At Ciya a baker whirls an order of lahmacun from the wood-fired oven onto a plate. The peppery ground lamb, served on flatbread, is a popular Istanbul dish.
“Attack! Attack!” Brandishing her fork like a javelin, Selin exhorts us to dive in.
We’re having lunch at the celebrated restaurant Ciya Sofrasi and the meze are coming fast and furious.
To kick off the meal, there was a tart blast of red sumac sherbet, followed by a mouthful of dark, syrupy sweet mulberry juice, both served in tiny shot glasses. In Turkey a sherbet isn’t a frozen dessert, but a chilled sweetened juice that can be drunk almost anytime. Right now my taste buds are dancing.
Selin has arranged a feast of 21 small plates from Ciya’s menu, a tasting guide, if you will, to the “forgotten foods” of southeastern Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean. For the first time ever, we’re sampling delicacies like dovme, cooked wheat with yogurt and garlic, and kaya korugu, an odd pickled green that looks like seaweed (though it actually grows in river silt.) A salad of crunchy thin-sliced cucumbers in yogurt is the only familiar dish before us.
Meze include cucumbers in yogurt, boiled zatar with pomegranate seeds, chickpea humus and a salad of lamb's quarters, a nutritious "weed" also known as goosefoot.
There is also boiled zatar, an addictive blend of sesame seeds, pungent sumac and a thyme-like herb, sprinkled with chopped parsley and fresh pomegranate seeds, and tangy chickpea hummus, enriched with tahini paste. It is delicious with lavash, an oval flatbread that arrives on a platter, fresh from the brick oven, puffed up like a balloon. Its crackly crust, sprinkled with sesame seeds, collapses as it cools.
Then a plate of lakerda lands in front of me: thick-cut bonito, smothered in coarse sea salt and refrigerated until it’s well-cured—a sort of salt-pickled sashimi without the wasabi. This one is not on the menu--Selin has brought it from the market for us to try.
Each taste is distinctly different and together they offer a quick introduction to the flavors of seasonal home-style Turkish cooking.
Ciya Sofrasi is one of a trio of restaurants—including Ciya Kebap I and II—situated within 20 meters of each other on the edge of the wondrous Kadikoy market on the Asian side of the Bosphorous. All three Ciyas are owned by Musa Dagdeviren, a 50-year-old half-Turkish, half- Kurdish chef who for the last 20 years has devoted himself to reviving the “lost” cooking of the Turkish countryside. For the outsider, some ingredients and dishes are frankly challenging. Like the kaya korugu river greens, they are either unidentifiable, or an acquired taste. But if you grew up eating, say, your grandmother’s eggplant dolma, the flavors might bring tears to your eyes.
In “The Memory Kitchen,” (The New Yorker, April 19, 2010), writer Elif Batuman describes her first taste of Ciya’s kisir, an autumn tabouli: “The bitter edge of sumac and pomegranate extract, the tang of tomato paste, and the warmth of cumin, which people from the south of Turkey put in everything, recalled to me, with preternatural vividness, the kisir that my aunt used to make….that night at Ciya, I viscerally understood why someone might use a madeleine dipped in tea as a metaphor for the spiritual content of the material world.”
Like a lot of Istanbul’s homey restaurants, Ciya Sofrasi has a pleasantly non-descript air. Outside, small groups of diners gather at wooden tables. Inside, a steam table, manned by a dour server, holds pans of cooked brown and yellowish-green food. For the uninitiated, it would be hard to decide what to eat and I’m glad Selin is there to walk us through the menu. The walls are hung with glowing reviews, but the lighting is dim. A few feet from us, there's a flurry of activity around the wood-fired oven which produces everything from that lavash to grilled kebaps on flatbread.
