Kimberly Strathearn | KF 16 | Istanbul, Turkey
Although you will find many familiar fast food restaurants in Turkey, I have never understood why they are popular. Turkish food is just too darn good. When I first started living in Turkey in 1998, there was very little western fast food, very little packaged junk food, and very little prepared foods (i.e. bottled sauces, frozen vegetable, mixes and other packaged foods). I used to bring back lots of food items when I visited my family once a year. Now I only bring back chili powder for when I occasionally make tacos (don’t have to bring tortillas back anymore, Turkey now grows avocados, and I substitute fresh yogurt for sour cream).
The Turkish kitchen is based on neighborhood produce markets. Every district in Istanbul has a weekly market. Think local, fresh and in season. I live in Besiktaş and ours is on Saturday and is even named the Cumartesi Pazaari (Saturday Market). Of course these weekly markets have more than just produce. You can find olives, nuts, dried fruit, cheese, eggs, hot or sweet red pepper paste and tomato paste, clothes, shoes, kitchen wares, pretty much whatever you might need.
If you are not familiar with Ottoman classic dishes, rest assured they are delicious. They were developed to please the palate of the Sultans. One dish is even named Sultan’s Delight. At the height of the Ottoman Empire, it is said there were 1,300 kitchen staff housed in Topkapi Palace. Hundreds of chefs cooked up 10,000 meals a day, plus meals that were sent out as royal favors to important palace officials. The chefs specialized in different categories of dishes such as soups, pilafs, kebabs, vegetables, fish, fowl, breads, pastries, candy and helva, syrups and jams, and beverages. Now if you are cooking 10,000 + meals a day, you need the proper equipment!
For the last two winters I have substituted for a friend that has a small restaurant and cooking school in Sultan Ahmet. My friend trained me on the menus and I facilitate the two and a half hour cooking class. The chef has limited English but is amazing. I tease him about being a kitchen magician because none of the students have never burned or otherwise ruined the meal we were preparing. After our lesson, we sit down to eat our impressive five course meal masterpiece. Much of what we prepare are Ottoman classics. Some of my favorites are Imam Bayildi, Karniyarik, Sekerpare, Sultan Delight and Etli Yaprak Dolmasi. See this post for some unusually named Turkish dishes.
And of course no meal is complete with out Çay (tea) or Turkish Coffee.
Once in a while I get a craving for liver so recently I tried a little restaurant in my neighborhood called Can Ciger. It is one of the few in Istanbul that serves up Edirne style liver. Edirne, the second Ottoman Capital (first was Bursa and third was Istanbul), is famous for its style of liver and I heard that many Turks have been known to take a road trip to Edirne just for this dish. The secret to good liver is simple but requires very fresh cow liver that is sliced very thin in about bit size pieces and then coated with flour and deep-fried until crispy. The temperature of the oil is important to the success of the dish so the fry-master (Edirne-born of course) pays a lot of attention to the flame when he is frying up a customer’s order. The nuggets are served with raw onion and a few slices of tomato and a hot pepper that has also been deep-fried. The thinly sliced fried liver does not resemble any of my childhood memories that are associated with livery tasting liver. Turks really know how to prepare liver as I also once in a while seek out other places to eat small pieces of liver cooked on skewers and Albanian-style liver.
In the time I have lived here, I have discovered that Turkish people do not suffer bad food lightly and a restaurant that does not serve good food only lasts in the tourists areas. Eating out with family and friends, like in many other cultures, is important and meals can last for hours. There is good food to be found in Istanbul and all over Turkey on just about any budget. And no event (trips, picnics, etc.) is ever a total disaster if the food was good.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Maya has several entrepreneurs with food related businesses. Hayriye has a cafeteria and work has been going so well that she has just recently paid of her loan early. See Hayriye’s loan updates tab on her profile page; Sevinc is making custom cakes and cookies and delighting her customers with her artistic flair; Gulcan is catering lunch to her husband’s textile workers and wants to expand to other workshops in the area; Lutfiye took some cooking classes and now has a breakfast restaurant, is expanding her menu and looking for a bigger location; and Ozlem recently paid off her loan that enabled her to finishing her master chef’s course. She wants to open her own bakery in the future but was delighted when her children started taking their lessons more seriously and started studying harder after they saw the time she spent on her own lessons.
I am happy to say that I will be extending to the next Kiva Fellows Class 17, continuing with Maya in Turkey, and I am again substituting for my friend at her restaurant and cooking school this winter. If you have not tried that Turkish restaurant around the corner or across town, I highly recommend you give it a try. Afyet Olsun!
Visit these blog posts for more on Maya and Turkey: