On a recent night in İstanbul’s Beyoğlu district customers are packing into the local Burger King and McDonalds, while outside the local Domino’s Pizza a sleek fleet of mopeds shuttles takeout to hungry students and night owls.
But around a dimly lit corner, Mehmet Usta is also doing a brisk trade, preparing food of a different ilk from the greasy treats of this neighborhood’s better advertised eateries. Busily making wraps from a street-side counter, Mehmet is preparing çiğ köfte, a spicy bulgur wheat and tomato paste blend, topped with sour pomegranate sauce and nestled on a refreshing bed of iceberg lettuce, parsley and pita bread.
“This is cheaper than fast food, it’s healthier than pizzas or burgers. It tastes better too,” Mehmet says, waving around a sauce-smeared hand. “And,” he adds, “it’s turkish!” A little sauce flies off his fingertips.
The vendor’s sentiment might seem like a dose of naïve food nationalism, given the popularity of foreign chains like Burger King, McDonalds and KFC around Turkey. But çiğ köfte has advanced in recent years from an obscure food of the rural east to a near ubiquitous feature of the Turkish street, available at corner stores displaying plastic-wrapped köfte mountains from windows to taunt the hungry.
Most street foods become notorious once they become ubiquitous -- İstanbul’s buttered rice, grease-inundated döner, honey-soaked cakes sold from little carts all conjure mixed feelings of guilt and joy from buyers wary of an impending heart attack. But that’s the catch about çiğ köfte: unlike its fast food competitors, çiğ köfte is actually healthy.
Turkey’s growing appetite and çiğ köfte’s guilt free nature are reasons why Çetin tekdemir, general director of the çiğ köfte chain Komagene, believes the product can compete toe to toe in the (grease) saturated market of İstanbul street food. In fact it is so good, he suggests, that a properly marketed çiğ köfte chain might even enter the inner sanctum of the foreign fast food chains: mall food courts.
Mythic origins of a fast food underdog
The origins of çiğ köfte, Tekdemir explains, are wrapped in mythology. “Komagene,” he begins, “is the name of our brand because it is the name of the ancient civilization where King Nemrut banned firewood 4,000 years ago, so that he could amass enough to build a pyre and burn the prophet Ibrahim. One resourceful woman took raw meat and began to mix it with bulgur and tomato paste, and that is how çiğ köfte was invented.”
Tekdemir’s mythologizing reveals an important fact about çiğ köfte’s history: in days of old, the primary ingredient was raw meat. (Indeed, the very translation of çiğ köfte is simply “raw meatballs.”) For years the food was popular among Turks and Armenians who lived in contemporary Turkey’s eastern half. But the easily spoilable grub never gained wide popularity beyond its place of origin.
Enter Tekdemir, who acquired the Komagene franchise in 2004. Until then, the modest chain of 80 stores had stuck to the recipe passed down from ancient times and was teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. Tekdemir, who at the time was also heading an information technology startup, decided to acquire the chain and modernize a food that appeared archaic to urban audiences. In 2005, Tekdemir had a simple but transformative insight that would lead the industry in that direction. “We thought, given the health hazards, what if we just stopped including meat? The flavor is still there. In fact, some people thought it tasted better. So we changed the business, we made it into something that is cheaper and doesn’t spoil easily,” Tekdemir says.
That simple trick, only four millennia in waiting, kicked off the modern çiğ köfte chain. Once an oddity of rural Turkish and Armenian kitchens, the food was soon being manufactured by Komagene and others in factories and distributed to new branches across Turkey. “Actually, çiğ köfte is really a new food in the fast food industry,” Tekdemir says. “We have a product which lasts for a long time and can be produced at high quality for low cost.”
Within a few years, the new recipe had replaced the old, with corner shop owners ordering çiğ köfte from suppliers and serving it in stands at the front of their stores. One such owner is Gökhan Günay, who is preparing a wrap outside his narrow shop in Beşiktaş on a typical balmy summer afternoon. “In 2009, we decided to open a çiğ köfte stand next to our shop. We get the köfte delivered to us every few days. It’s a good factory, very clean. We buy the wraps, the lettuce, everything else. It’s simple.”
The boom in business for corner stores has been even greater for chains like Komagene, which have built brand recognition and expanded across Turkey. Komagene currently operates over 300 stores. “My favorite brands are Komagene, Çiğköftem and Damga. You could say that it shows çiğ köfte has become popular enough that certain brands are recognizable, and people don’t just eat çiğ köfte but are getting more specific preferences,” says Pınar, an İstanbul resident and çiğ köfte enthusiast. “Its just natural for it to become more popular. It’s cheap and a good vegetarian option. You could call it Turkey’s tofu.” The chains, she says, have continued to experiment and innovate. Komagene’s sauce has a special spicy kick and the company mixes nuts in with the regular recipe. Çiğköftem, meanwhile, adds mashed potatoes to its recipe.
“People recognize the brand. Çiğ köfte is also vegetarian and healthy, so these are the things that make us think we should expand our market, especially into mall food courts, where you usually can’t find çiğ köfte,” Tekdemir says. To enter into the coveted mall food club of mostly foreign-owned chains, Tekdemir says the chain has also expanded its offerings, putting traditional Turkish meze and desserts on the menu. “We were rejected when we first started applying to malls. They said, ‘You only have çiğ köfte, people want to sit down and have a meal, not just a wrap,’” says Tekdemir. “But we’re overcoming that impression and we’ve gotten a foothold in some malls.”
Some customers are skeptical. Says one McDonalds customer at a mall in İstanbul’s Yeni Bosna district: “I can get chicken here, I can get breakfast, I can get whatever kind of burger I want, and I can get sides. At any çiğ köfte place, you get çiğ köfte.”
Fears about variety are not the only barrier. If they want to tap the lucrative mall market, çiğ köfte chains may also have to overcome the perception that they’re selling a grab-and-go snack rather than a full meal. In the Turkish world of fast food, customers tend to sit down and eat, rather than grab a bag to go. “Most people sit and eat a full meal. We don’t have much take out,” says one McDonalds employee. Behind him, a girl is dumping a bucket of translucent grease into a fryer. “It’s different than çiğ köfte, which doesn’t belong here because isn’t a big meal.”
If malls don’t support Tekdemir’s fast food coup, however, he says he has other options. “We also want to expand abroad. We just opened up shops in Hamburg and Vienna two months ago. So far we’ve gotten some pretty positive responses.” Opening shops abroad is expensive, says Tekdemir, because the company has to fly the çiğ köfte from its factory in Turkey. “But,” he adds, “if we think its doable, we’ll open 20 or 30 stores and a factory.”
One particular barrier to entering foreign markets may be explaining just what çiğ köfte is, because it doesn’t have any clear equivalent outside Turkey. But Tekdemir is optimistic. “I think it’s like frozen yogurt. People didn’t know what it was, but eventually it became very popular,” he says. “We’ve been sending samples all over the world. We sent samples to an entrepreneur in Miami, and people like it there. I gave some samples to some tourists from India recently and they loved it.”
If entrepreneurs like Tekdemir can successfully capitalize on that enthusiasm, çiğ köfte just might become an internationally enjoyed food. It wouldn’t be the first Turkish food to do so -- in the 1970s, Turkish immigrants to Germany invented the döner kebap as a toasty comfort for the guest worker’s homesick heart. Soon, döner’s greasy bud was blossoming across Germany, Europe and Turkey itself. Given modern health consciousness in Europe, çiğ köfte may be next in line, says Tekdemir. If it is, this time Turkey’s contribution to world cuisine may be a little easier on the world’s arteries.