Omnivore food festival in Istanbul has brought a few internationally acclaimed chefs to cook in front of the ready-to-be-amused audience. Yet during the day of master classes Turkish visitors of the event have been reassured that we do have our own stars who, well, can do kebabs but also know how to please gourmets with demanding tastes. I am talking about Mehmet Gürs of Mikla.
Gürs surprised. First by introducing Mikla, his renown fine dining restaurant in Istanbul, as a locanta (canteen). Second, by announcing the menu of the demonstration – village extravaganza of testi kebab (countryside lamb stew cooked in a clay pitcher) and Turkish home cooks’ favorite kabak tatlısı (pumpkin poached in sugar syrup). Finally, by noting that he is not going to cook but will speak instead. All spot on, as we all learned in a bit.
Rene Redzepi of Turkey Mehmet Gürs has been reinventing Turkish cuisine by both looking back – to the disappearing cooking traditions and ingredients – and also moving ahead to include modern techniques and influences from the other cuisines. Being only half Turkish (his mother is Finnish-Swedish) is possibly a driving force behind Gürs’ infectious curiosity in the origins of the Anatolian cuisine: he has been gathering bits and pieces of local food knowledge to scrutinize those to the subsequent experiments at the Mikla’s kitchen before a dish can appear on the menu. Gürs’ team has been collecting recipes, observing methods, finding out modifications and tracing origins of the dishes. “But we are not historians“, says Gürs. “We want to be able to recreate those dishes and that takes a lot of testing because we want to cook with understanding what exactly is going on with the ingredients instead of simply relying on the recipe of a mother or aunt“.
Gürs is concerned with the rigidness in public tastes and practices of Turkish professional cooks (ustas): too often they are reluctant to deviate from the common practices and classic tastes. He is surprised that Turkish eaters are looking for the flavors they are used to and become very alert by any modifications. “We seem to be fine with the changes in lifestyle, clothes. Why are we so against changes in food? Turkish food has been evolving for centuries and what we have now is a modification of the original anyway. If we don’t continue changing our food how can we possibly continue developing as a society?“.
Gürs points to a man in the audience, his former scout who worked with Gürs’ team and traveled around the country to source ingredients that are high-quality, unique and often artisanally produced. Take the paste of roasted sesame seeds ground with a millstone (susam sürtmesi) – thicker and more flavorful than your typical tahini paste. Gürs is serving it with pekmez (grape juice reduction) to accompany his pumpkin dessert. He wanted to use the inseparable for any Turk flavors of pekmez and sesame seeds together but instead of going with traditional tahini paste he sources susam sürtmesi from the only existing producer in Turkey.
Another local ingredient has made its way to the Mikla’s kitchen from Gaziantep in the South-East of Turkey: it is an early harvest pistachio variety with intense flavor lovingly called by the locals kuşboku (bird’s excrement) for their small size. Finely ground and mixed with water it is turned into a brown paste. Gürs combines it with milk and freezes to serve as ice-cream on the side of his pumpkin dessert.
Besides hunting for such extravaganza Gürs reflects on how hard it has become to source even staples – potato, tomato and white beans. After struggling with beans Mikla’s team was relieved to discover the beans that met their rigorous standards at a farm in Uludağ where the pulses possibly benefit from the minerals abound in the infamous water springs of the area.
Meanwhile, the demonstration is going full steam. Lamp shank is seared in olive oil, broken into chunks and pushed through the narrow neck of the clay pitcher. Chunks of carrots and potato are tossed on the same saute pan and transferred to the same pot. “Why not to include white beans? We love beans cooked in tomato paste with little chunks of meat” – Gürs guides the audience of the workshop through the creation of the dish. So the beans get in and the tomato sauce does. Clay pitcher is sealed with a piece of unleavened dough and sent to cook in the coal-fired oven that should not become hotter or colder than 150C for 3 hours.
“Do we feel right about serving such traditional food at our fine dining restaurant?” – continues Gürs replying to the question he was probably asked million times and will be asked more. “Yes, we do. I feel it’s a good exercise for ourselves too“. But even more convincing reply comes unspoken – on the plate where Mikla’s chefs start assembling the dish.
“The ingredients in the clay pitcher have a fairly similar taste profile and we thought of a few additions” – explains Gürs. One is the tender puree of the smoky charcoal-grilled eggplant on which a spoonful of beans and lamb chunks with vegetables is arranged. Then comes a dollop of salty buffalo yoghurt made in-house with sea-salt: thick, crumbly and a bit too salty indeed this yoghurt is softened with whipped cream. Another addition is sweet-and-sour Turkish fruit leather (pestil) – plum and mulberry – re-hydrated by soaking in water and turned into a paste. Finally, a few springs of fresh oregano. The ingredients that took an effort to source, flavors that require a skill to create and the overall dish that pampers your palate – this is the real art of fine dining and this is why I l do believe Gürs.