Trabzon doesn’t face the sea so much as fall into it like it’s hugging an old friend. The weight of dozens of mountains and just as many rivers pushes the city into the Black Sea, and the blue-collar port and ribbons of highways get the region’s bounties out of the city seemingly while the bread is still warm. Due to the massive out-migration that the region has undergone since the 1980s, countless pide shops and lokantas promising Karadeniz (“Black Sea”) recipes can be found in Istanbul, and some of them are quite good. But with food as simple and unique as what’s found in the Turkish Black Sea coast, it’s not the recipes that pack a punch so much as the ingredients. The freshest and weirdest are found in Trabzon and its environs and are as good an excuse to up and live in Trabzon as the mountains and the music.
First, some coordinates. The term “Karadeniz” as cultural signifier doesn’t cover Turkey’s whole northern coast so much as it does the easternmost quarter of Trabzon province on to Rize (Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ancestral home) and Hopa into Batumi in Georgia. It’s also far deeper than the littoral, as the deep green mountain valleys that go for hundreds of kilometers south also spill out into the sea. It’s separate from the steppes that dominate Turkey and the sheep that dominate Turkish cuisine. There’s a joke among locals that the cuisine includes “anything we can find.” The hamsi (Black Sea anchovy) is famous, but fish aren’t everything, and besides, their season is short, and there are many more months in which one needs to eat oneself senseless.
Trabzon is a city of cliffs and is the heart of the Karadeniz. Its still-functioning harbor is not particularly pleasant, while the foggy weather and mid-century architecture evoke the Caucasus more than anything in Turkey. Even the militant Atatürk guarding the city center seems to be wearing an anachronistic 1950s jacket and hat.
Atatürk may seem to be guarding the square, or he may be side-eyeing Cemil Usta’s restaurant. One may be skeptical of a three-story restaurant with Bluetooth-enabled waiters and instead look longingly at the pide and köfte makers greeting potential diners (or marks?) in Turkish and Georgian, but Cemil Usta earned this impressive edifice with a rare talent: they do both fish and meat with aplomb.
Akçaabat köfte is still essentially köfte, or spiced lamb patties, but this iteration is made thin and in a slider shape. Good köfte relies on fresh meat and high heat, both of which Cemil Usta provides. The side of pickled peppers helps. Cemil Usta’s second-floor grill is the length of a pool table, and needs to hold mezgit, istavrit and alabalık, as well as the legendary hamsi in season. The alabalık (trout) is a bit more of a year-round delicacy and is available steamed, grilled or fried. The good meat, fresh fish, gooey kuymak (essentially cheesy grits) and ayran by the pitcherful bring in the families and crowds who fill up all three levels and keep the kitchen humming. Those Bluetoothed waiters seem more necessary when the fish keep coming out and the complimentary baklava ends a meal. The concessions to efficiency seem necessary to keep Cemil Usta a cut above the more desperate touts surrounding the square.
As wonderful as Cemil Usta is, it’s incumbent upon a traveler to Trabzon to get out of Trabzon. The small villages that look down on the road from every mountainside may seem to have a timeless air yet are truly anything but. The tea plantations were only established in 1917, after the British occupation of Istanbul started a tea craze. Cornbread came in the 17th century – hardly recent, but hardly as old as the fish it’s served with. Something that is a bit more endemic is turşu kavurma, roasted spicy pickles that taste more like kimchi than anything else in the Turkish repertoire but work as a great counterpoint to the neutral kuymak and fatty fish that dominate the region’s plates. Sütlaç (rice pudding) here is milkier than the rest of Turkey’s and topped with crushed hazelnuts. Often referred to as hamsiköy sütlaç, it’s a rich finish to the region’s improvement on any other old lokanta fare.
And while the careful concerto of a village meal of bread, fresh fish and spicy peppers is no doubt fantastic, sometimes more heftiness is required (particularly when hiking the many mountains of the region comes into play). When heftiness is required, pide is the call to make. Any taxi driver, dockworker or tea plucker has his opinion on the best pide around, but opinions tend to single out Yılmaz Pide in Sürmene. The coastal joint has a new glass-and-steel building enveloping its wood-burning oven and has cars from throughout Turkey (and one from Switzerland) in the parking lot. This all belies a rather straightforward menu.
