Keme, aka the "Mesopotamian Truffle," is a vaguely potato-like fungi that grows this time of year in the arid lands of southeastern Turkey and which local chefs have for centuries been using in seasonal dishes, especially kebab.
Turkish scientists have ascribed all kinds of miracle powers to the humble keme, but its strange magic can mostly be witnessed by the effect it has on kebab lovers, who eagerly await its short-lived appearance every spring. A good example is a recent dispatch from the Turkish city of Gaziantep by the EatingAsia blog's Robyn Eckhardt, who was lucky enough to score some skewers of keme at one of the city's most celebrated kebab spots. From her report:
This being spring, Şirvan is featuring seasonal keme mantari (desert "truffles", big knobby fungi that grow beneath the ground) on its kebap menu, making the most of the fungi by mincing them together with lamb and lamb fat (the basis of any good kebab is plenty of fat minced into the meat) and then skewering logs of the mince between chunks of truffle. Few Antep kebapci serve keme, and Şirvan's go fast. We score the last two skewers of the day, and feel lucky. The keme are deeply earthy but not overpowering, and the chewiness of the whole specimens is a fine complement to the tender, melting meat-and-mushroom mince.
Those who are in Istanbul and want to try keme without going to Gaziantep can head over to Ciya, on the city's Asian side, which is serving the seasonal speciality (along with several other hard to find ones) for the next few weeks.
Like a tsunami that arrives without any warning, the confection known as "trilece" -- a sponge cake soaked in a creamy milk bath -- has taken Istanbul's dessert scene by storm over the last few years. From ritzy uptown patisseries to humble old city kofte joints, the dessert seems to be everywhere.
But where did it come from? That's the difficult question Culinary Backstreets tries to answer in a story posted today. Trilece (pronounced "tree-leche"), as the name implies, is connected to the famous Latin American tres leches cake. But the one that has taken over Istanbul hails from the Balkans, creating something of a mystery about how a cake with South American roots worked its way through the Balkans and into the pastry shops of Istanbul. From Culinary Backstreets' story:
We’ve been following the movement of trileçe all over the city and it is spreading fast. Just in the past couple of years, it has made its debut in sweetshops, from modern Etiler all the way down to the historic Grand Bazaar. There are wholesalers of this cake supplying restaurants all over town. Tuğra Restaurant, at the Çırağan Palace Kempinski hotel on the Bosphorus, includes it on the menu as a signature dish. But even more significantly, trileçe has breached the seemingly impenetrable bulwark against fads, working its way into even Köfteci Arnavut, a third-generation, exceedingly old-school meatball shop where the menu has not changed since 1947.
As described in a Turko-File blog post yesterday, the Tuesday death of 15-year-old Berkin Elvan -- an Istanbul boy who spent 269 days in a coma after apparantly being struck in the head by a police tear gas canister -- has helped to reignite the protests that first rocked Istanbul last summer during the Gezi Park demonstrations.
One of the interesting elements of these new events has been the presence of bread loaves carried by demonstrators as symbols of protest, to commemorate the fact that Berkin had left his home on the day he was injured in order to go buy bread. (The Bianet website has a nice gallery of silent "bread" protests held two days ago after Berkin died.)
Writing on her blog, sociologist Zeynep Tufekci explains why bread is proving to be such a powerful symbol of protest in Turkey:
Bread is quasi-sacred in Turkey. In Turkey, it is the source of nourishment and it represents both human labor and God’s bounty through nature. If a piece of bread falls to the ground, my grandmother kisses it after picking it up from where it fell. Wasting bread is seen as a sin, and not having bread at a table will get you howls of protest from people who will tell you they’ll be hungry without bread. (Yes, in Turkey, people will eat bread with pasta, for example).
Berkin was buried today, in a procession that was attended by perhaps tens of thousands and which was soon forcibly broken up by police using gas and water cannons. Held aloft by many of the mourners? Loaves of bread.
