A Turkish chef has unearthed recipes from the remotest corners of Turkey.

In Musa Dagdeviren’s ideal world, documenting traditional Turkish cuisine would be at the forefront of the country’s cultural conservation efforts. Diners would favour organic, locally grown produce cooked in old styles and “fast, modern, consumer” food would take a back seat.

The 50-year-old Turkish-Kurdish restaurateur, chef, food anthropologist, writer and researcher from south-east Anatolia has spent the past two decades combing Turkey’s remote villages for artisan recipes and produce that is disappearing in a tide of modernisation. His efforts have been dubbed ground-breaking; he’s a culinary Indiana Jones.

“While most restaurateurs in Istanbul are doing foreign or mod-Turkish, Dagdeviren is travelling the less hip and much harder path of researching forgotten traditions and unearthing the origins of regional Turkish cuisine,” says the owner of Efendy Turkish restaurant in Balmain, Somer Sivrioglu.

Typically Mediterranean-looking with a bush of black hair and matching moustache, Dagdeviren grew up in Nizip, a small village outside Gaziantep in south-east Anatolia, which is famed for its buttery-sweet baklava (pistachio and syrup pastry) and crispy lahmacun (flatbread topped with tomato and minced meat). Baking runs in his family: he started cooking at the age of five, dusting the swollen dough with flour in his uncle’s bakery.

In 1987, he opened Ciya Kebab in the bustling neighbourhood of Kadikoy, Istanbul. He intended to display the robust cuisine of Anatolia, which was losing momentum to fast-food chains flocking to the city. Researching old recipe books and talking to the ageing bakers of remote villages, Dagdeviren managed to put more than 100 different kebabs and lahmacun on the menu, many that hadn’t been seen for years. The restaurant was an instant hit. Eleven years later he opened Ciya Sofrasi next door, a simple, unassuming diner serving more than 1000 Anatolian and Mesopotamian halk yemegi (peasant foods).

Boasting myriad stews, meats, salads and meze dishes, all cooked according to the seasons and their regional specifications (if a vegetable is available in the market but it’s not in season, it won’t enter the kitchen), Ciya Sofrasi has been hailed a revolution.

Dishes such as lahm-i kiraz (a kebab of Syrian origin cooked with unripe cherries for a pronounced sourness), bastirmali pirpirim asi (sun-dried veal entrecote with wild purslane, sea asparagus, dried eggplant, sun-dried tomato, Antep peppers and green lentils) and kabak tatlisi (crystallised butternut pumpkin with tahini, lemon and walnut) attract hordes of devoted followers and have catapulted Dagdeviren to almost cult status.

Despite the fame, the child baker has never lost touch with his humble roots. “Like great art, most great food is created by people from poorer backgrounds,” he says through a translator.

“This greatness is created out of necessity rather than seeking excellence. When you experience scarcity, you instinctively learn to be creative – not for the sake of it but because you don’t have any other option.”

“Then there is the produce. In rural areas, people use what ingredients are readily available, like non-pasteurised goat or sheep milk, hour-old eggs from free-range hens, bread made from their own wheat, natural yeast like chamomile, tree barks and wild seeds. Then they prepare the dishes with clay pots and wood-fired ovens. City people don’t have access to any of this. It makes me question who is actually richer and who is actually poorer.”

Dagdeviren recently spent months travelling the length and breadth of eastern Anatolia and neighbouring Georgia and Syria, tracking the origins of doner kebab, a method of cooking bone-free or spiced ground meat on a charcoal fire.

He also uncovered dozens of new doner recipes, many of which had fallen into obscurity, such as a 15th-century Persian doner made from donkey meat.

“Gastronomy in Turkey has an inferiority complex,” he says. “Like Italy and Spain, we also have an immensely rich culinary history and culture. But unlike Italy and Spain, few people in Turkey know about it. Every graduate from culinary school knows how to make perfect ravioli. But none of them can count five types of manti [Turkish dumplings].”

Several years ago, Dagdeviren started publishing Yemek ve Kultur, a periodical now in its 20th issue, which documents the traditions and methodology of recipes on the verge of extinction. He is also establishing a gourmet academy specialising in traditional Turkish cuisine, which will include a root and seed centre of endangered produce.

“Food and its journey through history are elements which bind cultures together,” he says. “If we don’t start documenting it now, it will be lost forever.”

This article appeared in an October 2010 issue of Good Living, the food and restaurant section in the Sydney Morning Herald.