Located just beneath Istanbul’s first Bosphorus Bridge in the Anatolian side district of Üsküdar is a secluded slice of Trabzon, the Black Sea province known for its otherworldly lush green forests, hot-tempered inhabitants and distinctly deep cuisine.
The Trabzon Kültür Derneği (Trabzon Cultural Association) is something of a clubhouse for folks who grew up in the province and later moved to Istanbul for school and work. Founded in 1970 and having changed locations a number of times, the association set up shop in Üsküdar’s Beylerbeyi neighborhood at the turn of the millennium and crafted a miniature version of home in the heart of Turkey’s largest, ever-sprawling city.
Nestled between thick patches of trees and greenery on all sides and featuring an aging wooden treehouse transported all the way from the northeastern province, the association offers traditional music and dancing courses and also boasts a full-service restaurant that whips up excellent renditions of revered Black Sea dishes.
As we waited for what ended up being nothing short of a belly-bursting banquet, we chatted with some of the association’s board members about why people from Trabzon have a reputation in Turkey for being quick to fly off the handle.
“They stand proud and tall. They are quick to jump into a fight, but at the same time, they can calm down in a second,” said Demet Küçükömeroğlu, the association’s management representative.
“It’s because of [nature there]. It’s a wild place,” she added.
“It’s different in [the nearby province of] Samsun, where there are plains and agricultural land. In Trabzon, people fish in the sea and then the mountains begin just beyond the coast,” said board member Sinan Kars.
This stark geography heavily influences the region’s cuisine, which is sort of like the redheaded stepchild of the Turkish food family. Forget the spicy skewers of kebab found all over the southeast and the famously fresh, olive oil-enriched dishes of the Aegean coast – if anything, Black Sea cuisine shares a number of parallels with American southern cooking. It is a hearty, rich and sumptuous affair, reflecting the landscape from which it originates: rugged, extreme and serene all at once.
“The three fundamental ingredients in Black Sea cooking are fish, collard greens and corn,” said association vice president Nurçin Özsoy. Though not from Trabzon, Özsöy married a local and knows the food as intimately as her husband’s countrymen, if not more so, and speaks about it with a palpable passion.
She waxes poetic on the province’s butter, which is famous nationwide and constitutes the base for a number of classic Black Sea dishes. It is totally preservative free and must be consumed quickly before it spoils. Özsoy has traveled the world, and claims that no other butter compares. As an intimidating number of dishes began to assemble on and around our table, we dove into a slice of the butter on its own. Bearing a faded yellow hue, it was blissfully creamy and smooth. Özsoy wasn’t exaggerating.
Trabzon Cultural Association president Ergün Gürsoy was among those who joined us at our table, looking dapper in a navy suit and sunglasses. The 71-year-old Gürsoy, formerly the vice president of the Galatasaray football club, commands a presence but is gracious and affable and proudly recounted his long tenure as head of the association.
“The reason we bought this land was because it resembled Trabzon,” Gürsoy said, recalling the humble beginnings of the now extensive complex, which was once just a puny tea cafe.
Gesturing to the land across from the restaurant’s outdoor seating facing the Bosphorus, Gürsoy said that the association planted 15 different types of trees to enhance the Trabzon effect. There was once a Bosphorus view, but the new growth has now blocked it. While most Istanbullites would find it unthinkable to cover up a view of the city’s prized strait, the association was more concerned in cultivating the ultimate Trabzon vibe.
In the midst of a busy late Sunday breakfast rush, the plates continued to stream out of the kitchen. We tore into sizzling cubes of kavurma cooked in butter, followed by karalahana sarma, similar to stuffed grape leaves but with collard greens ensnaring the rice.
Next came the kuymak, a Black Sea favorite and a dangerous fondue-like dish of stringy cheese, cornmeal and butter all melted together. We tackled it with our forks, the malleable ropes of cheese and starch that stretched to our mouths seeming unbreakable until we shoveled them down.
There was kaygana, a crisp fritter punctuated with bits of chard and chunks of flavorful hamsi (Black Sea anchovies), and karalahana çorbası, an eye-opening, deeply flavorful soup made with collard greens and barbunya beans. There were pickled green beans and yumurtalı pazı, sunny-side up eggs surrounded by a green mountain of chard.
The number of plates that came out was anxiety inducing, and we had to try everything so as to not disappoint our wonderful hosts. This meant that there was no room for dessert, though we managed to squeeze in bites of a decadent Laz böreği, which more closely resembled baklava injected with a layer of custard rather than a typical savory börek.
Hearing our hosts regale us with tales from back home made us yearn for a visit, but the authentic cuisine and abundance of trees almost made us feel like we were already there.
“Food has no nationality; it has a geography,” Özsoy stated plainly between dropping knowledge bombs on Trabzon specialties.
For the moment, we’ll gladly accept a carefully curated replica of the place so we don’t have to travel 1,000 km for kuymak.