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Volume 26, Number 6November/December 1975

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Simple Perfection

Food from the Bosporus

Written and photographed by Robert Arndt

In 1975, a young French chef, Paul Bocuse, was awarded the Legion d'honneur by the President of France for his introduction and development of what has come to be known as la nouvelle cuisine francaise. Though the honor had already been outshone by the Michelin star—his third—that had risen over Bocuse's restaurant the year before and started the culinary wise men on their travels, it did count as an official recognition of a new trend, a new style of making burnt offerings to one of the Western world's minor and now declining deities.

Bocuse's new French cuisine was based on the notion that the main point of a dish or a meal must no longer be the artistry of the chef, expressed in elaborate preparation of exotic ingredients and masking sauces. Henceforth, the chef would no longer be the star performer on the culinary stage, but a skilled and invisible director; the ingredients themselves would play the central role: their quality and freshness, their simplicity and appropriate combination.

Over 900 years ago, in 1071, the Turks had the same idea. Because they were busy with the Battle of Malazgirt and the subsequent conquest of Anatolia, no one won a decoration on the strength of the new principle, but that idea and that date nonetheless marked the beginning of the great Turkish cuisine that now, almost a millennium later, is as inventive and as delicious as ever.

Three elements came together at its beginnings; the first of these was what the Turks ate themselves. Wanderers from the central Asian sea of grass, the Turks had a style of cooking and a diet appropriate to the way they lived. It was almost entirely a diet of animal protein: meat and milk, consumed in the forms in which their roving herds supplied them. The milk was either drunk fresh or made into yogurt—but never cheese. The meat was roasted or grilled over an open fire within a few days of being killed. Hard riders—warriors, scouts or raiders—might lay a cut of mutton or beef under their saddle, where the pounding would compact it and the horse's salt sweat preserve it for use as a kind of field ration.

The second element of the conjunction was the Turkish conquest of Persia in 1055. With their long and stable history and their predilection for elaboration, the Ghaznavid Persians had evolved a complex and delicate rice-based cuisine of their own. Some aspects of this cuisine the Turks took over as they took over the country, and rice soon became nearly as central to Turk cooking as it had been in Persian.

Then came 1071 and the Battle Malazgirt that opened Anatolia, their future homeland, to the Turks. This was landscape quite different from broad central Asian plain. The Turks found a rich but narrow coastal margins that produced lush crops of vegetable and fruits, including those brought along from Persia. In the Anatolian plateau they found patches of plain separated low mountain ridges or occasional high ranges: good pastureland, plentifully wooded and productive. Anatolia's gifts to the Turks included the tiny sour white grapes, whose wine once had been exclusive prerogative of the Roman emperors. They included the olive tree which gave the Turks a new technique cooking. And they included the riches its coasts and the three surrounding seas.

The Anatolian gifts, the Persian experience and their own culinary heritage provided the Turks with a rich and inter-reactive range of culinary raw materials. And as their habits grew more settled, their natural inventiveness acted as a leaven that worked this variety of ingredients into one of the three great cuisines of the world.

Unlike the French and Chinese cuisines, though, the Turkish is under-represented, and thus underappreciated, outside its native land. So it is to Turkey, and specifically to Istanbul, that one must travel in order to explore it. Turkey's most populous and sophisticated city, Istanbul draws to its teeming wholesale markets produce from the furthest corners of the country. Its appetite for meat is such that preferred cuts are airfreighted in daily from other cities; seafood from the Black Sea, the Marmara, the Mediterranean and even the Bosporus is so abundant that the typical Istanbullu can tell at a glance if the fish on the slab is more than six hours out of the water and won't touch it if it is. Of the always fabulous Turkish fruits and vegetables, the earliest, the finest and the most fabulous find their way to Istanbul. For a Turkish restaurateur whose goal is quality, Istanbul is the place to be—and so it is for the questing diner.

Diner and restaurateur are most likely to meet in Emirgan, one of the city's northerly Bosporus suburbs, where Istanbul's best restaurant perches on the hills above the water, in the middle of 35,000 square yards of flower beds, fruit orchards and greenhouses. A near-invisible, two-by-twelve inch sign announces that this is Abdullah's. In its 87-year history of acknowledged excellence, the house has never advertised; a visit there shows why it has never needed to.

