Istanbul has long been blessed with a plump pantry of fine produce. But inundated with high-yield varieties and cheap supermarket imports, much of these foodstuffs have fallen into obscurity in recent years. Inspired by the organic and Slow Food movements, a coterie of chefs are now hoping to bring it all back.
Istanbul isn’t short of fancy international restaurants. Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s new Spice Market at the cheeky W Hotel offers his interpretation of Southeast Asian street food. The super sleek Zuma, with branches from Hong Kong to Miami, dishes up tiny plates of Japanese cuisine at painful prices. Hailing from London, swish China-diner Hakkasan recently opened, wowing patrons with its dapper décor and innovative Chinese- inspired cuisine. And with a bird’s eye view overlooking the ocean, Murat Karaduman, who spent years in the kitchen of Vila Joya in Portugal, has taken the helm at Gaya, pouring out novel creations like celery ravioli with air dried beef and a gorgeous pistachio and cherry sable. But beyond the glitz and glamour there is a quieter, more profound food revolution brewing on the banks of the Bosporus. Taking inspiration from the Slow Food movement-which describes itself as “a non-profit, eco-gastronomic organization founded to counteract fast food and fast life”-a group of talented chefs are returning to their Turkish roots, giving age-old culinary traditions and local produce a fresh new look and taste.
“We need to rediscover the old ingredients before they disappear altogether,” says Semsa Denizsel, the owner of Kantin, a lunch-only eatery in Istanbul’s fashionable Nisantasi district. Sitting at a table in the light-filled restaurant, Denizsel tells me that an increasing number of Turkish farms are using standardized high-yield seed strains to produce crops like tomatoes, aubergines, and onions-popular produce that can be grown year round and without much fuss. It is contributing to the decline of many of Istanbul’s fruit and vegetable varieties.
Kantin is by no means the poshest place in town. The upstairs restaurant and downstairs take-away are simply dressed for its trendy location. But come noon, it bustles with diners hungry for Denizsel’s lunch du jour. The menu, scribbled on a blackboard on the wall, changes daily, depending on the availability of ingredients purchased fresh from the local farmers’ market every morning. On the day I visit Denizsel’s kitchen staff are preparing chitir, a crispy pizza made using flatbread topped with a punchy goat’s cheese and fresh spinach; a melt-in-your-mouth seabass dish known as pazili levrek, cooked with chard, potatoes, and wine; bite-size meatballs drizzled with yoghurt and lemon juice; and an incredibly rich quince meringue for desert.
“Unfortunately, for many people in Istanbul, eating out is far more about scene than substance,” Denizsel tells me. “This is what we are slowly trying to change.” She’s not alone in her mission.
The owner of breezy seaside restaurant Abracadabra, Dilara Erbay forbids imported ingredients, genetically engineered products, and preservatives from entering her kitchen. “Istanbul people were very snobby about food, always going out for Italian, sushi, Indian. So we decided to make traditional trendy too. Now, as Turkey becomes more developed, people are starting to respect Turkish traditions, rather than borrowing from the East and the West.”
Today, Erbay’s employs farmers to scour the Turkish countryside in search of the very best produce that the country has to offer. They bring back sweet hand-pressed olive oil, pungent goat’s cheese, mountain herbs, and superb wildflower honey.
It’s the beginning of spring when I lunch at Abracadabra with the sprightly Erbay and her husband, Ahmet Bugdayci. Lunch begins with a delightfully light chi kofte, a type of salmon tartar with bulgur, followed by thinly sliced smoked ham. We’re devouring a plate of mezze and homemade breads when a farmer from Artvin, a mountainous region near Georgia, brings in an enormous jar of thick, jet-black date molasses. Erbay grabs a wooden spoon to taste the sticky concoction (“because metal will destroy some of the goodness”), and then proceeds to purchase every last jar that the farmer has with him. “It is far more expensive than what the supermarket stocks,” she laments. “But if we stop eating food the way it was supposed to be eaten, then what?”