Sahlep, a hot, milky drink made from the powdered root of a type of orchid, may be a sweet wintertime treat in Istanbul, but for the roving vendors who sell the beverage from rolling carts, life is anything but sweet. Faced with growing pressure from municipal authorities, who are working to crack down on unlicensed street vendors, Istanbul's sahlep sellers are struggling to survive, with their carts sometimes confiscated.
Tagging along with one seller named Huseyin Kozak as he cruises the snowy streets of Istanbul's Beyoglu neighborhood, Culinary Backstreets in a new article offers a look into the life of the city's sahlep sellers -- most of whom come from the same village in Turkey's Isparta region -- and the history behind their work. From the article:
By the name of the place, you’d expect the Sütçüler (“Milkmen” in English) district near Isparta in southern Turkey to be a dairyland paradise, thick on the ground with men carrying buckets sloshing fresh milk, cheese wheels stacked in cool dark sheds, verdant hills freckled with cows. But there are no milkmen in Sütçüler, at least not in the wintertime. The area’s name actually has nothing to do with anything going on in Sütçüler itself.
The mayor of Sütçüler, Hüseyin Müftüoğlu confirmed this over the phone. “In 1938, the decision was made to name this area Sütçüler. For more than 100 years, in Istanbul, in every neighborhood there’s a milkman and almost surely, that man is from here, one of our Sütçüler brothers,” Müftüoğlu told us.
From a distance, it might seem like these Ispartans are dairymen, providing an important link between city folk and the farms back in the village, but spending some time among those from Sütçüler, we found their most common feature to be their willingness to grind out a living by dragging a push cart through the streets of Istanbul, winter after winter.
By now, it's not secret that Turkey -- although blessed with a very long coastline and a cuisine heavy on seafood -- is slowly losing its fish stocks. In fact, as one article pointed out a few years back, the mackerel served in the iconic fish sandwiches along Istanbul's Golden Horn is today most likely hails from Norway, having arrived from there as a frozen filet.
So what's causing the fish in Turkey to disappear? Reuter's takes a look in an article today:
Over fishing, illegal netting and pollution threaten the industry. Anchovy production, which accounts for around two-thirds of the annual catch, fell by 28 percent in 2012, according to the Turkish Statistical Institute.
In a bid to replenish stocks, the government has banned fishing in the summer months when fish reproduce and says it is tightening supervision. But it appears too little, too late.
"Twenty years ago, you put your arm in the water you could pull out fish - there were so many," said Osman Korkmaz, a 53-year-old fisherman who has fished the Bosphorus Strait and Marmara Sea for 40 years.
Aylin Ulman, a researcher with the University of British Columbia's Sea Around Us Project, conducted more than 150 interviews with Turkish fishermen from May through July to determine how Turkey's fisheries have changed.
The number of commercial species in Turkey's fishing areas has fallen to just five or six from more than 30 in the 1960s, she said, based on her survey and catch data Turkey provided to the United Nations from 1967 to 2010.
I recently had the opportunity to travel to the area around eastern Turkey's Erzincan, for a story about local dairy making traditions in the home village of Hamdi Ulukaya, founder of the very successful Chobani yogurt brand. That story, from which the photos in the above slideshow were taken, can be found here.
A recent New Yorker profile of Ulukaya, who went from shepherd boy in the mountains near Erzincan to prosperous entrepreneur in the United States, can be found here.
One of the culinary trends to take hold in Istanbul over the last few years is the appearance of several restaurants promising "Ottoman palace" cuisine, with menus made up of dishes, based on recipes dug up in archives, that the chefs swear are no different than what the sultans themselves ate.
These claims, of course, should be taken with a grain of salt. Considering Ottoman palace cooks probably didn't leave behind cookbooks for today's chefs to work with, are there really that many researchers out there who are poring over archival material to somehow reconstruct what went into the sultans' favorite dishes? And are there that many chefs with the skills to translate both what the researchers are coming up with and the sultans' notoriously finicky tastes into actual dishes that will appeal to today's palates?
