We talk Turkish delights with Greg Malouf
Celebrated the world over for his modern take on traditional Middle Eastern cuisine, Greg Malouf is a renowned chef, best-selling food author and seasoned traveller who is always in search of new flavours and ingredients. We’re thrilled to have Greg join us as an Intrepid Foodie and we recently sat down with him to chat about mezze, stuffed mussels, milk puddings and everything that’s marvellous about Turkish cuisine…
1. What was your first impression of Turkish cuisine?
As a young chef I spent time working in Austria and some of my colleagues at the restaurant were Turkish. They inspired me to go and visit Istanbul, and I did it in the most romantic way possible, traveling from Vienna, through eastern Europe on the Orient Express.
Istanbul was everything that I’d imagined: an exotic blend of the ancient Orient and modern-day Europe, the old and new; where you could really feel history coming alive all around you in the smoky teahouses, the palaces and mosques, the street markets and the Grand Bazaar.
The memories of that trip stayed with me and then, in 2007, I was lucky enough to travel all around Turkey with Lucy, my writing partner, to research our book, Turquoise.
I’d worked with enough Turks – and done enough research – to believe that Turkish food is some of the best in the world. I wasn’t disappointed on either of my visits. I discovered it to be a cuisine far more complex, varied and layered than many people realise. I loved the way it resonated with my own Lebanese background and couldn’t believe the variety and quality of produce.
2. For food-lovers, which are you top 3 must-see destinations in Turkey ?
Istanbul is a must. It’s the beating heart of Turkey where you find both ancient dishes and exciting modern interpretations. In the Grand Bazaar you find produce sourced from every region around the country. And there’s a fantastic variety of street food, such as tripe soup, stuffed mussels, fish sandwiches, pide and gozleme. You can eat mezze dishes and drink raki in the meyhanes (sort of Turkish tapas bars), or soups and stews in the lokantas (sort of workmen’s cafés) or buy creamy milk puddings in milk pudding shops! There are upmarket restaurants serving amazing seafood fresh from the Bosphorus or sophisticated and lavish Ottoman dishes. And nowadays there are loads of chic bars and cafés and contemporary restaurants doing their own interpretations of classic recipes.
Gaziantep is a city in the South-East of Turkey where the food is quite different from what you find in Istanbul as there are Arabic, Armenian, Kurdish and Anatolian influences. The city is famous for its shish kebabs and for its pastries. ‘Antep baklava is usually made from locally grown pistachios, and the quality is outstanding. There are also a few unmissable kebab houses. If you’re an early riser you must sample offal kebabs, made from liver, heart or kidneys, which are a popular breakfast meal – especially in the bitter winters. The kebabs at Imam Cagdas are famous around around Turkey but I also love the more humble Halil Usta kebab house. This is a local institution and the place is always packed. I’ve never eaten kebabs like them!
It’s hard to pick another specific place, but almost anywhere along the coastline – whether it’s the Bosphorus or Black Sea, the Aegean or Mediterranean – you’ll find amazing fish and seafood. You can watch the fishermen bringing in their catch and then enjoy eating it at waterfront cafés and restaurants. I’ve got memories of wonderful chargrilled sardines, octopus and prawns, fried mussels, delicate sea urchins, red mullet, sole and one of my favourites, turbot.
3. Which dishes best represent each of these wonderful places?
a. Istanbul: Stuffed Mussels. These gleaming, blue-black beauties are famous in Istanbul. They are always impressively displayed in great mounds, with the shells just open enough to see the stuffing of plump orange mussel, herbed rice, pine nuts and currants.
b. Ayvalik: This is a lovely seaside town on the northern Aegean coast. It’s famous for olives and you’ll find them in every possible incarnation around the town. It also has fabulous seafood, of course, nearly all of which is fantastically fresh, cooked simply on a grill and served pretty much as is. One of my best memories of Ayvalik, though, is eating gorgeous little sea urchins. They are such a delicacy, and so redolent of the sea, that I might pick this as a favourite dish.
c. Gazientep: Pistachio baklava. I’m a sucker for sweet pastries, and the ones from ‘Antep are some of the best anywhere in the world. We watched the experts at Imam Cagdas at work and were stunned at the skill involved in rolling out the pastry to gossamer-light transparency. The quality of the pistachios is also extraordinary. They are grown locally and have an amazing deep emerald-green colour as well as a wonderful depth of flavour.
d. Goreme: In the heartland of Cappadocia, Goreme and other villages in the area are famous for claypot dishes. The climate is extreme, with bitterly cold winters, so they favour slow-cooked stews made in tandoor-style clay ovens. The stews are baked in earthenware pots and are usually simple combinations of lamb, vegetables and beans. After 5-6 hours of cooking the flavours are rich and the textures soft and melting.