It is best to eat at Abdullah's in a group of at least six, both to facilitate sampling of the menu's wide variety and because one wants to have someone to exclaim to. Manager Necati Usta is likely to start the group off with the restaurant's unusual approach to the famous Turkish hors d'oeuvre dishes, called meze: first a plateful of pink and white petal-thin slices of smoked sturgeon and smoked non-pork ham, accompanied by another dish of quartered tomatoes and cucumber fingers. The tomatoes smell of sun and garden and the meat and fish were smoked on the premises. Abdullah's own variety of garlic vinegar pickles are available as nibbles, but they cannot compete with the dolmas served next. Dolma means "stuffed" in Turkish; tomatoes, bell peppers or, more rarely, other vegetables, are stuffed with a special rice mixture that involves currants, pine nuts, bits of liver, and at least four spices. Dolmas of this type are steamed and served cold with a delicate touch of olive oil, and are much harder to make well than the meat-stuffed variety that is served hot. Abdullah's serves pepper and eggplant dolmas in which the ic pilav rice stuffing perfectly complements the unimpaired flavor of the fresh vegetables.

Hot mezes follow, and again they are not quite in the usual run. One dish is of thin slices of green summer squash, breaded and lightly fried, a method that is what Necati Usta calls "respectful" of the ingredients. The other dish is manti: the Turkish version of Italian ravioli and in fact probably a borrowing—but lifted on wings of garlic beyond mundane speculation. Both the crisp squash and the hot spicy manti would normally be served with yogurt, but here they are complemented even better by the heavier consistency of cool bland sour cream—an un-Turkish touch, but culinarily an intelligent choice. Both for decoration and for flavor, a fresh mint leaf tops the cream.

The restaurant raises its own chickens, but not by battery methods: an Abdullah chicken is a hunt-and-peck chicken with flavorful meat and worth a careful diner's consideration. Fish, as always in Istanbul, is fresh and good and well-selected, and the restaurant has been patronizing the same wholesale butcher for 82 years and has good reason not to change.

If one's fancy leans to fish, the cryptic menu notation "Abdullah style" is the way to have it: seabass (or sturgeon, or shrimp) boiled, covered with a fish-stock Bechamel sauce, then lightly sprinkled with cheese and browned. The result is unmistakably a fish dish, but better than any other. If one prefers chicken, the restaurant often serves it in a style invented for Sultan Murat IV and called, no doubt with a touch of relief, hünkâr beğendi, "the ruler liked it." The dish involves a lightly spiced eggplant puree that beautifully complements the broiled chicken. Or one can elect another of the restaurant's own inventions, in which the chicken breast is nestled in a four-inch artichoke heart. The vegetable is simply boiled in salted water, the chicken is grilled and basted with its own juice and a little butter; and the two are joined with a small amount of chicken-based Bechamel sauce. Equally simply and successfully prepared are the meat dishes. French cuts are standard in Turkey, and a slice of "bonfilet" grilled makes a superb steak; lamb, especially in siskebab, is unlike any meat one can find in Europe or the United States: one American insisted that Turkish lamb must be "a different species."

Abdullah's has a range of beautiful and elaborate desserts available, but a fruit dessert—or simply fruit as dessert—is more in keeping with Turkish culinary principles. Then Turkish coffee—lightly sugared, foamy from its triple boiling in the narrow-necked cezve—makes a most satisfactory ending to a meal of somewhat grave and formal tone.

But other restaurants of the city's thousands serve their guests very different meals in varying atmospheres. The Bosporus is lined with, places that specialize in fish and a small selection of mezes, served outdoors when the weather allows it. Begin with a canoe-shaped slice of Turkish canteloupe, juicy, sweet and almost overpoweringly fragrant. A slice of lightly salty, mild white cheese—a Turkish staple—is the perfect complement to the melon. Then, piping hot, cheese börek: paper-thin dough filled with a mixture of white cheese, egg-yoke and chopped parsley, folded flag-fashion into triangles, and rapidly deep-fried.

Then the fish: perhaps a pair of blue-and-silver mottled mackerel, grilled over charcoal and served on a parsley bed with lemon wedges and onion shavings, firm-fleshed and almost sweet. Or a cross-sectional slice of (male) turbot (called kalkan, "shield," in Turkey), floured and deep-fried; or a filet of seabass (levrek), all boneless, tender, almost milky meat, dipped in eggs, then floured and pan-fried. Choose a table near the restaurant's laurel hedge, and let the fragrance of the fresh bay leaves be dessert.

Also genuine and picturesque is a tiny fish restaurant located under the Galata Bridge across the Golden Horn, on the Karaköy side. (The bridge floats on pontoons, and the restaurant fits between the pontoon surface and the elevated roadway.) Technically a club open only to members, the operation is run by a fishermen's cooperative, and has, chalked on its blackboard menu, the city's widest daily choice of fish types, often as many as 12 or 15. Nothing else but bread is served; on request, the waiter/manager may run to the fruit stands at the head of the bridge to buy grapes or a melon for dessert. On warm evenings the restaurant moves its tables outside to the water's edge so diners can watch the sun set behind the Suleymaniye Mosque. The basic principle of quality in simplicity could hardly be better exemplified.

