Roaming the streets of Istanbul at 8:30 a.m. on a Sunday can be a surreal experience. The sun is shining, the seagulls are bellowing as they dip and dive – but the normally bustling streets are quiet. A few shops might be lifting their shutters, and cafés in younger neighborhoods may only just be putting on their first pot. Always a bit of a morning snoozer even on other days of the week, Istanbul is a lazy Sunday city like no other. At Lider Pide, however, Çetin and Cemil Zor are already slinging out fresh Trabzon-style pides to eager breakfast goers who’ve made the trek out to the Ümraniye district on Istanbul’s Asian side.
For most folks, pide – the canoe-shaped flatbread that’s a specialty of Turkey’s Black Sea region – might seem more like a lunchtime snack than a breakfast treat. But in the Black Sea city of Trabzon, those lazy Sunday mornings are the perfect occasion for a gooey pide with a beautiful, hefty crust. This tradition of breakfast pide is what has the staff at Lider opening its doors at 8 a.m., and what has former Black Sea denizens arriving early to order kıymalı (minced meat) or peynirli (local cheese) pides that defy expectation.
At first, making it out to this charmless section of Ümraniye for a dish as ubiquitous as pide felt a tad extreme. The last time we had taken the M5 metro line to the area we had spent an exhausting day furniture shopping for a new apartment. Exiting the Çakmak metro station and walking toward the massive Meydan Shopping Mall – home to the Asian side’s IKEA – involves passing store after store of chipboard furniture and faux-leather headboards, only to arrive at the Swedish giant for more of the same. This time, however, we exited the metro and almost immediately turned into a crowd of brightly lit kebab salons and “family” restaurants (large kid-friendly and alcohol-free eateries). IKEA has its own cafe to revive overstimulated shoppers, and here we had stumbled upon a homegrown answer to that. A quick walk into the winding streets, and we arrived at Lider Pide, its hand-painted blue and white signage a beacon after the sea of neon signs before it.
Çetin and Cemil Zor, the owners of Lider Pide, say their father, Ahmet Zor, was one of the first to bring Trabzon pide – one of the local delicacies of the Eastern Black Sea region of Turkey – to Istanbul just over 30 years ago. Pide can be found throughout Turkey, with regional variations that aren’t always so obvious to the layman. Over the years, though, Trabzon pide has become the style most widely found outside its home region – in part due to the large number of Turks from the Black Sea who have migrated to Istanbul and other parts of Western Turkey.
Çetin and Cemil believe it’s their ingredients, technique and father’s legacy that set them apart from the rest. The story of Lider Pide, whose famous kavurmalı (preserved braised meat) pide recipe has been passed from generation to generation, is another example of migration cuisine making an impact in Istanbul.
Before Ahmet arrived in the big city in 1991 with his three sons – Çetin, Cemil and Metin – he was the usta (master craftsman) of a fırın (bakery) in Trabzon’s Değirmendere. In that time, bakery ovens in Trabzon would be reserved for bread until a certain hour, before switching over to accommodate pides. Then, folks would bring pide dough they had prepared at home for baking in the fırın’s stone ovens. This common tradition continues today in some parts of the Black Sea region, as “pide culture” is an indispensable part of the Sunday meal that is festively shared with family.
When Ahmet made his way to Istanbul, opening a pide joint was the obvious next step. He started Lider as a small shop on an unobtrusive street in Tepeüstü, a smaller neighborhood within Ümraniye, and his pides succeeded in winning the admiration of Istanbulites in a short time – years before there was ever an IKEA in these parts. With the number of customers growing each year, Lider Pide eventually opened up a bigger annex just across the street. Since Ahmet’s passing, Çetin and Cemil have been continuing to offer the traditional Trabzon pide, “our father’s legacy” as they say, in the same shop, with the same quality and taste.
One of the things that sets Lider Pide apart is its insistence on using local Black Sea ingredients, which are each brought from the cities they are famous for. The kavurma comes from Rize and the butter that swims atop each pide as it comes out of the oven is specially brought from Trabzon. The local cheese used on the peynirli pides are made from a mixture of tel cheese and kolot cheese, which are beloved in Trabzon. (These cheeses form the base of another local specialty, muhlama, a kind of Black Sea fondue.)
Another factor contributing to Lider’s perfectly crisp pides is the wood-fired stone oven at the restaurant. The Zor brothers tell us that the oak logs they use burn slowly, leaving dense embers that ensure the pides are cooked properly. Skilled pide masters hired by Çetin and Cemil prepare the pide dough, kneading it and allowing it to rest. It takes four hours for the dough to proof, as it is prepared with very little yeast. The long rise, the brother say, allows for the dough’s gluten to break down, making the final products more easily digestible.
The pide masters then roll out the dough by hand (never with a rolling pin), and it is meticulously measured to the correct weight before being slathered with topping and slid into the oven. No matter how busy things get at Lider, Çetin and Cemil insist these careful steps are never compromised.
Those who have been to Lider before come knowing they will wait at least half an hour for their pide. It may sound like a long time, but the final product is worth the wait. The kavurmalı pide, most of all, has earned its well-deserved reputation at the top of the menu. The meat Lider uses is extremely soft and aromatic, cooked inside a perfectly crispy pide, which is served kapalı, or covered – meaning that the crust covers the filling. This is to ensure the meat doesn’t dry out as the pide cooks, though customers are free to order it “long and open” or “round and open” as well. Before the kapalı pide is served, the usta slices the top off, leaving it on as a kind of lid. This top crust can then be used like a spoon to dip into the pide – especially decadent when you order your pide with a fresh egg cracked over it while steaming hot.
Apart from pide, there is only salad and Hamsiköy fırın sütlaç (oven-baked rice pudding) at Lider. Hamsiköy rice pudding is, no surprise, another Black Sea specialty, and is prepared with organic whole milk. It is baked until a caramelized brown layer forms on top of the pudding, and served with a sprinkling of crushed hazelnuts. Lider’s ayran (salted yogurt drink) is also a refreshing treat. It’s thick and frothy, prepared fresh and served in traditional copper cups.
In the last 30 years, Lider Pide has developed a cult following – on any given Sunday, the restaurant will turn out some 3,000 pides. Those whose parents used to bring them to Lider every Sunday are continuing this tradition with their own children. One thing is for sure, we’ll never make the mistake of eating at the Ümraniye IKEA cafe again.