4. What foods would you say are ‘must eats’ for first-time travellers to Turkey?
On the assumption that most people will try kebabs and baklava and perhaps a few eggplant dishes, here are some suggestions for some other brilliant, but perhaps less well-known dishes:
Gozleme: There are myriad varieties of pastry and flatbread snack to be had in Turkey, from soft bread rings called simit to pide pies and lahmacun (pizzas). Of them all, gozleme are my favourite. You’ll see them everywhere in small villages and markets, usually made by women in traditional costume, sitting at low tables rolling out yufka dough. The thin sheets of dough are then stuffed with all kinds of filling, from cheese, to minced meat or vegetables. The gozleme are then baked on a sac – a cast-iron, domed griddle. Hot and oozing with cheese, they are irresistible.
Fish sandwiches: On a chilly morning, it’s hard to beat a piece of spanking-fresh mackerel, straight from the sea, grilled and stuffed into a soft bread roll with a bit of lettuce and onion. This is not fancy food, but eating a hot fish sandwich is a culinary rite of passage that you just have to embrace. They are sold from brightly coloured boats and stalls moored on the waterfront of Istanbul’s Golden Horn, just below the Galata Bridge.
Kaymakli yoghurt: The Turks are a nation of yoghurt lovers and there are endless versions (thick, thin, strained) made from cow, goat, sheep or even water-buffalo. My favourite is something called kaymakli yoghurt, which has a thick layer of clotted cream on the surface. It’s sold in special dairy shops or you’ll find it is often served in hotels for breakfast. It is wickedly rich and creamy and is delicious with a drizzle of local honey or a spoonful of sweet preserves.
Braised wild greens: Vegetables are a stalwart of Turkish cuisine and I especially love the olive oil-braised vegetable ‘salads’ that are served as mezze. Some of the best of these are made from wild greens, of which there are hundreds of varieties to be found all around the country. Most of these greens are foraged from the countryside and so will be very specific to a region. We saw dishes of braised wild nettles, chicory, purslane and borage as well as more esoteric items such as salicorn, knotweed, coltsfoot and feverfew. They are utterly simple, just braised in oil and lemon and served with flatbread.
Dondurma: This is Turkey’s famous pounded ice-cream. Similar kinds of ice-cream are found in other parts of the Middle East and it has a wonderful smooth, elastic texture and a subtly addictive flavour. In Turkey, the best dondurma is said to come from Maras, but you will find it everywhere, sold from ice-cream shops and street sellers. Dondurma’s amazing stretchy texture comes from salep (the root of a mountain orchid) and mastic (a plant resin). Some versions contain more salep, which makes it hard enough to cut with a knife and fork, but it is still curiously chewy.
5. Herbs, spices and aromatics play an essential role in Middle Eastern cuisine. What are your 5 favourites? (You’re more than welcome to name more, if 5 is too challenging!)
As a Lebanese cook, I am especially fond of sour flavours, so I would definitely nominate lemon and yoghurt as two of my favourite aromatics. When it comes to spices, I love cinnamon and allspice, cumin and coriander, cardamom and saffron. My favourite herbs are mint (fresh and dried) coriander, French tarragon and, of course, flat leaf parsley.
6. Can you list your top 5 Turkish beverages?
Efes Beer: One of the best beers in the region. Perfect with the salty street foods and snacks.
Ayran: One of the most popular soft drinks in Turkey, you can even buy ayran in MacDonalds. Ayran is basically a kind of thin yoghurt mixed with water (still or sparkling) and is often very frothy. It has a lightly sour flavour and is brilliantly refreshing in the summer. It’s very popular to drink with kebabs.
Turkish coffee: Although you will be offered fantastic Turkish tea everywhere you go, I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for Turkish coffee! We in the west even have the Ottomans to thank for introducing us to coffee. Both tea and coffee are popular in Muslim countries such as Turkey, because of the restrictions on drinking alcohol. These days, coffee houses in Turkey (kahve) are really ‘secret men’s business’ and you seldom see women there. They tend to be a bit dingy and run-down, but they are incredibly atmospheric and a real experience. And you can also drink tea there, too!
Raki: This is the Turkish equivalent of Arak or Pernod. Raki is a MUST for accompanying mezze as its clean and refreshing and cuts through the flavour assault on your palate that you get from eating a big array of mezze dishes.
Pomegranate juice: In season you’ll see street stalls selling pomegranate juice all over the place. It’s got a gorgeous colour and a fantastic sweet-sour flavour.