At the other end of the Galata Bridge lies the 17th-century spice bazaar, part of the külliye, or ancillary-complex, of the New Mosque. Just inside the huge wooden doors of the Bazaar's north entrance is a discreet, steep staircase whose walls are covered with blue and white Turkish tiles, and which leads up to a suite of rooms that was once the banking center and strongrooms of the market. Here, under filigree-painted domes, the bazaar’s own judge heard disputes among the merchants and tested their weights and measures. When the rooms were restored in the early 1930's, he Turkish government asked a convivial restaurateur of the nearby market area to open a new restaurant there, and the result is Pandeli's.

Now run by the founder's son and a partner who began his career there as a dishwasher, Pandeli's goes by the principle of doing the minimum of advance preparation and cooking to order as much as possible. With the city's largest wholesale markets on his doorstep, manager Cemal Biberci chooses the best and freshest wherever he finds it, and prepares the day's menus only after spending two or three hours shopping. That menu thus features far fewer "made" dishes than are available in other restaurants and more examples of simple preparations of perishable ingredients. Many neighborhood businessmen come in for a meal of rice and döner kebab, which Pandeli's, in common with only a few Istanbul restaurants, still cooks over charcoal.

Döner kebab is meat roasted on a vertical spit, but differs from the Arab version of the dish—shawarma—in its preparation. In Turkey, the spit is prepared with successive disks of different lean meats: hamburger and cuts of lamb and beef, some marinated and some not, all interleaved with paper-thin layers of suet. As the assemblage turns slowly and bastes itself in front of the racks of glowing coals, thin layers are shaved off with a long flexible knife, and the exposed surface turned to cook further. The shavings of meat are crusty and smokey on one side, tender and almost pink on the other (the Turks are generally not fond of rare meat), and Pandeli's serves them on a bed of rice, decorated with a long, twisted fiery-hot green pepper. A favorite drink with this meal is ayran: yogurt beaten to liquid consistency and slightly thinned with water to make a tart and refreshing thirst-quencher.

But given a free hand to compose a less everyday meal, Cemal Bey brings out first a small collection of cold seafood mezes. Most impressive is a pair of four-inch Marmara mussels whose warmly-spiced rice stuffing complements their own cool seafood flavor. Beside them lie several slices of lakerda, mini-steaks of sturgeon or other white fish soaked for a very long time in a very mild briny marinade, and served raw and tender with the obligatory contrast-garnish of sweet raw slices of purple onion. Small pink curls of shrimp are next, served without sauce of any kind: their texture and flavor stand alone. Then come slices of turbot caviar, smoked and preserved with a wax coating. The texture is grainy-waxy and the flavor unique.

Pandeli's most famous dish, in the true spirit of Turkish cuisine, is both the best-tasting and the simplest. It is levrek kâğitta—seabass en papillote. "The secret is that there is no secret, says Cemal Bey, "except the best of everything." "Everything" includes an inch-thick, five-inch square fish filet, firm, boneless and as fresh as the market can supply, plus a slice of firm but ripe tomato, a pat of butter (always unsalted in Turkey and usually made from a mixture of cow a water-buffalo cream), salt and a lit freshly-ground black pepper. The bull is placed on the filet, the salt and pepper sprinkled, and the tomato slice balanced on top. The whole is then wrapped in baker's parchment, sealed tight, and baked in a hot oven for 20 minutes. The results are magic: the fish is both baked and seethed in its own juices and those the tomato, and the simple spicing com fully into its own without overpowering the delicate flavor of the filet. Tearing open the heat-crisped paper package reveals the fish in its own buttery sauce and releases a cloud of fragrant steal that is both overture and promise.

Before they came to Anatolia, the Turks' national sweet tooth had to be satisfied with milky desserts: rice puddings and milk puddings, general with an oven-browned top surface. Persian and Anatolian fruits and sweet compotes made from them provided another range ways to end a meal—and the fruits now available in Turkey must be seen and tasted to be believed. The desserts now considered most typically Turkish, however, may have bee adopted from the Byzantine repertoire the rich pastry concoctions called baklava of which the Turks have produced dozens of variations, many with then own graphically descriptive names.

In general, baklava is made up of a dozen or more layers of paper-thin unleavened dough called yufka, interspersed with a spread of chopped nuts and honey or syrup. Made in large round or rectangular trays, the confection is cut into small squares or rhomboids before baking and sprinkled with decorative pistachio powder or coconut shreds afterwards, often with the addition of a further quantity of thinned honey or syrup. Walnuts and pistachios are the nuts most commonly used; hazelnuts are rare but approved by connoisseurs.

