Istanbul's gateway cuisine

 

FROM THE TERRACE at Mikla restaurant, perched on the 18th floor of the Marmara Pera hotel, the city of Istanbul spreads its skirts wide over an urban sprawl that extends 100km (60 miles) in length.

The city’s geography is complicated, and at street level it can be confusing to navigate, but from here, high up in the sky, it makes perfect sense. Especially at sunset, with a glass of locally made chilled white wine in hand, and a background murmur of heightened expectation from the smartly dressed diners as they sip their drinks on the sun-bathed terrace.

Mehmet Gürs, the chef/proprietor at Mikla ( miklarestaurant.com), a sleek, modern restaurant serving sophisticated food that reflects his part-Finnish, part-Turkish parentage, is telling us about his efforts to research and preserve as much of Turkey’s culinary heritage as he can. For the past three years he has employed a full-time food anthropologist to work with him, researching and trying to preserve regional recipes and ingredients.

This restaurant is regarded as one of the best in Istanbul. From his prep kitchen, 19 floors below, Gürs sends up thoroughly modern food presented in a way that pays homage to his Scandinavian roots, but also celebrates traditional Turkish ingredients. In the glass-walled circular dining room, a Noma-esque fish starter of porgy marinated in seawater, lemon and dill, presented in a Kilner jar, might be followed by a more traditionally Turkish dish of lamb shank served with smoked eggplant. It’s all very glamorous and seductive, and a far cry from the kebab culture of Turkish restaurants closer to home.

Istanbul’s ongoing economic boom has brought with it a succession of ever-more luxurious hotels and prestigious dining rooms. But along with enthusiasm for the flashy newcomers, there’s a healthy respect for tradition. Turkish regional cooking is available throughout the city, from the alleyways of the Grand Bazaar to the elegant restaurants on the banks of the Bosphorus.

Eight countries have borders with the huge land mass that is Turkey, and influences from each have infiltrated the indigenous cuisine. It’s this diversity, and the culinary world’s recent enthusiasm for traditional Turkish spices such as sumac, za’atar and isot peppers, that has brought us here. We are a small group of food writers tracking Simon Gamble and Matthew Stephenson, development director and marketing manager respectively with Glorious!, a UK company that makes globally influenced soups, sauces and stews. We accompany them as they tour the city’s food markets, spice bazaar and culinary hotspots – from a well-hidden, tiny 12-seat spot selling reputedly the best lamb köfte in town, to the glittering heights of Michelin-standard Mikla – in search of inspiration for Turkish dishes to add to their product range.

Leading the way is journalist Kevin Gould, the Guardian newspaper’s expert on Turkey and an award-winning food and wine writer who has spent 30 years exploring the country.

Gould has pinpointed Turkish food as a contender to become “the next big thing”.

His insider knowledge of Istanbul’s culinary highlights is being exploited to the full as we dip into markets, shops and out-of-the-way eating spots in search of great things to cook with and to eat. Gamble, a chef who has diversified into product development, has previously travelled to New York, New Orleans, the south of France and Italy to research new soups and stews for the company. What interests him in Istanbul as a source of recipe inspiration is “the fact that it is a gateway to so many different cultures”.

Our Istanbul food adventure begins almost as soon as our Turkish Airlines flight touches down, with a banquet of astonishing diversity at Akdeniz Hatay Sofrasi ( akdenizhataysofrasi.com.tr), a genteel establishment in the suburb of Fatih where white-coated waiters serve cooling glasses of rosewater and orange and pomegranate juice as a prelude to a gargantuan feast of delicacies from the province of Hatay, on the Mediterranean coast, near the border with Syria.

When individual flatbreads with our names spelled out on them in black onion seeds are delivered – my 11-letter version stretching to a good 2ft in length – we get the feeling that we are honoured guests. But bread name tags aside, everyone seems to be ordering variations on the same feast of tangy yoghurt soup with lamb, pumpkin and chickpeas, a bewildering array of regional mezze and salads, followed by the varieties of köfte, a metre-long kebab of minced lamb and beef, salt-crusted whole chicken stuffed with aromatic rice, shoulder of lamb pilaf, and a baked kebab cooked in a terracotta pot that is cracked open at the table to reveal the tender meat within.

Everything is zinging with flavour. Chopped tomatoes, cucumber and onion are dressed with yoghurt, excellent olive oil is drizzled on roasted aubergines, and sweet-and-sour pomegranate molasses is drizzled on everything. The highlights include a salad of fresh za’atar, something akin to wild oregano, which is astringent and refreshing; muhammara, a creamy dip made with mild red peppers and walnuts; and the wonderful, subtly spiced meat and rice dishes.

For dessert, we eat knëfe – layers of shredded-wheat-like filo pastry and stringy sweet cheese topped with sugar syrup and set alight so it gets a crisp, caramelised skin on top – served with a cold milk chaser. It divides opinion, but there is universal approval for the sugar-syrup-soaked olives which accompany the strong Turkish tea and are surprisingly delicious. For a lavish dinner for two here, reckon on spending about €40.

But we’re not finished eating yet – this is a research trip that requires unusual stamina. After a brief rest – and a tutored tasting of some very good Turkish wines at Corvus ( corvus.com.tr) – we’re off by water taxi up the Bosphorus for dinner at Takanik Balik in Yeniköy. A restaurant name with “Balik” in it means it specialises in fish and seafood.

