Editor’s note: Our last dispatch for Breakfast Week takes us to a charming spot in Beyoğlu, where followers of Istanbul’s two competing schools of breakfast can enjoy their morning meals side by side.
Istanbul is a dynamic city, where conditions can change so quickly and completely that it’s easy to forget the way things used to be. The new reality can be so strong and ever-present that the past feels like a hazy dream, if that. But no, this is not an article about Turkish politics. This is an article about Turkish breakfast.
In the recent past, the humble, yet very satisfying classic Turkish breakfast – wedge of feta-like beyaz peynir, a couple of fresh, raw vegetables, some honey, jam, eggs made to order and a pile of fresh bread – has been eclipsed by two competing breakfast trends. One is provided courtesy of the breakfast mafia from the Eastern Turkish city of Van, which has planted a flag in most neighborhoods, serving up a lavish spread, including a few specialties not seen west of the Euphrates. Then there’s the Western-style brunç phenomenon, whose proliferation we credit to the House Café empire, which helped introduce Istanbulites to mimosas and pork-laden Eggs Benedict. For years these two forces have competed for the attention of Istanbul’s avid breakfast-goers, driving a wedge into a society that had up till now generally agreed on the subject of breakfast.
Quite recently, though, at the table of a stylishly relaxed restaurant in the Çukurcuma neighborhood, we realized that perhaps we’d entered a new era, one of the hybrid breakfast hangout. Come Anatolian-breakfast lover, come hip European expat nursing a hangover – Cuma’s got something for everyone.
Set back on a quiet street filled with antique shops, Cuma’s large, sunny patio is the ideal spot to spend a morning. Ascending a steep flight of stairs at the entry, the space inside feels awkward at first but opens up into a series of cozy interconnected rooms, one of which is filled with toys for those with kids. The eclectic collection of antiques and mid-century furniture is a welcome respite from the butcher block tables and mirrors that House Café and its imitators believe to be the standard café look. The designer responsible for Cuma, Selçuk Arıkan (whose atelier is conveniently located next door), builds lights and chairs that sometimes look like they were salvaged from the workshop of a mad scientist but are always interesting and one-of-a-kind.
Cuma’s menu is also, somehow, Frankenstein-esque, an odd assembly of dissonant parts that, when put together, come alive! We had a sucuklu yumurta, fried eggs with cumin-rich Turkish sausage, which reminded us of our old greasy-spoon breakfast favorite, kavurmalı yumurta. But then there’s homemade granola spiked with pekmez (fruit molasses) and tahini, served up with fresh fruit and honey. A comfortable middle ground can be found with the fried eggs over spinach, dressed with yogurt, but our favorite is the poached eggs with prosciutto served on bazlama, a sort of Turkish English muffin. The kahvaltı tabağı is perfectly edited to share among two or three people so that everyone gets a taste of fluffy kaymak, a drizzle of honey, a few pert little green olives from Bandırma and some tomatoes and cucumbers drenched in oil and vinegar. A study in restraint, this smattering is a quick, delicious nod to the traditional Turkish breakfast without dwelling too much on it.
Truth be told, the best part about a long breakfast at Cuma is the chance that, after a couple of newspapers and a fresh fruit smoothie (we tried a few and enjoyed the beet, apple and celery mixture) you may be hungry enough to order lunch. In the kitchen is Aysel Hanım, hailing from the Black Sea port of Ordu, where, if they were to brunch, hamsi (Black Sea anchovies) would inevitably be involved. From Cuma’s lunch menu, the hamsi kuşu, two filleted anchovies pressed together and fried, is one of the best we’ve had in Istanbul.
Sitting in this well-designed space and eating down-home Black Sea soul food or pancakes – take your pick – we recalled the days when more obscure Anatolian specialties started hitting the breakfast table in Istanbul, when the discovery of a place serving bacon was a big scoop. Breakfast sure has come a long way.
Let’s hope that Cuma’s tendency not to fuse but to comfortably mishmash represents a weakening of the poles that have dominated breakfast for so long. Let’s hope for a second helping of places like Cuma that try to embrace the full scope of Turkey’s diverse appetite. That would certainly be a refreshing era for (breakfast in) the Turkish Republic, wouldn’t it?