Another type of baklava is rolled instead of layered; the rolls are sometimes baked as little cylinders—somewhat crisper than layered baklava—or formed into rings to make bülbül yuvasi—nightingale nests. An alternative to baklava altogether are the varieties of deep-fried sweet batter shapes, also soaked with as much syrup as they can hold, but still crisp on the outside. The type shaped like small fluted cylinders are called vizier's fingers because of their admonitory look, and the round ones with a deep dimple in the center are hanim göbĕgi: lady's navel. Of all the Turkish pastry desserts, however, the best is sekerpare. They are simple sweet cookies made from dough, not batter, and moistened— usually not soaked—with syrup. Plump to the point of being hemispherical, they are topped with a single sweet almond and have a marvellous elusive taste like buckwheat pancakes. There is no better prelude to a cup of unsweetened Turkish coffee.

Of all the curious culinary blossoms that opened in the slightly hysterical hothouse of the Ottoman court, the strangest that has survived to our day is a delicious dessert called tavuk gögüsü. It is a form of stiff pudding served as a rectangular slab on a plate, usually bright white but sometimes—and better—browned on its top surface under a broiler. It is smooth in texture, resilient in consistency and of a positively fraternal adhesiveness that has defeated more than one diner. Those who prevail, however, enjoy it very much, and are astonished to learn that it is made of white meat of chicken, ground, pounded and reduced to a paste, and mixed with sugar.

One of the widest ranges of Turkish desserts of all types is available at Konyali Restaurant, across the street from Istanbul's main train station. It is one of the city's oldest eating places and was always one of the best; for an explorer of Turkish cooking it is no less than a landmark. Queen Elizabeth II is the most recent addition to a list of nearly 50 crowned heads, chiefs of state and heads of government who have eaten well in Konyali's pleasant but unluxurious surroundings.

Of Turkey's more than 50 varieties of kebab—roast meat and roast meat dishes—a changing selection of eight or more is on Konyali's dense full-page menu every day; of the 40 ways Turks prepare eggplant, some five choices are available every day of the season. Because Konyali serves no alcohol it is a good place to learn about the fruit drinks and juices that the Turks are so fond of. Orange juice and grape must are staples; in season, pomegranate, strawberry, plum, cornel cherry and other juices and nectars are all available, and they make surprisingly good accompaniments to, say, a yogurtlu kebab: chunks of roasted meat on a bed of the flat spiced bread called pide, decorated with a few tomato wedges and a green pepper, and covered with a ladleful of yogurt. After being assembled, the whole dish is broiled just long enough to make the yogurt bubble up and invade the meat sauce and is served sizzling.

Imam bayildi —"the imam fainted"—is another picturesquely-named main dish that has spread far beyond Turkey's boundaries. As Konyali makes it, it is a marvellously juicy marriage of meat and eggplant, so good that the imam for whom it was invented fainted at the first taste. Konyali has also developed its own style of making eggplant kebab, by wrapping the roasted lamb chunks in thin, long strips of eggplant and cooking the resulting package further to soften the vegetable and let the flavors blend.

In the Covered Bazaar, Bursali Restaurant serves its overflow clientele at tables set in the busy street; the waiters sprint, the place is full of din and tintinabulation, and anything on the menu has a 50-50 chance of being unavailable—but the food that is is good. Kale Restaurant, on the very edge of the Bosporus at Anadolu Hisar, serves a few Arab meze dishes along with the Turkish ones, has the best view in the city of the floodlit fortress of Rumeli Hisar, and buy 80 percent of its fish through the window from passing fishermen's boats. The Cicek Pasaji is a boisterous alley full of restaurants that serve good hot mezes on tables made of marble slabs set on up ended barrels; customers pass dishes over each other's heads from kitchen to consumer in a dizzying atmosphere of gypsy fiddlers, bellowed orders, drums and-zurna groups and assorted hustlers.

The proprietor of Yak serves equal quantities of food and conversation, the former Italian, and the latter a remarkable zuppa di pesche of French, English and Turkish. The Chinese Restaurant—its name—does very well despite the disadvantage of a menu without pork And Rejans, already a monument when Ernest Hemingway ate there, is still run by the group of White Russian lady refugees who founded it in the early twenties, and still serves fine borshch piroshky and vodka with lemon.

In all these places, and in Turkish homes by the millions, there exists an interest in food and a dedication to quality in its preparation that is the mail reason that the character and excellence of Turkish cuisine has been preserved from the 1lth century till now. The same concern is also the source of the continuing development of Turkish cookery in the hands of Necati Usta of Abdullah’ and others like him. The sad and in furiating concept of the restaurant a fueling station is still a long way away while Turks feel about food the way Orhan Kutbay, headwaiter of the Divan Hotel's fine restaurant, feels about his job "I do this work the way a violinist play his instrument," he said, "with feeling."

Robert Arndt, who has lived and worked—at dined—in Istanbul for several years, writes frequently for Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 16-23 of the November/December 1975 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1975 images.