but in the cooking that people do in their own homes in villages around the country.

‘The thing that really holds my imagination is the food that poor people make from almost nothing,’ he said. ‘Anyone can cook fancy meals with expensive ingredients. I think it’s far more beautiful to see someone cook a delicious meal from weeds and tree roots, or use lentils if there’s no meat or to make a soup just from yoghurt and cracked wheat.’

While Musa talked, dishes were arriving on the table thick and fast. We crunched on tiny pickled peppers and sipped a delicate yoghurt soup brimming with young green garlic shoots. There was a salad of wild thyme, followed by braised artichokes stuffed with rice, mint, pine nuts and currants, and tiny pea-sized köfte dumplings in an intensely flavoured tomato sauce.

In his gently insistent way Musa continued, ‘For the last twenty years or so I’ve been travelling everywhere around the rural parts of Turkey, going into people’s homes and cooking with them, learning about the ingredients they use, watching what they do, and also trying to understand the ritual and method that goes with the food they cook.’

He laughed, ‘When I find a new dish that excites me, I go a bit mad! What I’ve done, really, is to make the restaurants into my own personal test kitchen where I try to recreate the recipes I find from my research and travels.’

He rolled up pieces of crisp, wafer-thin lahmacun smeared with a spicy meat paste and offered them around, before continuing. ‘But I’m a realist, too. I know that a lot of traditional peasant recipes use ingredients that are very localised. There are literally hundreds of wild greens that grow around the Aegean coastline, for instance, that people in the rest of Turkey know nothing about. And there’s no point making winter dishes from Antep, using the solid fat from the sheep’s tail in the traditional way that they do, and offering it to urbanite Istanbullus. It would give them a heart attack – literally!’

Musa’s genius seems to be knowing how to preserve the essence of a dish and adapting it to new surroundings, without slavishly recreating dishes in a way that would otherwise be esoteric at best, and utterly impractical at worst.

It was impossible to stop eating. More dishes had arrived – tender lamb kebabs grilled with Turkish truffles, which we stuffed into hot, chewy, ‘house made’ bread. There was a pilav from eastern Anatolia, thick with shreds of chicken and tiny currants, next came grilled intestines stuffed with savoury cracked wheat and finally a casserole of tiny chunks of lamb, grapes and chickpeas from central Anatolia.

We learned that Musa serves more than a thousand different dishes at his restaurants every year and rarely repeats the same dish twice. He makes fifty or more meat kebabs, over a hundred kinds of pilav made from rice or grains and has a seemingly endless repertoire of soups, salads and stews. It’s a massive investment of time and labour and it was no surprise to hear that he has a small army of chefs in the kitchen, working from six in the morning until midnight.

Musa served us an exquisite dessert made from fermented fig seeds and cultured cream, followed by a selection of tastes from a platter of vividly coloured candied fruits. There were slices of citron and bitter orange, sugary pumpkin smeared with tahini paste and two other, less readily identifiable objects. Musa leaned forward, black eyes gleaming wickedly, ‘What do you think these are?’ he challenged us. We tasted each item a little apprehensively, and discovered we were eating candied tomatoes, their centres soft as jelly; and even more improbably, candied olives, dense and chewy, with a curiously appealing salty sweetness.

By the time we’d sipped down a much-needed digestif of spicy za’atar tea – made from wild thyme – it was close to midnight and we realised the restaurant was empty. We’d been listening to this compelling, dazzling, exhausting man for more than five hours and had only scratched the surface of his extraordinary knowledge. As we said our warm goodbyes and headed out to catch the last ferry back to Europe, Greg muttered happily, ‘I’d come back to Turkey for this food alone.’

Mezze

Turkish cooking is perhaps best known for the seemingly endless little mezze dishes, either offered at the start of a meal or extended to make up an entire meal lasting many happy hours. It’s a well-known and distinctive category, yet surprisingly difficult to define, as just about anything can be served as a mezze.

Although mezze dishes will vary with the season and the locale, one defining characteristic is the abundance of choice. There may be a selection of ezme (mashed vegetables mixed with garlic and yoghurt) or yoghurt dips like cacık or haydari or small dishes of gleaming olives and dolmas (stuffed vegetables). Near the sea, enticing little fish dishes of braised squid or fried whitebait, stuffed mussels or grilled sardines will be offered. A mezze nearly always includes cubes of beyaz peynir – soft white fetta cheese, sprinkled with fresh herbs and olive oil – and just about anything that might be termed a salad.

Delicious seasonal salads will be made with whatever is available – such as the ubiquitous shepherd’s salad of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and onion. Other salads might be made with pulses, such as lentils or white beans, or with bulgur wheat softened with a simple dressing of olive oil and lemon juice. Zeytinyaglı (vegetables cooked in olive oil) are served cold and are very popular. Broad beans, artichokes, eggplant or zucchini are often prepared in this way, and along the Aegean you’ll find an extraordinary selection of wild greens that are gently wilted and served with fruity olive oil and a splash of lemon juice.

Another defining characteristic of the mezze table is the rakı that is drunk as an accompaniment. The Turks would find it hard to imagine eating mezze without rakı as the two are inextricably linked. The tradition, believed to date back many centuries, began with small tasty dishes being offered in taverns to merchants and travellers to soak up the alcohol – very similar to the Spanish tradition of tapas. Despite the conversion of the Turks to Islam, the mezze tradition survived – which either says a lot for the appeal of the rakı or of the food! Today some of the best mezze can be found in meyhane restaurants.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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