Is it the amount of love poured into their dishes by Turkish mothers? Is it the way the ingredients are mixed and dishes are cooked? Or is it the fact that there is an amazing natural abundance of varied and fresh ingredients here.
Turkey is certainly blessed with agricultural resources. Just a short stroll through your local market is enough to demonstrate that. Whatever the season, there is a wealth of fruit and vegetables that are affordable, colorful and, what is most important, have a rich taste that comes from their having been picked within the last 24 hours.
We are spoilt for choice when it comes to grains, too. Wheat, barley and rice are plentiful, meaning that bread, pasta, bulgur or rice accompanies every meal. The art of Turkish patisserie also developed with baklava and all related forms of sweet pastry and cake, since honey and nuts are in abundance here.
Surrounded by three seas, Turkey has many different fish to choose from as an alternative to meat and game.
I have yet to host a visitor to Turkey who didn’t rave about the wonderful food: the freshness of the salads, the wide variety of meze, the richness of the spices used in the kebabs and the gooey delight of the desserts. Even vegetarians, who are often nervous about what options they will have abroad, have been pleasantly surprised to discover that the range and quality of dishes far exceeds their normal choice. Chickpeas and lentils can be found everywhere, and it seems the Turks can make a delicious dish out of almost any vegetable and olive oil.
Eating out has always been part of the Turkish tradition. Meals prepared in the home for guests are very important, but Turks also like to sit in restaurants with family and friends and enjoy the ambience when eating. Traditionally, many of these restaurants have just one or two dishes. The mantı evi will serve small Turkish ravioli in a delicious yogurt sauce. The sulu yemekçi will offer you a range of casseroled meat with vegetables, the balık evi is a fish restaurant and the kuru fasulyeci will serve meat and beans and rice. A köfteci is a meatball specialist, and usually they specialize in one type of meatball from a particular region in Turkey.
There are times when I get a craving for a type of Turkish food that I have been unable to successfully cook myself. It’s time to go and visit my favorite restaurant for that dish. I then find myself wishing that I could just pop into the kitchen and have a master class from the chef while he is preparing my meal, or, better still, take him or her home with me.
In the big cities, large restaurants and big hotels are beginning to make a name for themselves for their kitchen. Hiring top chefs, they are spending big money on their brand and their reputation as a superb place to go to eat.
But what if you could learn from the experts how to prepare delicious Turkish food? That is the concept behind a glossy cookbook that won the special award of the jury in the 2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. Containing 130 recipes from Turkey’s leading chefs and food writers, “Istanbul Contemporary Cuisine” is co-written by Hande Bozdoğan and Lâle Apa.
You may be dubious: İstanbul cuisine? We know all about cuisine from various parts of Anatolia. After all, most kebabs are named after a different city. Bursa is known for its İskender Kebabı, Tekirdağ for its köfte. Say Trabzon and anchovies come to mind, and the southeastern kitchen is famous for its peppers and spices. Gaziantep, the home of the pistachio, is the baklava capital of the nation, and Susurluk is the place to drink an ayran.
But Bozdoğan and Apa insist that “just as the best cooks in the Ottoman Empire worked in the palace kitchens of this magnificent city in the past,” İstanbul is the home to the best of contemporary Turkish cuisine.
The emphasis is on the word contemporary. Here we see dishes that, while remaining true to their traditional roots, are presented in a modern way. Just as in today’s Eurasia Marathon, where the runners start in Anatolia and make their way to Europe, ending up in the old city in front of the Sultanahmet Mosque, these recipes started in Anatolia. Some have picked up a European twist en route, but in the end all remain faithful to Turkey and its values and history.
With dishes from the top chefs from restaurants such as Changa, Asitane, the Pera Palas, the Four Seasons, Borsa and the Sunset Grill and Bar, some of the most fashionable dining spots in town are represented. Leading cooks and food writers such as Engin Akın, Gönül Paksoy, Hülya Ekşigil and Nevin Halıcı also feature prominently.
With such a star cast, this book may be expected to contain impossible-to-recreate signature dishes. But it is a practical delight: On many pages you will find a “chef’s note” section that explains a technique or gives an alternative or teaches you the special secret to making the dish perfect.
This book ticks all the boxes for a good cookbook. It has a clear layout, with one recipe per page. There is a picture for each dish, so the budding cook knows what the dish should look like and has ideas how to serve it. The recipes are arranged clearly with a good index. There is a good mix of everyday items (aubergine salad, sigara böreği, lamb shanks and stuffed vine leaves) and also some super ideas for when entertaining in style (walnut pâté, grilled prawns with purslane and yogurt dressing, broiled red mullet with pine nuts and sumac pesto, or even chilled wheat berry soup). The editors have had an eye for the practicality of ingredients, too. All of them are available at your local market, butcher, fish market and spice market.
Every page looks not only mouth-watering but healthy, as the emphasis is on fresh ingredients. Style, flair and creativity are to be found here, too. The authors explain it like this: “The child of Europe and Asia, İstanbul is a fascinating and flavorful blend of East and West. The explosion of new cafés, restaurants, bars and culinary establishments over the past ten years has turned the city into a gastronomic destination as visitors are drawn to discover its vast and varied cuisine. Fine chefs are continuing the Turkish trend started by the imperial kitchens of reinterpreting classic fare by incorporating new flavors and introducing new preparations.”
So, invite one of İstanbul’s top chefs into your kitchen, and see what sort of a storm you can cook up together.
“Istanbul Contemporary Cuisine”
Written by Hande Bozdoğan and Lale Apa
Published by Apa Tasarım Yayıncılık
TL 48 in hardback