A couple of months ago a reader sent me a link to let me know that a Turkish food writer has been referring to my book The Yogurt Man Cometh in her presentations and an article related to yogurt. That was nice to hear and I emailed the author, Aylin Oney Tan, my gratitude. We hoped to meet up in Istanbul a month later when I went there. But a couple weeks later, she contacted me about an exciting new food festival, Gastro Istanbul. The four-day event would feature many booths selling small samples of from the menus of various restaurants and notable chefs. But there would also be a whole schedule full of cooking demonstrations, lectures, and panel discussions. She wanted me to join a panel on yogurt. Peung and I were in Vienna at the time, so all it took was a couple of last-minute plane tickets (thank you Turkish Air) and an early departure from our previous travel plans in Austria.
I’ve long loved Turkish food, ever since I lived and worked in Turkey back in the 90s. But I had no idea just how vast the cuisine really is. Dishes I’ve never heard of, ingredients that even Turks from different parts of the country hadn’t heard of.
The event took place in Maçka Park right up the road from Beşiktaş Stadium. The last match played in the old stadium occurred during the festival. This explains the haze of tear gas that temporarily sent attendees running for shelter on the third day of the fest. I managed to avoid tear gas during the weeks of Red Shirt protests in Bangkok back in 2010, but wasn’t quite as lucky at a Turkish food festival.
Cooking demos took place in a couple of larger tents.
Food vendors from restaurants large and small, pricey and less so, offered affordable sample plates of their dishes. Attendees purchased coupons at the gate to be used at any booth. Here is dried and salted beef tenderloin with hummus and pistachio “birdshit” paste from the booth for Mikla Restaurant.
A bit of “Tri Lece” cake from Hotel Les Ottomans. Tres Leches. Not exactly Turkish but it was pretty damn nice and not so overly sweet (minimal condensed milk, if any)
As guests of the fest, Peung and I (and the many other participants — presenters, chefs, food writers, restaurateurs) got some pretty special treatment. A boat cruise up the Bosphorus (which according to the crack team over at CNN is now a river in the “capital city” of Turkey. Ahem.)
Complete with raki buffet. (Raki: think ouzo, a bit less sweet, a bit more potent)
And Turkish almonds. Ever see almonds on ice and wonder why??
Chill them and the skins just slide right off when you squeeze them a bit. Not sure why one does this. The skins have a lot of antioxidants and alleged health benefits. But almonds shooting out of their skins across the raki table is good fun anyway.
Up the Bosphorus in Bebek we went ashore to have cocktails and hors d’oeuvres at Lucca, a “bistronomique lounge and bar” with some mighty nice sports cars parked out front. This is the first time I’ve ever had or even seen raki used in a mixed drink. In this case it was sour cherry juice and lemon. We were told that Turks were generally not keen on raki being used in creative ways and that they were pushing the envelope a bit here. A week later in Ankara my friends Iffet and Ferit reacted as if I had just strangled a kitten and thrown it on the table when I even mentioned the idea.
They weren’t fans of the cucumber-raki lollipop idea either. I thought that was fun at least.
Back on the boat we moved on to the private residence of entrepreneur Sahir Erozan on the Bosphorus. Nice view from the terrace.
He throws a very nice party. And all the while I’m thinking Am I underdressed? Some very fine rum put an end to the thinking part.
Dinner the next night was at Mikla, high atop the Marmara Pera Hotel, with a perfect view of my favorite city in the world.
A few cocktails, a parade of wines, and a tasting menu that I wouldn’t mind having again in the near future. Mikla is the creation of Mehmet Gürs, a Finnish-Turkish celebrity chef who spoke at and moderated many of the presentations at Gastro Istanbul. I was especially intrigued by his passion for traveling around Turkey finding obscure dishes and ingredients and then trying to incorporate them into his own dishes or at least record them in some fashion so that they wouldn’t fade into oblivion. As we homogenize the world with “globalization” I think he has an honorable mission there. Mother Jones had a nice piece about how US supermarkets have taken a diverse fruit such as the apple (there used to be THOUSANDS of kinds just in the US) and reduced them to but a handful. I don’t know that this meal preserved anything, but it certainly was delicious. Above is lamb shank with smoked eggplant puree, Kayseri sausage, salted yogurt, chard and fresh almond.
Slow-cooked grouper, with asparagus, broad beans, salicornia, chives and fig vinaigrette.
Whole-wheat vegetable manti with tomato, yogurt, garlic and sumac.
If you’ve been to Istanbul you probably know about the balik ekmek, fried fish sandwiches down along the port areas. Cheap and delicious. Mikla gives the concept an unusual twist. An anchovy fried into a piece of olive oil bread. It was presented on this rock. Nice but a few more glasses of wine and I’m pretty sure I would have broken a tooth on the funny-colored bread roll.
Back at Gastro Istanbul the next day I had a glass of soup made with a grape leaf puree. Great idea and I may be attempting this when I get home to Madison. Maybe I can beg a recipe off the chef.
And finally the reason for me being in Istanbul: the big yogurt panel on the final day of the festival. There were three of us: Aylin, me and a respected food science author, Harold McGee. The tent filled up for this. Many attendees knew Aylin, of course, from her food writing, and while chatting with Harold all weekend I noted that a constant stream of chefs came by to either thank him for his food science work or have him sign an obviously well worn copy of his book On Food and Cooking. No pressure here. “Who’s that guy in the middle?”
Long before the Yogurt Man Cometh there really were yogurt men walking around the towns selling their product door to door. My book cover fit in nicely. I told a few stories of discovering how central yogurt is to Turkish food and culture, and was pleased to get a few laughs. Aylin talked up the history. Harold gave us the science. And then the sampling started.
We had 11 kinds of yogurt. Some vaguely familiar but perhaps different in texture or milk (cow, sheep, buffalo) and others that were strong and bizarre: burnt yogurt, moldy yogurt, dried yogurt.
Here’s the moldy fellow with some herbs mixed in. Not bad, actually.
Finally, a shot of me drinking ayran, the yogurt, water and dash-of-salt drink one can find everywhere in Turkey. I have a reputation to uphold after all. And all because I chose a title with yogurt in it for my book.
That’s some very fine kismet.