Exploring the Cuisines of Turkey along the Sidewalks of Sunnyside
“What do you eat at home?”
That was the question that changed the course of writing Istanbul and Beyond: Exploring the Diverse Cuisines of Turkey, the new cookbook by writer Robyn Eckhardt and photographer David Hagerman, the wife-and-husband team of travel and food journalists whose work has been published in the New York Times and Travel + Leisure, and whose website, EatingAsia, was named Best Culinary Travel Blog by the readers of Saveur.
I joined the two of them in Queens’ own Turkish enclave of Sunnyside, where we enjoyed lunch at the Turkish Grill on Queens Boulevard. Eckhardt and Hagerman, who have traveled regularly to Turkey since 1998 and spent 16 months there researching Istanbul and Beyond, were impressed by the authenticity of the dishes we ordered: cacik, ezme, imam bayildi, kofte kebab and etli lahana. But Turkish Grill’s menu, like that of many Turkish restaurants, is dominated by the cuisine of Istanbul rather than the regional dishes that Eckhardt and Hagerman feature in their book.
Between the meze and the mains, Eckhardt said, “The food that we get in most Turkish restaurants in the U.S. is from Istanbul, and a lot of Istanbul cuisine is the cuisine of the Ottoman Palace, things like the imam bayildi we just ate, böreks with flaky dough, lokum, a lot of the sweets. Fancy food.”
Etli lahana (cabbage stuffed with rice and ground meat) is a dish that might well have been served in Ottoman palaces, but Turkish Grill’s use of sumac in the sauce suggested to Eckhardt influence from well to the east of Istanbul. She asked our server where the chef is from. As it turned out, the chef—like so many working in kitchens to feed New Yorkers—is from Mexico, and execution of his Turkish cooking is all the more impressive for it. But the owner of Turkish Grill is from Sivas, in central Anatolia, confirming Eckhardt’s hunch.
Turkish Americans can trace their roots to all over Turkey, but the menus of the restaurants they open don’t reflect that. Eckhardt put it this way: “Once you get beyond Istanbul, palace cuisine does not really play a part in the way people eat, which is determined by the seasons and the landscape and what grows around them. And it’s home food. Once you get beyond cities—and eastern Turkey is still largely agricultural—people don’t eat baklava very much. You have to go from your village into a city to buy baklava. People are not eating baklava, they’re not eating kebabs. Kebab is restaurant food.” “It’s funny. We were with friends in Hatay province, and they invited us over for a dinner of kebabs. The husband went to the butcher, and then he went to one of these places where you grill your own kebabs, and you take them home. Because people don’t make kebabs at home.”
Eckhardt includes the recipe for that kebab in Istanbul and Beyond, so she hopes her readers will try, even if it’s atypical for Turks to do so. Another of her hopes is that Istanbul and Beyond will broaden readers’ ideas about the people who live in Turkey and the food that they eat. Most of the book’s on-location photos were taken by Hagerman in real people’s homes, which aren’t usually decorated like Ottoman palaces. When the time came to style a studio shoot, he eschewed colorful tiles and other icons of what Eckhardt called “theme park Turkey” because it wouldn’t have been visually consistent with the photographs he took the in the real Turkey. Istanbul and Beyond includes a recipe for eski peynirli hangel, which Eckhardt identifies as a Kurdish dish of flat noodles with cheese and melted butter. Eckhardt knows a Turkish restaurant in New Jersey where the chef is Kurdish and for whom eski peynirli hangel is a Proustian reminder of childhood, yet it does not appear on his menu, even though noodles, butter and cheese are all things the American palate loves, and loves even better together. A food can be off-putting when it is too strange to one’s palate, but where one expects the exotic, a food can fail to entice if it doesn’t meet those expectations—in this case what the food of Turkey is supposed to be like—even when that food is truly authentic.
