Sunday, January 2, 2011

A taste of Turkey in 2010

Stuffed as we were with hummus and wild greens, hearty stews and succulent kebab, the sensible thing to do would have been to push our chairs away from the table and sigh. But the meal wasn't complete without just one more thing.

"You're ordering a walnut for dessert?" the newcomer asked, not bothering to hide her look of disdain. The waiter laughed. When he returned with the dish, he presented it with a flourish. "Your walnut dessert!" Our friend peered at the plate's content: Four small black olive-like orbs, glistening with syrup, accompanied by a dollop of thick cream. She poked her fork at one gingerly. "Just try it!" we insisted.

It's true that ceviz tatlısı, or ceviz reçeli, as it's also known, doesn't look, or sound, particularly appetizing. Take whole walnuts, soften their shells with slaked lime, then candy the whole thing. But the result is sweet, rich, and complex, something you want to slice into infinitesimally small pieces so it won't ever come to an end. Of all the great food I've tasted at Çiya, it's perhaps the most amazing. It hasn't failed to win a convert yet.

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As much as we expats like to complain about the lack of imagination shown at most Turkish restaurants, and the lack of interest among many Turks in other cuisines, Turkish food can be incredibly delicious. I had some of my most memorable eating experiences of the year in a rather unlikely location, the far northeastern city of Kars, perhaps best known as the dreary setting for Orhan Pamuk's lovely and compelling book Snow.

Though the town has few restaurants, and the region lacks the culinary reputation of Southeastern Anatolia, Kars gave me my first taste of roast goose (incredibly rich, if on the heavy/fatty) side, the best simit I've ever eaten (soft, fresh, infused with sesame flavor -- who knew it could taste like this?), a warm, almost gingerbread-y helva, the closest thing I've found to a homegrown blue cheese in Turkey, and a stuffed Anteplim pide so bursting with flavor (and so strangely reminiscent of a Thai chicken pizza) that I ate it two days in a row. It's also where I realized that all those traditional dishes such as etli taze fasulye that I dread seeing on the cafeteria menu at work actually have something to recommend them when made properly.

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Closer to home, I loved every moment I spent shivering by the Golden Horn in order to eat fresh, cheap hamsi (anchovies) and fish soup, an experience I wrote about in an end-of-the-year submission to Istanbul Eats' "Best Bites of 2010." Sitting in the same spot on a warm summer night, with a perfectly grilled fish and a cold beer, wasn't too bad either.


Unknown said...

i have to admit that this is the first time i hear about the walnut dessert, but it seems very delicious.

and about Kars, i had my best ever breakfast there in a local and totally humble restaurant about 10 years ago. well, that was the day i finished my military service, so i guess everything would taste delicious that day.

The Turkish Life said...

Wow, I bet food did taste amazing that day.

I believe ceviz reçeli is a specialty from Antakya but I'm not 100 percent sure.

Anonymous said...

Matt keeps telling me he's going to bring us to Turkey. I almost want to go there just for the food. Drool!

The Turkish Life said...

Come on over anytime! Happy to help with any recommendations or arrangements you need. The food here can be really great and I think you'd appreciate the focus on fresh ingredients, good vegetables, etc. Unfortunately the wine and beer options are pretty dismal!

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the most amazing and surprising thing I ate in Istanbul was ceviz tatlısı, part of an amazing breakfast spread. I didn’t know what it was until a the waitress told me and had no idea how to pronounce it, much less spell it. Thank you for the article! Could you post a recipe?