7. What are your favourite Turkish street food dishes?
Stuffed mussels: These are not only visually gorgeous, but incredibly moreish.
Liver (and other offal) kebabs: On a cold winter’s morning these really set you up for the day.
Gözleme with cheese and spinach: Hot from the griddle, these are irresistible.
Lokma: Sticky, syrupy doughnuts are the perfect sweet treat.
Almonds: Hot and roasted in the winter; chilled fresh green almonds in the summer.
Simit: These bread rings look a bit like large pretzels. They usually have a soft interior and a crisp outer shell. They come coated in sesame seeds and wonderfully addictive.
8. What do you admire most about contemporary Turkish food culture?
I really admire the way that Turks respect food and are so true to their culinary traditions.
When it comes to ingredients, Turkish cooks are incredibly fussy about quality. They want produce to be fresh, seasonal and intensely flavoured. And this is terribly important, as many Turkish dishes appear to be quite simple and rather unadorned with sauces and the like.
As is the case in many other Middle Eastern countries, Turks are quite conservative about their food and are resistant to messing around with their traditional favourites. They are not really into experimentation, perhaps because they already know that they have a vast and very sophisticated cuisine, which is the legacy of the country’s rich and varied history. Turkish cuisine draws from the influences of such diverse parts of the world as Central and Far East Asia, Persia, Arabia, the Balkans and the Mediterranean and you can see lots of these influences in the culinary repertoire.
9. Which words best describe the flavours of Turkish cooking?
Rich and earthy
Sour and mildly hot
Sweet and floral
Silky and unctuous
10. Along with your former wife Lucy, you have written several award-winning cookbooks on Middle Eastern cuisine, including Turquoise, which documented your travels through Turkey. In Turquoise you talk about a chef called Musa Daǧdeverin and his restaurant in Istanbul called Ҫiya, which we will visit on our Real Food Adventure – Turkey. What is so important about this restaurant and the work being undertaken by Chef Daǧdeverin?
Musa is a Turkish living legend! He has single-handedly rescued thousands of ancient regional recipes, that date back many hundreds of years, from disappearing. He has made it his life’s work to travel the country and learn from locals (mainly women) about the ‘forgotten’ peasant dishes of Anatolia, and to recreate them in his restaurants.
Musa has three Ҫiya restaurants in Istanbul’s Kadikoy, and they have earned lavish praise for their menus of authentic regional dishes. They are not fancy upmarket restaurants, but simple, lokanta-style cafeterias. But the real joy of them is that you will eat dishes that you just won’t find on any other restaurant menus. They are a testament to Musa’s scholarship and his passion.
11. Through your cookbooks and cooking demonstrations, you have inspired an incredible number of people to try their hand at Middle Eastern dishes. What key ingredients and/or equipment do you need to recreate authentic Middle Eastern food at home?
The most important things to have are an open mind, a curious palate and a hungry family!
In terms of equipment, I couldn’t get by without a mortar and pestle for pounding small quantities of spices – which I always do at the last minute, for maximum flavour. Minced meat is also used a lot in Middle Eastern cooking, in kibbeh and stuffings, for instance, so I find a mincer indispensable. Other than that, you won’t really need any special equipment that you won’t already have. If I had to nominate a few other things, perhaps a garlic press, a good lemon squeezer and a microplane grater.
As for ingredients, you’ll be pleased to hear that most things you need for cooking Middle Eastern dishes are fairly readily available from your local market or supermarket. The Middle Eastern diet relies heavily on fruit, fresh vegetable and herbs, such as coriander, mint and parsley. Meat is mainly lamb; staples are rice (long-grain predominantly) and cracked wheat.
Middle Easterners love sour flavours, so lemon juice, yoghurt, and also garlic feature heavily. Nuts are also widely used – especially almonds, pistachios, walnuts and pine nuts. Spices are important, either singly, or in blends. The most widely used are cumin, coriander, cinnamon, allspice, cardamom and ginger.
There are a few more unusual ingredients which you may have to source from a Middle Eastern grocer, but which are well worth the trouble for helping recreate authentic flavours. I’d nominate sumac (a tangy ground berry) and za’atar (a mixture of wild thyme and sumac), pomegranate molasses (which adds an intense sweet-sour tang) and orange flower and rose waters for their floral perfume. I’d also recommend getting in some preserved lemons which are key for Moroccan recipes, but which I use lavishly in all kinds of dishes.
Plus coming up soon we have two special opportunities for you to meet Greg in Melbourne, Australia. On 6 June he will be sharing his food and travel experiences at our Intrepid office and on 7 June he’s taking part in the Good Food and Wine Show in Melbourne and conducting a special Middle Eastern masterclass!