Turkey of the regions 9: The taste of the local
There may be a particular thrill to be had in trying out İnegöl köfte in the town where it was introduced to Turkey, or in eating a plate of Akçaabat köfte in the town where it was created, but the truth is that these days you'll be able to find meatballs of the same names elsewhere in the country, too.
Turks may still swear by the baklava of Gaziantep, but you'll be able to find versions just as finger-licking and delicious wherever you go. Thick-enough-to-cut Kahramanmaraş (Maraş) dondurması (ice cream) is now available in branches of Mado, and the famous Van kahvaltısı (Van breakfast) is cropping up on every street corner. Even ciğ köfte, the uncooked kebab that was once known only to the natives of southeastern Turkey, is now a fixture on most city high streets as popular local taste sensations work their way around the country on the back of mass internal migration combined with chain-store expansion.
Luckily, there are also dishes that haven't traveled quite as well, usually because they require special ovens or other equipment and/or involve lengthy cooking procedures. This is great news for travelers since it means that they can sample a variety of local dishes along their way.
TokatPressed to name my favorite of Turkey's many kebabs, I would have to plump for the Tokat kebab, a wonderful amalgam of thick chunks of lamb with equally thick chunks of potato, aubergine and juicy tomatoes basted in meat juices as they hang to cook in an oven especially designed for the purpose. Both the special oven and the preparation time have militated against the Tokat kebab venturing far from its northern Anatolian home base. Even there, town-center restaurants stop serving it by five o'clock in the afternoon.
SiirtHidden away in southeastern Turkey, Siirt is one of the best places in the country to try out büryan kebabı, one of several kebabs prepared in pit ovens that also remain largely local pleasures. At dawn, the ovens are fired up and entire lambs hung to bake beneath sealed lids with the juice collecting at the bottom of the pit. Once cooked, the lamb is removed and chopped up, individual portions being reheated to order and served on a bed of squidgy pide bread.
Büryan kebab is also prepared in Bitlis and Tatvan near Lake Van. It is more readily accessible in “Little Siirt,” the market area of Fatih in İstanbul, almost the only place where you should expect to be able to eat it after dark - - in the east they prefer to tuck into it for breakfast or lunch.
Midyat“Little Siirt” is also a good place to try out perde pilav (“curtained rice”), another taste treat that comes to us courtesy of the southeast. Perde pilav is a risotto cooked with shreds of chicken, raisins and almonds inside a case of crispy pastry for which a copper pot shaped like an upside-down fez is used. You can eat it in Midyat provided you order it at lunchtime.
Beyran çorbası, Gaziantep
GaziantepOver recent years, Gaziantep in the east has turned itself into a veritable shrine to the culinary arts and people pour into the famous İmam Çagdaş restaurant to feast on its Adana kebabs and baklava. On the quiet, though, Antep has a few more tricks up its sleeve. One is the garlicky beyran çorbası, a rust-colored meal-in-a-bowl soup based on meat cut from the rump of a sheep. It's on sale at lunchtime in lokantas in the market where you may also bump into men in gaudy costumes with drinks containers strapped to their backs. They turn out to be dispensing meyankökü şerbeti, a cold licorice drink that is a distinctly acquired taste.
MalatyaMalatya is well known all over Turkey for its dried apricots, and a whole section of its sprawling market is devoted to selling them. But Malatya is also the best place in the country to try out kağıt kebabı (paper kebab), a lamb kebab cooked and served in packets of greaseproof paper that allow the meat to stew in its own juices with the vegetables. It's a favorite of the market traders, which means that there are many lunchtime-only lokantas serving it amid the stalls.
Mıhlama, Eastern Black Sea
East of RizeWhile many of Turkey's more exotic local dishes are to be found in the towns of the Southeast, the northeastern corner of the country also has a food tradition all of its own. Mention Black Sea food, and people tend to think of hamsi, the Black Sea anchovy that is a particular winter treat, but there's much more to Black Sea cooking than fish, especially once you travel beyond Trabzon.