Can neo-Ottoman cuisine, then, be anything more than tarted up traditional Turkish dishes served in dining room with overstuffed chairs and gaudy decor? That's the question doctoral candidate Pinar Tremblay tackles in an interesting piece she wrote for the Al-Monitor website, tying it in with the same questions raised by the rise of Turkey's neo-Ottoman foreign policy. From her article:
Unlike other things, when it comes to fish, size does matter. That's certainly the argument that Fikir Sahibi Damaklar ("Sophisticated Palates," Istanbul's Slow Food chapter) has been making for the last few years, since it started a campaign to save the local population of lufer (bluefish) by asking Istanbulites to make sure they only sell, cook or eat fish that are larger than 24 centimeters, which is the size at which they can start to reproduce.
The campaign has been both successful, with the government responding to it by raising the size limit on bluefish from 14 cm. to 20 cm., and controversial, leading to infighting among commercial fisherman (for more, check out this previous Eurasianet article).
To raise regional awareness about the issue of overfishing, Fikir Sahibi Damaklar is organizing a four-day "Slow Fish" conference that will take place in Istanbul October starting October 17. Culinary Backstreets caught up with Defne Koryurek, who runs the Slow Food Istanbul chapter, to interview her about the conference and her group's efforts to save Istanbul's threatened lufer. From the interview:
How did the idea for the Slow Fish conference come about?
It was Fikir Sahibi Damaklar who decided to do this event, and it is mainly because we've been campaigning for fish, particularly for our beloved lüfer, or bluefish, for the last 4 years.
Food writer and blogger Katie Parla certainly leads an enviable life, splitting her time between Italy and Turkey and chronicling traditional food culture in both countries.
Recently, Parla had a chance to visit eastern Turkey's Kars, a city famed throughout the country for its cheese (and, among the more literary-minded, for being the setting for Orhan Pamuk's "Snow"), where she had a chance to work side-by-side with some of the city's local cheese makers.
I asked Parla is she could share some thoughts about her experience in Kars (which she wrote about here). Our exchange is below:
How did you end up in Kars making cheese?
I was invited to Kars by my friend chef Şemsa Denizsel of Kantin. She has been making outrageously good sourdough bread with heirloom wheats from Kars for three years and was eager to see the grain fields and visit the water-powered mill that grinds grains for her flour. While in Kars, we called on her friend İlhan Koçulu who makes gravyer (gruyere) in his village. He showed us the process of his own cheese as well as that of kaşar. While visiting the kaşar workshop I was invited to try my hand at making this cheese. It looked difficult to make and turned out to be even harder than it looked.
Did anything in particular stick out about the cheesmaking in Kars?
Photographer Dave Hagerman is the picture-taking half of the visually-arresting and wonderfully-written EatingAsia blog. Lately, Dave and his partner, Robyn Eckhardt, have been spending a lot of time in Turkey and chronicling their travels in a drool-inducing Tumblr called EatingTurkey.
During his most recent stay in Turkey, Hagerman also managed to make it down to Gaziantep, a city near the Syria border famed for its kebabs and baklava, on assignment for Saveur magazine to shoot a story about the city's grill masters.
I recently sent Hagerman some questions about his impressions of the trip to Gaziantep and the the role of the city's ustas ("masters" in Turkish) in keeping the local culinary culture alive. Our exchange is below:
1. You've travelled and eaten your way through much of Turkey -- what stood out for you about Gaziantep and its food culture?
For starters the minute you walk out your door it smells like grilling meat. You know you are in kebab country and it is everywhere - street corners, shops - indoors and out. You might not think you are hungry for kebab morning, noon and night but somehow you just are.
Also, the ustas display a certain amount of precision as they prepare/cook their kebabs, as if to say ' people in other parts of Turkey might do it that way, but we Antepians do it this way' -- in other words, the right way. Ingredients are key, meat -- particularly lamb -- must be sourced from only the best suppliers. It is an obsession. People would say that if it is not going to be the best, then don't bother.