Editor’s note: This is the fourth installment of “Spring (Food) Break 2013,” featuring our favorite foods of the spring season in each city Culinary Backstreets covers.
This year’s Nevruz celebration, an ancient welcoming of spring, may be remembered for its political significance in which a peace deal was struck between Turkish leaders and Kurdish rebels. But once the shoulder-shrugging, line-dancing, fire-jumping and ululating are over, the real bounty of the season will continue to be celebrated all over Turkey and in many Istanbul restaurants, from the chic to the shabby.
“Sultani bezelye rule!” exclaimed Şemsa Denizsel, chef-owner of Kantin, when we recently stopped by for lunch at her Nişantaşı restaurant. Like a favorite uncle in town for the holidays, these sugar snap peas brightly decorated one corner of the plate that held our bahar salatası, a simple “spring salad” that featured all our favorites of the season, including chunks of artichoke hearts and vividly green fava beans. The artichoke pilaf was another March love letter, but the darling of our spring fling at Kantin was a soup of chicken stock and broad beans (aka fava beans). This homey, country-style soup hit a note on our palate that Turkish food rarely finds. In a rush, memories of fresh-from-the-garden meals eaten throughout the American South pleasantly accompanied this bowl of soup down to the last drop. Although it was not on the menu when we went, Şemsa promised she would soon be serving one of our favorites, the delicacy kokoreç, grilled intestines of spring lamb.
In the coming weeks, chef Didem Şenol will also be serving kokoreç at her Karaköy restaurant Lokanta Maya, but at Gram, her smart eat-in deli in Şişhane, she has turned her gaze towards artichokes. “You can find artichokes all year round, imported from Cyprus or Egypt, but we know the best-tasting ones – the sweet, small ones from Izmir – are only out for a short while, right now,” says Şenol. In a salad or a pâté with lemon and olive oil, the artichokes served at Gram are a must these days.
Another highlight of spring for us is a visit to Çiya Sofrası, the Asian-side eatery that may be the best restaurant in Istanbul. It’s certainly not the fanciest or most cutting-edge place in town, but we rarely leave Çiya without having a profoundly new and memorable taste experience. Thanks to glowing write-ups in numerous places, Çiya is no longer the off-the-beaten-path secret it once was, but the restaurant – located on a quiet, pedestrian-only street in Kadıköy’s bazaar neighborhood – has remained true to what made it successful in the first place. Owner and chef Musa Dağdeviren, who hails from the Southeastern Turkish city of Gaziantep, is something of a culinary anthropologist, collecting recipes from around Turkey. The end result is a menu that features unusual regional dishes that you will very likely not find anywhere else.
The daily specials change according to what’s in season, and in springtime things can get downright funky. One of the special seasonal foods being served these days – and for about another month – is keme, a mushroom found in central and eastern Anatolia. This hearty fungus, which we like to think of as a Mesopotamian truffle, tastes like an earthy cross between a Portobello mushroom and a very delicate potato. Çiya serves it in a variety of ways, depending on the day: cut up in slices and grilled on a skewer in keme kebabı; sautéed with tomatoes and peppers; baked in the oven with onions and garlic; and in haspirli keme, a dish that combines keme with meat, yogurt and safflower.
Later in the spring, a couple of tart fruits tend to make all-too-short appearances on the Çiya menu. Yeşil erik, or bracingly tart unripe green plums, are incorporated into meat stews. The loquat, known as yenidünya (“new world”) in Turkish, has an exceedingly short growing season but is a real treat. Çiya is one of several kebab houses in the city that make yenidünya kebabı, featuring pitted loquats that are stuffed with ground meat and then grilled on a skewer until the fruit turns tangy and jam-like, serving as a perfect counterpoint to the fatty meat.
But celebrating spring does not always have to be so fussy. On a recent afternoon, at one of our favorite bars in the back of Beyoğlu’s Fish Market, we ordered a duble rakı and hinted at how nice it would be to have a little something special to go with it. Our barman, Mustafa, yelled to the greengrocer across the street and within a minute, a bowl of bright green unripe plums was beside our rakı. As we sat outside, perhaps a bit early in the season, the crisp zing of the yeşil erik paired perfectly with the heady anise-laced drink, like an advance on the sun-drenched days of summer, when there will be cherries, too.