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Mahir Lokantası is one of our favorite diners in the busy Osmanbey area for many reasons. The homey decor with clean white tablecloths, the panoramic view of the intersection of Halaskargazi and Rumeli streets and the warmth of the wood-fired oven that bakes many of the daily specials all keep us coming back. But perhaps what makes Mahir Lokantası so special is the way the chef and owner of the restaurant, Mahir Nazlıcan, brings the flavors of his mother’s recipes and his roots from southeast Turkey’s Diyarbakır to life through his dishes.

The Turkish diner, also known as esnaf lokantası, is of the most important concepts in Turkish culinary culture. The direct translation is “tradesman restaurant,” and the foods in these diners are cooked in big pots that makes them not only delicious but also affordable. Local workers and nearby shop owners usually come to these restaurants during their lunch break for a selection of comfort food from a wide variety of cultures within Turkey.

Each esnaf lokantası has its own style of cooking food that creates a different experience. Mahir Lokantası offers dishes mostly from Eastern Anatolian cuisine influenced by the owner’s childhood memories and stories from Diyarbakır. One of our favorite dishes in the restaurant is tangy cabbage dolma cooked in a tangy sumac-infused liquid – one of Mr. Mahir’s mother’s signature recipes.

For anyone unfamiliar with the term, dolma (meaning “stuffed”) are a common staple in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine and typically consist of cabbage, grape leaves, zucchini or peppers stuffed with various fillings such as cooked mixtures of grains, onion, meat and spices.

With each bite of the cabbage dolma, there’s a tangy, umami taste with a subtle spiciness. The chef emphasizes that the key to capturing this flavor lies in sourcing the ingredients from the right place. “Cabbage is a seasonal product: it’s fresh and available in its season, that’s why it’s very special. It’s like a harbinger of winter’s arrival,” says Mahir.

There are a few key points that make his dolma special. The use of pepper paste in dolma is common in Diyarbakır’s cuisine, its mild spiciness characteristic of the region. There’s also a significant difference between dried mint from Diyarbakır and Istanbul because of varying moisture levels and drying techniques; the mint in Istanbul doesn’t dry out to the same extent, resulting in a taste difference. Finally, Mahir points out that sumac is not commonly used in Diyarbakır for cabbage rolls – but his mother includes it in her recipe, so he includes it in his, appreciating the tangy quality it adds to the stuffed cabbage dish.

He uses whole sumac berries (as opposed to the ground version) while cooking dolma, explaining, “The secret of this complex taste is using whole sumac. We brew sumac for three to four hours and use sumac water to cook the dish. So all the flavors and aromas blend harmoniously with the dish.”

For anyone who can’t get ahold of whole sumac, sumac powder or lemon slices work as a great substitute. Mahir also recommends that good bread, yogurt or ayran (a yogurt drink) perfectly complement the cabbage rolls.

 

Recipe: Cabbage Dolma

Serves 8-10 people (45-50 dolma)

 

Ingredients:

1 medium-sized cabbage

2 1/2 cups (500 grams) rice

1 pound (1/2 kilogram) minced lamb

1 tablespoon isot (a type of red pepper) or substitute paprika

1/2 tablespoon red pepper flakes

1/2 tablespoon dried basil

1/2 tablespoon salt

2 tablespoons sweet pepper paste

1 small onion

1 green pepper (in Turkey we use the “village pepper” variety; Anaheim is a good substitute)

Half a bunch of parsley

5 tablespoons softened butter

1/2 tablespoon black pepper

250 g whole sumac berries or substitute 1 tablespoon sumac powder or 4-5 slices of lemon

 

Instructions:

If you have sumac berries, put them in a 1 liter of boiling water and let simmer for 3-4 hours. Set aside.

Separate the leaves of a medium-sized cabbage and blanch them in boiling water for 2-3 minutes, until they are soft and flexible. Remove and set aside to cool.

Finely chop the parsley, onion, and pepper. In a large bowl, mix them with the raw meat and rice, then the softened butter, tomato paste and spices.

One by one, lay the cabbage leaves on a flat surface. Take one tablespoon of the filling and place at the bottom end of a blanched leaf; and then roll it up like a cigar. The size of the dolma should be around as long as an index finger.

Arrange the stuffed leaves in the bottom of a wide pot. If you have sumac water that has been resting, add it; if not, add about 1 liter of water, enough to cover the dolmas, with sumac powder or 4-5 slices of lemon.

To prevent the dolmas from opening up, place a plate on top of them as a weight.

Bring the water to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce to low heat and cook for approximately one hour. Remove the dolma to cool. After a half-hour resting period, they are ready to be served. Enjoy them warm with yogurt on the side. Afiyet olsun!

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Published on November 03, 2023

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