One place not afraid to hold onto the past is Tugra, among Istanbul’s most acclaimed- and storied- restaurants, housed in a wing of the neo-baroque Cirigan palace on the banks of the Bosporus. Ugur Alparslan, the restaurant’s head chef, explains that recipes here have been meticulously researched from old Ottoman dairies, and ingredients are sourced from the same regions favored by Sultan Abdul Aziz in the 19th century. The olive oil, Alparslan tells me, is brought in from Ayvalik, a seaside town on the northwestern Aegean coast, widely regarded as the olive oil capital of Turkey; the vine-ripened tomatoes are from the verdant fields of Antalya on the Mediterranean coast; and the lamb is from Tekirdag province in northwestern Turkey, famous for its meatballs.
I begin with a selection of dolma, fat parcels of vegetables and spiced-rice wrapped in vine leaves, and a sour lentil soup with fried eggplant called lebeniye. According to Alparslan, the chicken topkapi that arrives at the table next was the favorite dish of 16th-century ruler Sultan Murat. It’s easy to understand why: the roasted free-range bird is flavored with a fluffy spiced pilaf, complemented by a neat bed of creamy spinach. For me, however, the highlight of the meal is the lamb kulbasti. For this dish, slithers of meat are marinated in thyme before being seared and served atop a smoked eggplant puree-the perfect combination of earthy flavors and textures. I end the evening with squares of honey drenched baklava and gooey, rose-scented Turkish delight dusted with sugar powder.
The restaurant Changa sent Istanbul’s culinary set into a spin when, in 1999, it tossed out the rule book and started weaving obscure Turkish ingredients into contemporary fusion fare. The jet-set crowd flocked, not just for the food, but the glass floor peering into the kitchen below and plate-sized elevator zooming dishes up to the fourth floor , even securing Changa a place in the World’s Best 50 Restaurants in 2002. It’s still a fine place to eat- diners snacking on dishes like deep fried beef tongue with cokelek, a strong and salty cheese from Ankara- but not quite with the same pizzazz as its early years; Istanbul’s vanguard for innovation passing on to the dashing Memhet Gurs instead.
Half Finnish, half Turkish Gurs is passionate about using local produce, “not something delivered by FedEx”. You could even say that experimenting with the country’s rich and bountiful pantry is in his blood. Perched at a table in his sleek restaurant, Mikla, with an enviable location atop the Marmara Pera hotel, Gurs explains that his grandfather “invented” the kamyark when he crossed a quince and a pear. It’s sweet and refreshing, and in high demand at local markets. It’s also one of the many intriguing Turkish ingredients given a Nordic twist on Gurs’ menu.
While much of my meal at Mikla could be described as haute cuisine-dainty and pretty to look at-a number of the dishes take inspiration from simple peasant food, like hamsi: a traditionally hearty dish of fried sardine-like fish from the Black Sea. At Mikla, Gurs gives the dish a new look, wedging the small fish between wafers of bread before deep frying and serving them with lemon and egg-white sauce. As good as it is, the dish pales in comparison to Gurs’ raw seabass with Oscietra caviar and lemon-easily the most incredible thing I eat in Istanbul during my five-day visit. I still have dreams about the delicate filet of fish, perfectly complemented by the tang of large, mouth-popping caviar and sweet lemon-infused oil.
Despite being in high demand in the kitchen, Gurs has taken on the additional challenge of documenting the history of Turkish food, including numerous age-old recipes and ingredients that have fallen into obscurity in recent years. In time, he hopes to open a non-profit research institute to house all his research, alongside a series of kitchens where students and aspiring young chefs will be encouraged to experiment with local ingredients. “We need to start documenting the history of Turkish food, including all the ingredients that have disappeared, and produce an encyclopedia,” Gurs tells me eagerly. “[We need to] break down the barriers and open people’s minds to the future.”
Kantin 30 Akkavak St., Nisantasi; 90-212/219-3114
Abracadabra 50 Arnavutkoy Caddesi, Arnavutkoy; 90-212/358-6087
Tugra Kempinski Ciragan Palace, Ciragan Caddesi 32, Besiktas; 90-212/326-4646
Mikla Marmara Pera Hotel, 167-185 Mesrutiyet Caddesi; 90-212/293-5656