In Turkey, talk of çiğ börek, invariably leads to a mention of Eskişehir. A small Anatolian city famous for its vibrant student life and the historic Ottoman-style houses in the old town of Odunpazarı, Eskişehir is famous for these fried half-moon meat-filled pastries.
They came to the city along with the Crimean Tatar community who migrated to Anatolia by way of the Caucasus from the 18th to 20th centuries, fleeing the expansion of the Russian Empire and anti-Muslim persecution. Today you can munch on these fried treats alongside a glass of homemade ayran in historic Odunpazari, though few other trappings of the Tatar community remain visible.
There are a number of good çiğ börek places in Istanbul offering the tried-and-true meat and onion version; less common is a version filled with fresh cheese. But when we’re craving çiğ börek, we often go a less traditional route. Tucked behind the cobblestone streets and trendy bars and coffee shops of the Akaretler neighborhood in Beşiktaş, ÇiÇi Çiğ Börek offers freshly fried, handmade çiğ börek that blend tradition with style and a hint of innovation.
Situated on the corner of Özgür Sokak and Hacı Halit Bey Sokak in two-story structure straight out of old Istanbul, ÇiÇi feels a bit like your aunt’s house – assuming your aunt has impeccable taste. Back in the 1980s, the building had served as the local bakkal (corner store). Even in its stylish reincarnation, the café has managed to keep its place as a neighborhood social hub. On sunny days, tables filled with diners sprawl out onto the sidewalks, and visitors are just as likely to be friends, neighbors and regulars as they are to be new customers.
Opened in the summer of 2018, ÇiÇi Çiğ Börek has largely been the project of Sevcan Yıldız, the owner. Educated in graphic and industrial design, she worked as an interior designer for a number of years. When the architecture firm she worked for closed suddenly, she found herself unemployed. With no money coming in to pay the bills, she decided to make the leap into a new sector. “I’d been toying with the idea of opening up a çiğ börek shop for some time. We ate it a lot growing up, and I knew what it takes to make good çiğ börek,” she tells us.
Her family, hailing from the Black Sea town of Rize, is Crimean Tatar on her father’s side, and the dish was routinely on the table at home. One day, walking around Akaretler, she noticed that the corner building was empty and for rent. She visited the owner, one of her neighbors, agreed to terms and started to rent the locale. A loan from her older brother helped her pay the first three months’ rent while she got the business going.
While çiğ börek had been a prominent part of her childhood, Sevcan was surprised to discover many of her friends hadn’t tried it. The Turkish term for the pastry – çiğ börek – literally means “raw” börek, supposedly because of the tendency to use raw ground meat in the filling rather than precooked meat. But many believe that the proper name for the dish is çibörek, with the word “çi” coming from the Kipchak word for “delicious.” ÇiÇi’s name is a deliberate play on this, and a reminder of how tasty this pastry can be.
Many believe that the proper name for the dish is çibörek, with the word “çi” coming from the Kipchak word for “delicious.”
Çiğ börek has an unfortunate reputation for being quite oily, but Sevcan’s version is light and appealing. At ÇiÇi Çiğ Börek, the dough is prepared by hand daily and the stuffing added raw. After frying, the pastry rests for a moment to drain off excess oil and lose a bit of the excess heat. The result is a soft, slightly crunchy half moon, not too oily, with the liquid from the now-cooked ground meat imbuing the inside of the pastry with a heady flavor and luxurious tenderness.
The café itself is tiny, its limited floor space taken up by a retro refrigerator stocked with organic Özerhisar ayran and the wide marble counter where Sevcan and Sahiba Solak, the chef, prepare the dough each morning. The menu is similarly compact: çiğ börek stuffed with meat, cheese, or sebzeli (vegetable), tea, ayran and a few other beverage options.
The vegetable option speaks to Sevcan’s willingness to break with tradition. Necip, the café’s first chef, took hints from Indian cuisine to come up with a çiğ börek filled with green lentils and veggies, served with a sweet and sour sauce for a taste experience that might remind some diners of freshly fried spring rolls. The dish itself, though outwardly indistinguishable from its meat and cheese counterparts, pays homage to the flavors of an Indian samosa.
“When I first started working here I visited a couple more traditional çiğ börek places around town,” Sahiba, the current chef, confided in us one sunny afternoon. “It was good, of course. But to tell you the truth, I liked ours so much more.”
The pandemic has taken a heavy economic toll on the dining and entertainment sector in Turkey, with a near-constant state of closure meaning that restaurants had to make sacrifices if they wanted to survive – ÇiÇi included. The team now consists of just Sevcan and Sahiba, and takeout has been their only option for reaching customers over the last year. Hungry diners can order from the café via Turkey’s swiftly growing food delivery services Yemeksepeti and Getir, and even the online shopping platform Trendyol.
Still, the future is hopeful. As summer descends upon Istanbul in earnest, the cafés and bars are open again, and customers have returned to ÇiÇi’s curbside seating. The weather is heating up and Turkey, now armed with a steady supply of vaccines, is rushing to inoculate a population eager to return to “normal” life.
Sevcan and Sahiba are planning for a brighter future, too. They’re working to launch a new line of dishes they’re calling MiMi Mantı. More reminiscent of Chinese dumplings than the tiny Kayseri mantı typically associated with Turkey, these boiled dumplings will boast fillings ranging from the conventional ground meat to walnut-laced Circassian chicken. We know we’re looking forward to many more delicious – and surprising – mouthfuls at ÇiÇi Çiğ Börek.