Dagdeviren is in Australia this week, but his wife and onetime customer, Zeynep, stops by for a quick hello before dashing off with a few waiters in tow. “She brings in 35 ingredients from her village near Antakya,” says Selin. The chef forages for others in small village markets around the country. These include hard-to-find wild greens like corn poppy (a relative of hashish) and snakeweed or heathen’s beet, poisonous when raw, but edible when cooked into a soup. Since 2004, he has published a beautifully photographed magazine called Yemekve Kultur which celebrates Turkey's indigenous, often vanishing regional ingredients and the dishes in which they are used.
Now tastes of “main courses with meat” are arriving at the table. There’s oruk, a fried, cone-shaped croquette of bulgur and minced lamb sprinkled with pistachios that comes alive when it’s dipped into vibrant pomegranate molasses. The lahmacun, a crisp half moon of bread topped with peppery ground lamb, is good, though not quite as delicious as one I had elsewhere a few days ago. But both dishes pale when we’re served sis berek or “countryside manti,” tiny meat-stuffed dumplings with fragile, almost silken pastry, in a southeast Anatolian soup of chickpeas with yogurt and fresh mint. There’s an ethereal quality to the dumplings that contrasts with the heartiness of the soup.
As we eat, I begin to see that regional Turkish cooking involves theme and variation, in which many of the same ingredients are combined in infinitely different ways. In Guneydogu Andalou (meaning southeastern Turkey), sikma kofte—little balls of boiled bulgur, tomato and onion with purple basil—are cooked in olive oil and served with yogurt, while in the towns of Gazantiep, Malatya and Maras, “sour meatballs,” made of the same principal ingredients plus lamb, get an acidic twist from pomegranate and mint dipping sauce. Introduce dried eggplant into the mix, switch out the bulgur for rice, and cook until it is velvety, and you have kuru patlican dolmasi which Istanbul food blogger Cenk Sonmezsoy said he would eat “as part of his last meal on earth.”
Of the 21 plates, my favorite is the simple, buttery-tasting eggplant and lamb patlican kebap. Served with a plate of bulgur mixed with toasted vermicelli—you can buy this right out of the barrels in Kadikoy market—it seems to fuse some of the most accessible flavors in Turkish cooking: the earthiness of the wheat, the richness of eggplant cooked until it melts into creamy softness, and the meaty, smoky taste of lamb cooked in a wood fired oven.
Which is not to say the we didn’t love the tiny spoonfuls of eriste mantari or “noodle” mushrooms, or the two kebaps that followed: Uruk kebap, lamb and beef spiced with sumac, pepper and herbs, and kagit kebap, a big, juicy lamb “pattie” mixed with parsley, pepper and garlic, grilled on paper in the brick oven and served on flatbread.
The word kebap, incidentally, doesn’t always refer to chunks of meat on a skewer, but also to flat patties of ground meat served on bread, as well as grilled vegetables and fruit such as loquats and sour cherries. Dagdeviren began his career making kebaps and his on-line menu lists 46 types, including those made with esoteric (but authentic ingredients) such as lizard and rooster testicles.
By the time dessert arrives, our eyes are beginning to glaze over. Still we find room for a taste of teleme, a cold, runny “pudding” made of dried figs pounded with boiled milk, and a bite of green pistachio baklava. But it is the kunefe that I’ll remember in my dreams: “shredded wheat” pressed with unsalted cheese into a flat, round cake, then simmered in sugar syrup until it is soft and golden. Our waiter cuts it into wedges and serves one to each of us. I eat every sweet creamy morsel.
Well, kill me now.
But it’s not over until we sip glasses of wild oregano tea. I’m so taken with this simple digestif that our waiter brings me a little bag of the dried herb to take home.
“Uh, Mom,” says Serendipity. “I don’t think you’ll get through customs with that plastic bag.”
Sigh. She’s right, of course. We spend the rest of the rainy afternoon drinking pots of the fragrant tea, mesmerized by the boats going to and fro on the Bosphorous.
For all things culinary in Istanbul, contact Selin Rozanes at Turkish Flavours.