Up in Ayder, for example, you will be able to sample mıhlama, a thick and filling cheese fondue best eaten with a helping of cornbread. This is also a part of the world where cabbage (lahana) really comes into its own. You might not have thought you would enjoy a bowl of lahana çorbası (cabbage soup), but once you've tried the Black Sea version you may well change your mind.
VakfıkabırTrabzon ekmeği (bread) is sold in huge heavy roundels, so popular that local bus companies factor bakery visits into their itineraries. But the best Black Sea bread of all comes from the small town of Vakfıkabir, just west of Trabzon where baked loaves sometimes reach the size of small wheels.
KarsIn northeastern Turkey Kars is home not only to a distinctive style of “Baltic” architecture but also to several local culinary traditions. Visit in winter and you will be able to gorge yourself on roast goose (kaz), but at any time of year you won't be able to miss the many shops selling tangy local kaşar and holey gravyer cheese in roundels as big as those of Trabzon ekmeği. The same shops also sell locally made honey. A breakfast feast of Kars cheese and honey is not one to forget in a hurry.
CappadociaIs the testi kebabı (pottery kebab) that crops up on many Cappadocian menus a real local dish or not? The answer seems to be that it is and it isn't. Traditionally, locals certainly did prepare meat stews inside small clay pots, placing them to cook in the embers of fires set up to boil such things as pekmez (molasses) and salça (sauce). What tourism has done is to take that basic recipe and add a twist to it rather like the show put on by the sellers of Maraş dondurması with their clanging bells and colorful costumes. You can be sure that the locals didn't break their testis open at the table with a flourish although their flourish-free meals probably tasted much the same as today's tourist ones.
KayseriIn Central Anatolia, Kayseri is home to mantı, miniature pockets of pasta filled with nuggets of meat. Mantı is sometimes available elsewhere in the country with many restaurants offering it as a featured dish on one specific day in the week. In Kayseri itself mantı is usually served with tomato sauce and/or garlic-flavored yoghurt as well as with chickpeas, a specifically local twist.
While in Kayseri, you might also spot some of the elongated local pides designed to be shared between several diners. Occasionally, you will see special long, thin raised benches to make the sharing of such an unwieldy dish a tad easier. Not surprisingly, the strung-out pide is not an idea that has traveled well (ditto the sugared pides that are a specialty of Eğirdir in the Lake District).
Islama köfte, Adapazarı
AdapazarıYou will need a particularly discerning palate to be able to tell the difference between some of the köftes (meatballs) that carry the names of towns such as Tekirdağ and Sivas. Much easier to distinguish is the ıslama köfte of Adapazarı which is served on a bed of toast temptingly marinaded in the meat juices.
Pastırmalı humus, Tarsus
TarsusAt the far eastern end of the Mediterranean Antakya wins culinary accolades not least for its delicious künefe, a scrumptious cheese-filled pastry made on rotating metal plates. But Tarsus to the west offers just as many unexpected delights, among them pastırmalı hummus that is served with pieces of pastrami sprinkled on top, then heated up. Here, too, you can try out cezerye, a chewy sweet made from carrot and walnut paste, honey and 40 different spices. Wash it down with şalgam, the cold turnip drink that is now fairly widely available, with prickly-pear juice, or with yayla karsambaç, a flavored-ice drink that is a lifesaver in the summer humidity.
MerzifonMade from wheat and meat pounded together with onions and spices, keşkek is not so much a regional dish as one that is increasingly hard to find despite being UNESCO-listed as part of Turkey's intangible cultural heritage. Like mantı, it sometimes appears on menus as a once-weekly treat especially around the middle Aegean. Alternatively, you can eat it whenever you like in the restaurant of the restored bedesten in Merzifon, near Amasya.
Mardin and UrfaTurkish coffee also features on the intangible cultural heritage list. The standard variety can be found all over the country, but in Mardin and Urfa you should certainly round off your meal with a demitasse of bitter, grainy mırra kahvesi sometimes flavored with cardamon. Be careful to hand your cup straight back to the server - - according to tradition if instead you put it down on the table, you will have to marry him or pay for his dowry.