What first inspired you to travel to Turkey and 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 it 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 discovered 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.
List your top 5 Turkish street food dishes.
Stuffed mussels. They are not only visually gorgeous, but are 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.
For food-lovers, which three destinations in Turkey are unmissable and why?
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. 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 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.
What foods would you say are ‘must eats’ for first-time travellers to Turkey and why?
Gozleme. 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.
Balik ekmek (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 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 and most are foraged from the countryside and so will be very specific to a region.
Dondurma. This is Turkey’s famous pounded ice-cream. It has a wonderful smooth, elastic texture and a subtly addictive flavour. The best dondurma is said to come from Maras, but you will find it everywhere, sold from ice-cream shops and street sellers.
Which five words best describe the flavours of Turkish cooking?
Rich and earthy
Sour and mildly hot
Sweet and floral
Silky and unctuous
In your book Turquoise you talk about a chef called Musa Daǧdeverin and his restaurant in Istanbul called Ҫiya. 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, which 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 Ciya restaurants in Istanbul’s Kadikoy district, 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.