2014 has been the year of two questions I heard over and over again. My food walk guests have been asking whether I am planning to open a restaurant of my own while my cooking class customers have been wondering if I have a cookbook in the workings. After many heated debates and painful hours of contemplation I finally have the answer: my cookbook has to wait.
One and a half years ago I hosted the first meetup of my Istanbul Breakfast Club. The idea was simple. I wanted to share the beauty of Turkish breakfast, most generous and inviting morning meal in the world with folks living in Istanbul or visiting the city. While discovering dozens of regional breakfast dishes, multiple varieties of local olives and cheeses, arrays of morning pastries and plethora of eccentric jams, I felt compelled to spread the word. And spread the word I did through my blog until I sensed my urge to share the beauty of Turkish breakfast in a more literal way.
I first encountered red lentils when I lived in Bergen, an idyllic town in the South-West of Norway. There I often shopped at a Middle Eastern store tucked in the backstreets of the immigrant quarter painted with graffiti and smelling of spices. I did not mind a 30 min bus ride, my longest commute of the week, to procure the most fragrant clementines in town around Christmas and eggplants ever absent from the stalls of the Norwegian supermarkets.
Just before the Kurban Bayram I shopped at a bustling weekly market on the Asian side of Istanbul. This time one could feel not only the fuss of a weekly market, but also the festive determination to stock for the four days of celebration and the urgency to cook with the last produce of the season. Each and every stall broadcasted the swan song of summer – okra, green beans, tomatoes, eggplants and such accompanied by the labels Son elveda / Farewell batch and heart-rending cries of the vendors, “Last tomatoes from the garden, not a greenhouse. Çanakkale will not come back,” referring to the last supply of the popular heirloom tomato variety from the area of the same name. Abundant gigantic pumpkins and cabbages, wild berries and mushrooms on the stalls nearby only confirmed that if you were to cook summer, this might be your last opportunity this year.
At the change of seasons I am often confused about what to eat. On a chilly morning when you can still feel the breath of the rain that had been pouring the whole night I open the fridge stuffed with tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs, eggplants and other summer goodness while the only thing on my mind is red lentil soup. The day warms up towards the noon suggesting that something cooling and yogurt-based may be a good idea. But if I continue along with those lines in the evening and – out of my summer habit – make a raw salad, it hardly feels as satisfying as it was on a balmy evening just a few weeks ago.
I got to know muhammara, Middle Eastern dip of roasted red bell peppers and walnuts, as a signature dish of my mother-in-law. Her muhammara is legendary. Ask anybody who ate at the mom’s restaurant. Daughter to an Egyptian immigrant settled on the Easter Mediterranean coast of Turkey, she is from the lineage of the people who consider dishes such as hummus, falafel, kibbeh (aka içli köfte), muhammara and alike to be their own. And as this Middle Eastern heritage food is rather exotic to the rest of Turkey, the complexity of flavors wows the local eaters as they get initiated into this culinary tradition, even if only through eating muhammara.
I spent half of this week in Tarabya, a village on the Bosphorus, so remote that after reaching there one gets surprised she has not left city limits yet. But then it is Istanbul, possibly the most spread out city in the world. You get on a boat along the Bosphorus and keep marveling the villages with grand mansions that Istanbul does not run out of until the very Black Sea.
It took me two hours to get from my house in Moda to the Grand Tarabya hotel by public transport. In the same two hours I could have ended up at our countryside property in Sapanca. But then it is Istanbul where you change from a ferry to a tram, then you get on a funicular and finally hop on a taxi constantly wondering why the city authorities keenly introduce new modes of transportation instead of connecting the dots of the existing ones.