From Istanbul to Alaçati, ingredients-driven chefs are putting a new spin on local produce and propelling Turkish cuisine into the spotlight in the process.
By Leisa Tyler
Photographs by Mehmet Ateş
Five years ago Tangor Tan, a Turkish anthropology graduate with a woolly beard and a passion for food, embarked on a mission to collect and document the most authentic ingredients his country had to offer. He traveled 108,000 kilometers, visited 374 villages, accepted 7,045 cups of tea, and sampled 950 different cheeses, 550 olive oils, and 310 types of honey. Sponsored—and at times accompanied—by half-Finnish, half-Turkish chef Mehmet Gürs, Tan climbed to the top of Mount Ararat “to eat the wild flowers,” scoured the rugged Black Sea coastline for anchovies, and tramped the fertile fields flanking the ancient Asia Minor cities of Ephesus and Pergamon, where wild herbs, olives, and tomatoes grow in abundance.
Tan and Gurs collected more than 5,000 products (and the stories behind them) on their travels, including rare treasures like aged goat’s cheese made by an 85-year-old man in Izmir and olives the color of raw artichoke from Hatay province in the southeast. Much of what they found had never before made it beyond the bounds of their respective villages. Each was sent to a laboratory in Istanbul set up especially for the project to be analyzed, documented, and then—if the item was exceptional—integrated into the nightly degustation menu at Mikla, Gürs’s celebrated fine-dining restaurant in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district.
The results, now being assembled into a book, are all part of Gürs’s grand plan to put Turkey’s bountiful pantry back on the world map. “Turkey has an incredibly rich cuisine. It was the cradle of civilization, so many cultures passed through here. Yet what the world knows is kebab,” says Gürs, a tall and tattooed 45-year-old with that Scandinavian style of can-do confidence.
Gürs has been pushing the envelope for Turkish products since 2007, when I first met him. Back then, Mikla, a glamorous space atop the Marmara Pera Hotel with bare wooden tables huddled around a glass kitchen and jaw-dropping views of the Golden Horn through floor-to-ceiling windows, served modern French food with mostly Turkish ingredients, plus the odd luxury import like foie gras or caviar. These days, Mikla’s kitchen uses only homegrown ingredients in its strictly Turkish dishes, like lakerda, a soft and fatty fillet of bonito pickled in salt and raki and then mixed with sour yogurt and cucumber. Black Sea anchovies—hamsi—are flattened onto wafer-thin slices of bread, fried in butter, and served with a piquant lemon sauce. Salted and dried beef tenderloin is teamed with hummus and a pistachio paste from Gaziantep in the southeast, among the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. A gutsy raw goat’s cheese that tickles the tongue is drizzled with a honey that tastes like almonds.
Gürs calls his cuisine New Anatolian, and it’s fast gathering a following. Perhaps it’s prompted by the success of Tan’s project and the opportunities it presents for new tastes and textures. Perhaps it’s being spurred by the indigenous-ingredient trend that is sweeping countries like Peru, Sweden, and now Brazil. Or perhaps because of both, a clutch of young, energetic Turkish chefs have come to the fore, eager to take their food to the next level.
“It’s still Turkish cuisine, just redefined,” says Maksut Aşkar, the affable TV chef and owner of Neolokal, a newly opened restaurant inside nearby Karaköy’s contemporary art museum and research space, Salt Galata. “Turkish people always romanticize about going back to the village, back to the farm, back to the seaside. We know it’s an optimistic ideal that probably won’t happen, so instead we bring the flavors of their childhood back to them, but in a modern form.”