You may have noticed that I have begun using constructions like “the food of Turkey” instead of “Turkish food” and “people who live in Turkey” instead of “Turkish people” or “Turks.” This is because, no matter how carefully its author tiptoes around politics, a book about the food eaten by the people far from a country’s political and economic centers cannot entirely avoid being about that country’s marginalized peoples, whose distinct identities—and sometimes lives—those in power have tried to erase. Eckhardt asked the Kurdish cookbook author Ali Geyik, “‘How do you say this is a Kurdish dish and that’s a Turkish dish?’ And he said, ‘You know, I’m not writing about politics. I’m writing about food. I just want to document the food,’ And some might say that’s a cop-out, but I’m not writing this book to make a political statement.”
“When a dish came from an area where the population was mostly Kurdish, I would call it a Kurdish dish in the book. Now, it may well have Armenian roots, Turks may make it too in a slightly different way. I had this idea in the beginning that I would tell the story of every dish and trace it back; that’s impossible in a place like Turkey.” As an example, Eckhardt cited paskalya çörek, a rich mahleb-scented bread traditionally eaten at Easter by the Ottoman Empire’s historic Christian communities of Armenians and Greeks. “We watched them being made in a bakery in Diyarbakir, which is a Kurdish city. The baker told us, ‘Armenians were the bakers here, and they taught us how to make them.’ So if that recipe hadn’t been cut, I probably would have called it an Armenian pastry. But it’s now made by Kurds in a Kurdish city. Without being super political, I have to acknowledge that the Armenian genocide happened, but I’m not here to draw lines.” Eckhardt shared with me the observation that, in the United States, Armenian markets are a great place to source ingredients for Turkish cooking. The fact that Queens is home to sizable communities of both Turkish Americans and Armenian Americans may not be coincidental. While cultural and culinary affinities can never erase the pain of communities in conflict, in a new country they can make it possible to establish a modus vivendi.
At a time when their former compatriots were at war with each other, refugees from the former Yugoslavia’s Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian communities—once subjects of the Ottoman Empire—were building new lives in Astoria. When Chinese immigrants followed Taiwanese immigrants to Flushing, it transformed what until the 1990s had been Little Taipei into New York’s second Chinatown today. In Jackson Heights, Indian Americans and Pakistani Americans belong to what community leader Agha Saleh has called “a living United Nations in the street.”
After we finished our meal with cups of strong tea and left Turkish Grill, we passed by the Sunny Fish Market, the mom-and-pop fishmonger owned by a literal Korean mom and pop. Eckhardt pointed out a sign in the window advertising hamsi, the currently in-season Black Sea anchovies much beloved in Turkey. Hamsi are a perfect example of the seasonal food that the people of Turkey really do eat. If we’re lucky, we’ll see them on the menus of more Turkish restaurants here soon.
TOMATO & GREEN LENTIL NOODLE SOUP WITH CROUTON excerpted from ISTANBUL & BEYOND © 2017 by Robyn Eckhardt. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
TOMATO & GREEN LENTIL NOODLE SOUP WITH CROUTON
Green lentils play off a tomato broth fragrant with anisey purple basil in this warming soup from Kars province. Packed with chewy noodles and served with a scattering of butter-crisped croutons made from the noodle dough, it makes a satisfying one-dish meal. This soup is testament to the province’s interconnectedness with the Caucasus, from where immigrants began arriving in the 1800s. In Kyrgyzstan a similar soup is made with lamb. The rough, wide noodles are similar to handmade noodles in Central Asia. If you’ve never made noodles, this is the perfect dish with which to start. The dough is incredibly forgiving—easy to mix and roll out—and the noodles are meant to be unevenly shaped. While you could use a pasta machine, it’s almost as quick to cut the noodles by hand. This soup improves with time in the refrigerator or freezer, but the noodles should be added (and the croutons fried) shortly before serving. If you make the dough ahead of time, you can cut the noodles and croutons while the soup cooks and have it on the table in under an hour.
