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On a busy street in Beşiktaş, nestled between a camera shop and a turşu stand, sits an unassuming storefront offering çiğ köfte. Open only after 3 p.m., it’s easy to walk by and not take notice of what seems like an average fast-food joint. But this is Çiğköfte Yiyelim (which translates to “Let’s eat çiğ köfte!”), and is one of our favorite spots for this dish from southeastern Turkey because of the unique variations offered.

Çiğ köfte is a mixture of fine bulgur wheat (sometimes along with raw minced meat), onions, olive oil, tomato and pepper paste, herbs and spices including parsley and cumin, lemon and water that is kneaded together by hand and formed into oblong pieces with characteristic finger-sized indentations in the surface. It’s eaten topped with more parsley, lemon and a drizzle of nar ekşisi (pomegranate molasses), then wrapped either in lettuce leaves or a thin dürüm flatbread. The dish originated in the historic southeastern Turkish city of Şanlıurfa (revered by locals as being the birthplace of the Biblical patriarch Abraham) but is now available in every Turkish city and town as an easy, healthy fast food.

Traditional çiğ köfte and its variations are the only thing on the menu here at Çiğköfte Yiyelim, either portioned out or in a dürüm (wrap). Owner Turgut Kiriş makes versions yumurtalı (with egg) and cevizli (with walnuts). But the real highlight is the version with both, which we ordered on a recent visit.

Kiriş slips behind a curtain to cook the eggs for our dürüm. As he scrambles the eggs over a propane burner, he tells one version (there are several variations) of çiğ köfte’s origins, which Kiriş says go back to the time of the Bible. Legend has it that in Şanlıfurfa, King Nimrod was threatened by Abraham and his push to develop a monotheistic religion, so he called for Abraham to be burned to death and ordered all the firewood in the area to be gathered for the fire. When a local hunter came home with a fresh gazelle, there was no firewood left for his wife to cook with, so she prepared the meat by massaging it with spices and the heat from her hands. Nowadays, it’s rare to find the original meat version outside of home kitchens due to food safety laws. Instead, the meat has been replaced with bulgur for a vegetarian (or even vegan) dish.

The yumurtalı version is also something not typically found outside the home, since (unlike the rest of the raw ingredients) the egg must be incorporated hot. While this homestyle preparation originated in Urfa, it can be found in homes across the southeast, including Diyarbakır and Mardin. Cevizli is even less common. Here in his Beşiktaş store, Turgut scrambles each egg to order. If you’ve ordered with walnuts, he weighs out the chopped nuts and adds them as the eggs finish cooking. Then he carefully mixes everything into the bulgur mixture with his hands.

Once the mixture is cooked, he lightly spreads it onto the dürüm, sprinkles it with pul biber and isot biber (two different types of red pepper flakes) and nar ekşisi, tops it with lettuce and parsley, and rolls it up. The egg acts as a counterpoint to the spicy, rich bulgur mix, and the walnuts lend a tender crunch along with the greens. It’s not greasy, but just enough oil releases from the mixture to soak into the dürüm. It’s a delicious bite, simple yet healthy.

Turgut wasn’t always an usta (master) of çiğ köfte; in fact, his background isn’t even in food. Born in Urfa, his family came to Istanbul when he was eight years old. For almost 40 years, he worked in a variety of different jobs, as a tailor, a taxi driver and a car salesman, among others. His uncle used to make the çiğ köfte at home, but Turgut wasn’t a big fan. “My uncle said, ‘Fine, you make it,’ and mine passed his test,” he explains with a smile and a mischievous sparkle in his eyes. Turgut’s friends were so impressed with his çiğ köfte that they encouraged him to open a business, and in 2012 Çiğköfte Yiyelim was born.

Turgut runs the shop with his wife Betur and sometimes with the help of their daughter. “I am the ‘usta’, but it’s all the same,” he says. “My wife puts in more love.” The first seven years were challenging – Turgut was still perfecting his recipe and passersby didn’t know there was anything special about his shop. But in 2019, YouTuber Orkun Işıtmak and cook/food writer Refika Birgül visited the shop as part of an episode on çiğ köfte, and since then Çiğ Köfte Yiyelim’s popularity has grown considerably.

It helps that Beşiktaş is a neighborhood popular with young people and students, along with many local hospital workers, all frequent customers. Now, Turgut also has customers who come from across the city – even the Anatolian side. Business is a little bit slow in the summer, but once the school year is back in swing, the pace picks up. The big bags of Doritos in the window are a recent addition, catering to his younger clientele. If requested, he crushes the chips and sprinkles them over the mixture before rolling up the dürüm.

The tiny shop has one table outside and a couple of chairs inside, but Turgut makes everyone feel welcome, flashing his magnetic smile and chit-chatting to the customers as he prepares their orders. Local resident Yasmin comes at least once a month for the yumurtalı-cevizli version, which she says is unique. “It’s healthy; it’s not fast food. It’s home food.” Rifan, a woman from Syria whose local friend brought her in, tells us that there is a similar dish in Syrian cuisine, but the yumurtalı version is new to her and “very delicious.” Turgut invites her to peek behind the curtain to see how he cooks the egg.

The store sells natural products from Urfa – pul biber, isot biber, nar ekşisi– and şalgam (fermented black carrot juice) from Adana. Before we go, we ask him which goes better with çiğ köfte: ayran (a thin, lightly salty yogurt drink) or şalgam (a fermented black carrot juice that tastes like a cross between beet and pickle juice). He responds with a poem:


Çiğ köfte başın tacı,

Ayran bunun ilacı,

Tez yoğur gelin bacı,

İlle canım çiğ köfte.


(Çiğ köfte is the best

Ayran is its cure,

Knead it quickly, sister-in-law,

My dear çiğ köfte.)

Karen CirilloKaren Cirillo

Published on November 09, 2023

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