“We don’t have a menu,” the young waitress shrugs. “We have three pides.”
What types of pides are these three? “We have cheese, we have kavurma [roasted meat] and then we have a special.” What, by the way, is the special? “A mix of cheese and kavurma.” Simple is good when it comes to pide, and the cheese in particular is worth careful examination. There is a Caucasian tang to the cheese, as it tastes more Georgian than Turkish and gives the blackened and chewy crust a saltiness more redolent of khachapuri than anything easily found in Istanbul. The kavurma, on the other hand, reminds an American of Texas brisket. Both are cheap, delicious and can get someone back on the foggy hills quickly.
Those foggy hills are a long way from Istanbul, but plenty of Black Sea cooks try to bring the flavors to Istanbul and often complete their restaurant’s decor with a photograph of some mountain valley or another. Like the cheesy waterfalls in the frame, the food often comes up short of the real thing.
But it’s not impossible to get the real McCoy through some of the trucks one sees heading westward on the Trabzon highway. After all, if so much tea is being shipped that direction, it’s not impossible to get the right cheese, flour and, of course, the fish. The annual Karadeniz Festival in Gezi Park seem to have ceased to exist, but some restaurants are still around.
Şimşek’s owner died a few years ago, and the place may be missing his seventh-of-a-ton presence and cigarette-gouged voice, but it’s clearly not missing his recipes. Beyoğlu lacks straightforward lokantas, but Şimşek has the basic musakka and chicken and also seasonal hamsi ekmek and pide radioactive with butter. (A note on the butter: It’s a seasonal provision in the Black Sea, no different from tomatoes. Spring butter is grassy, winter butter is fatty and fall butter tastes like oats. Şimşek can’t ship in Black Sea butter every month, while Yılmaz can, and therein lies the difference. This is not a knock on Şimşek but rather a recognition of the compromises made in not flying out to Trabzon that very night.) [Editor’s note: We regret to report that Şimşek Pide has closed.]
“Us Laz, we are great cooks and great engineers.” The best jokes, like the best fasulye, need time. “We make this delicious food,” the proud cook says, gesturing out over a glass-faced kitchen with his right hand. Patting his belly with his left, he finally gets to the point. “And we build these great big balconies to put it in.”
Cadde Karadeniz has two floors, a glowing sign and well-dressed waiters. It also has kuymak, cabbage soup and kavurma. For all its glam, it is a Cemil Usta equivalent, shrunk to fit into its Kadıköy rent. A chatty staff (mostly Kurdish) and the sugary, creamy Laz böreği (made with Carrefour milk) end the meal alongside tea (like all Turkish tea, from the plantations of Rize). Cadde Karadeniz is the Istanbulified equivalent of Black Sea lokantas. It has the garrulous staff and rotating menu as well as good food, but it is also clearly someone’s investment and has passed under as many interior decorators’ eyes as those of cooks. Light fixtures and not just lights are involved; good thing that what they’re illuminating is very good eats.
This is not to decry what Şimşek or Cadde Karadeniz do, which is give very good regional food to people outside the region at reasonable prices. This would have been nothing less than sorcery 200 years ago. But the Black Sea isn’t just the recipes and the unctuousness of food made to rib-stick as its eaters climb mountains and sail seas. The Black Sea is a foggy morning made clear with kuymak and tea, a rainy night spent over soup listening to a kemençeci singing between sips of smuggled Georgian wine.
When the concept of “authenticity” is brought up, it is this whole interlocking community of food, culture and people who appreciate them that is being referenced, not just farm-to-table butter (though that helps). The piecemeal importation of Black Sea-ness into Istanbul cannot bring the cliffs or the jokes along with the tea. The mountains came first, the weather second and the food culture is awfully hard to extricate.