We try the fish broth and, on our second mezze of the day, encounter a salad of tender green leaves of purslane in tangy yoghurt; it’s a delicious seasonal salad that will become a favourite over the next few days.

Balik Begendi, a house speciality, are goujons of white fish served over aubergine that has been roasted to a smooth, smokey pulp over a wood fire. Fish börek, a crispy pastry appetiser, is also outstanding. Platters of grilled sardines, horse mackerel and baby red mullet – seasonal, inexpensive and incredibly fresh – are eaten by hand, with bread to mop up the lemony juices.

The only sour note comes from the accompanying glasses of fermented turnip juice, which is definitely an acquired taste (the restaurant does not serve alcohol). For dessert, hot thin slices of halva are drizzled with a mixture of grape molasses and tahini that tastes like chocolate sauce.

Soups and salads here come to around €3 each, with grilled fish between €7 and €10 a portion. There are four branches of this fish restaurant in various locations across the city ( takanik.com.tr).

Dedicated foodies do not leave Istanbul without paying a visit to Musa Dagdeviren’s Ciya restaurants ( ciya.com.tr). There are three of them clustered together on the same street, two specialising in kebabs and another, Ciya Sofrasi, specialising in home-style soups, salads and stews, and this is next on our hit list.

To get there we take the ferry to Asia – not as arduous as it sounds and costing a mere €1. The crossing from Eminönü terminal to Kadiköy on the Asian side of the city is a pleasant 20-minute trip and gives us a chance to digest the gigantic Turkish breakfast we’ve just had of cucumber and tomato salad, olives, cheese, menemen (delicious scrambled eggs with peppers, onions and tomatoes), clotted cream drizzled with walnut honey, and piles of hot bread.

A stroll through the food market at Kadiköy on the way to Ciya reveals a local and seasonal selection of fruit, vegetables and fish, as well as the occasional pickle shop and charcutier, or sarküteri in Turkish. The seasonal delicacies include sour green “Erik” plums, bunches of bright green purslane, and dark purple mulberries, which will make an appearance later in the day in a feather-light baked souffle at Mikla.

With such bountiful produce on his doorstep, Musa Dagdeviren could stock his three restaurants without travelling more than a few paces, but instead he and his team source ingredients and recipes from villages all over Turkey to create a banquet of more than 50 dishes – mostly soups, salads and stews – every day. His recipe collection is vast; he serves more than 1,000 different dishes in this restaurant every year, and it is said that he rarely repeats a recipe.

Newspaper clippings from all over the world singing Ciya’s praises let you know that you’re in a special place, and when the food arrives, it stops us in our tracks. The soup this time is stinging nettle with bulgar wheat, yoghurt and dried mint. The dried mint, a peppery Turkish variety, catches Gamble’s attention. “If dried herbs are not overused and are added at the right stage of the cooking process, they can add another flavour dimension to soups and sauces,” he says.

The mezze are so exotic almost everything has to be explained to us. We nibble on fresh mastic buds, and enthuse about the young shoots of a plant that grows in forests near the Black Sea that come in a salad with tahini and walnuts.

The centrepiece of a succession of delicious meat dishes is Perde Pilaf, a traditional wedding dish of chicken, almonds, currants and beautifully spiced rice in a buttery, crisp filo pastry crust.

It is here that Gamble finds some inspiration for the Turkish range for Glorious! “The lamb, aubergine and chickpea dish has a deep, rich colour from the addition of pomegranate molasses, and an interesting combination of spices,” he says. He is also interested in the fruity isot pepper, both for its flavour and for the way it is used: “I liked the way it was added at the end.”

So we head to the spice bazaar to stock up on lemony sumac, za’atar blends, and isot chilli powders and pastes, both mild and hot varieties, sold from a tiny booth in the teeming, labyrinth bazaar that Kevin Gould leads us to – and which I couldn’t direct you to if my life depended on it. Gamble buys several kilos of the stuff, which he will use in his trial recipes before attempting to replicate them with spices bought in the UK. You’ll be able to discover if he succeeds when the new Glorious! Turkish dishes go on sale in September. The range is stocked by Dunnes Stores.

For more information, see gloriousfoods.co.ukand goturkey.com

ISTANBUL: WHERE TO...

STAY

Palazzo Donizetti, Asmali Mescit Mah, Asmali Mescit Street, No 55, Tepebasi, Beyoglu, Istanbul, palazzodonizetti.com, tel: 00-90-212-249-5151. Elegant, luxurious hotel with a fantastic roof terrace, in a central location in bustling, cosmopolitan Beyoglu, the Soho of Istanbul, but with easy links to the historical centre by tram. Close to Istiklal Street, Beyoglu’s main shopping street. Double room, approximately €150.

Richmond Istanbul, Istiklal Street, No 227, Tunnel, Beyoglu, Istanbul, richmondint.com.tr, tel: 00-90- 212-252-5460. Stylish, very modern boutique hotel on Istiklal Street. Double room, approximately €160.

EAT

House Café, the housecafe.comThere are eight of these very cool, vaguely Scandinavian-inspired cafe/bars in Istanbul, and they’re worth seeking out for a modern Mediterranean meal with a glass of good Turkish wine, or a cappuccino and a slice of cake.

Istanbul Culinary Institute, Mesrutiyet Caddesi, No 59 Tepebasi, 34437, Istanbul, tel: 00-90-212-251 2214, istanbulculinary.comYou can take part in cookery classes here, or drop by for lunch or dinner from a daily changing menu prepared by the professional course students and served in Enstitü, the in-house restaurant.