PREPARATION TIME: 1¾ hours
SERVES 4 AS A MAIN COURSE
FOR THE DOUGH
2½ cups (10 ounces) all-purpose flour, plus additional for kneading
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
1 large egg
1½ cups tepid water, or as needed
FOR THE SOUP
4 tablespoons (¼ cup) unsalted butter or olive oil, or a combination
1 medium onion, diced
1 medium carrot, peeled and diced
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
2 garlic cloves, minced
3 medium ripe tomatoes, chopped, juices reserved, or one 15-ounce can tomatoes, chopped, with their juices
1 teaspoon Turkish or other crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
1 heaping tablespoon dried purple basil (or substitute 1 tablespoon dried regular basil plus 1 teaspoon ground anise)
3 tablespoons tomato paste, mixed with ¼ cup warm water
1 small potato, peeled and diced (optional)
1 cup flat green or brown lentils, soaked overnight, or Le Puy lentils, unsoaked
7 cups hot water
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
Dried purple or regular basil, for serving (optional)
Crushed red pepper flakes, for serving
1. MAKE THE NOODLE DOUGH: Whisk the flour and salt together in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and break in the egg. Use your finger to break the yolk and to mix it with the white, then mix the flour and egg, turning the bowl as you pull the flour in from the sides and pressing the mixture together with the heel of your hand until it is relatively dry and crumbly. Add the water ¼ cup at a time, mixing the ingredients after each addition, until the dough is somewhat firm; a finger pressed into it should leave an imprint. Very lightly flour your work surface, turn the dough out, and knead until smooth, about 5 minutes, adding flour as necessary to keep the dough from sticking. Wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, and up to 24 hours.
2. MAKE THE SOUP: Heat the butter and/or oil in a 5-quart pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, and salt and cook until the vegetables are softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and stir for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes with their juices and cook, stirring, until they soften and break down almost to a paste, 8 to 10 minutes.
3. Add the red pepper flakes and stir until they color the other ingredients in the pot, about 2 minutes. Add the basil (or basil and anise) and stir once, then add the tomato paste mixture, the potato, if using, lentils, and hot water and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook, partially covered, until the lentils are soft and the broth tastes rich and tomatoey, 30 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the variety of lentils (Le Puy lentils will cook more quickly). The soup should be thick but not so thick that it cannot accommodate the noodles; if necessary add water ¼ cup at a time to attain the correct consistency. Turn off the heat and cover to keep warm.
4. FORM THE CROUTONS: Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Cut off about one eighth of it; rewrap the rest and set aside. Roll the small piece of dough into a rope ¼ to ½ inch thick. Lay it on your work surface and press your fingers or the heels of your hands along its length, flattening it as you go. Cut into ½-inch pieces and set the croutons aside on a lightly oiled plate.
5. FORM THE NOODLES: Unwrap the rest of the dough and divide it in half. On a lightly floured surface, use a rolling pin to flatten and stretch one of the pieces until it is about ⅛ inch thick. Don’t worry if the dough is of uneven thickness or an odd shape. To cut the noodles, place the side of your left hand about ½ inch in from the upper edge of the dough (vice versa if you are left-handed) and use it as a guide to cut noodles approximately ½ inch wide. Move your guiding hand across the dough, cutting as you go, until you’ve cut it all. Don’t worry if your noodles are uneven in size, some long and others short, some wider or narrower. Mound the noodles on your countertop or a plate, sprinkle lightly with flour, and toss. Repeat with the other piece of dough.
6. Bring the soup to a boil and add the noodles. Cook at a medium simmer, stirring occasionally to make sure that the noodles cook evenly, until they are tender but not mushy, about 15 minutes.
7. WHILE THE NOODLES ARE COOKING, FRY THE CROUTONS: Melt the butter with the oil in a small skillet over low heat. Add the croutons and cook, stirring and turning, until they crisp, puff up, and become golden; don’t let them brown. Remove to a paper towel to drain.
8. Serve the soup in wide bowls, scattered with the croutons. Pass dried basil, if you like, and red pepper flakes at the table.