It’s fairly common for a son to claim his mother’s cooking as the best (especially in Turkey), but how often does he open a restaurant for her?
Cıhan knew a good thing when he opened Kitelimmi Kitel Burger in the Kıztaşı neighborhood of Fatih. Not only is the food delicious, but his immi (mom) Ümit cooks up fare you can’t get many other places in Istanbul.
Ümit hails from the city of Batman, and the menu at Kitelimmi reflects dishes from nearby Siirt. Food from that southeastern region tends to favor meat, chilis, spices and sour flavors – a reflection in part of Arab influence that goes back generations ( a heritage which Ümit’s family also claims). On the menu here is pırtıke, a spinach soup thick with chickpeas and rice in a thick, dark broth tart with nar ekşisi and sumac. The dolma are of the eastern Turkey variety, with tender chunks of beef replacing the ground meat normally found mixed into the rice filling. If she made them in Siirt, she says, she would make them with lamb, but Istanbulites, especially youth, find the taste and smell too strong. The filling is stuffed into dried eggplants and peppers and then steamed until soft. They are tender, the perfectly-cooked rice filling is salty and spicy, specked with salça and sour with sumac water.
And then there’s the namesake kitel. Kitel, we learn, is made of the same components of içli kofte – bulgur dough and meat filling – but with a slightly different preparation.
“İçli köfte” might bring to mind oblong fried balls, with a crispy outer layer of dough encasing a ground meat and onion filling. Also known as kibbeh, this version is common in most parts of Turkey (and across the Levantine and Middle Eastern regions). But in southeast areas, like Mardin, Siirt and Diyarbakir, içli köfte takes a different form. The meat-filled dough patties –shaped in discs, midye (mussels) and triangles – are steamed, remaining slightly wet and tender.
If it looks like içli köfte and smells like içli kofte, it still might not be içli köfte. Kitel appears the same, but the meat filling is raw when stuffed, whereas içli köfte’s is cooked first. The result is a slightly different taste and texture of the filling.
It may seem like simple food, but it is hard work to prepare. Every day, Ümit makes them by hand, deftly transforming the ingredients into the distinctly shaped patties. She takes balls of bulgur-based dough, flattens them between her hands, presses a bit of meat filling in the center and adds more dough to form a rounded hockey-puck, laying them to rest on trays. Then the magic begins. As we talk, she picks up a puck and spins it slowly between her palms as she presses it into an even, almost flat disc, adding bits of dough to fill in any cracks. One last rhythmic dance of the kitel back and forth between her hands, she drops it in a pot of boiling water. Once cooked, she plates them steaming alongside a small bowl of chili oil. The latter is unexpected in this city where spicy isn’t so common. Akin to the recently popularized Chinese chili crisp, the salty, savory pül biber fried in oil could be eaten by the spoonful.
The kitel are delicious. Tender dough encases a lightly spiced, juicy meat filling, each bite jazzed further by the spicy oil. It’s clearly the work of skilled hands.
Ümit is no stranger to kitchens – she’s worked as a professional chef in Istanbul restaurants from world cuisines to steakhouses. Despite leaving Batman as a child, growing up in Izmir and, after marrying, spending 40-plus years in Istanbul, she still holds onto the culinary traditions of the southeast. The restaurant, opened in 2017, started with only kitel, but slowly Ümit added other items to the menu. First, that spinach soup. “Kitel and pırtıke are like coffee and a cigarette to us,” she says as she advises to eat them together, crumbling the kitel into the soup. There’s the afore-mentioned dolma, as well as bumbar (or mumbar) – intestines stuffed with rice and meat. This Siirt version does not have any salça; the taste is lighter and more delicate.
There’s also köftelleben, or “Siirt manti,” where unfilled nubs of kitel dough are boiled and then doused with creamy garlic yogurt, a sauce of spiced ground meat and a healthy pour of chili oil. “Explosion of flavors” is kind of a trite phrase, but it is apt in this case. The heartiness of the bulgur balls stands up to the strong flavors while at the same time everything merges together. The yogurt she sources from Silivri, one hour west of Istanbul, because “it’s just made better.”
Despite the restaurant’s name, there’s not actually a burger on the menu. “We thought kitel was kind of like one. America has hamburgers, we have kitel.”
Ümit’s elder sister as well as her mother-in-law and a friend support in the kitchen and with serving customers, but it’s mostly a one-woman show here. Her son defers to her on everything food-related, but manages the business side, the marketing and decor, which is designed to feel like a home environment. Downstairs are typical tables and chairs, but the large upstairs room is a domestic scene: large bay windows, burgundy and gold wallpaper, sofas and wooden dining tables, stacks of books, even a fax machine. We ask Ümit about the two quirky window decorations hanging on the outside – a lifesaver ring and the dangling feet of a large plush pink bear. “My son,” she shrugs, shaking her head in bemusement.
It’s hard work, opening and closing the place every day, barely resting. But despite the pressure of running a small business, Ümit sees a reward here that didn’t exist in professional kitchens. “Before, I never saw the people,” she says. “Now I can see the customers, see how they enjoy the food. They always tell me ‘eline sağlık.’” (A Turkish phrase to express enjoyment of food, literally translated as “health to your hands.”) Customers, mostly Turkish but foreigners as well, range from young to old, students to nearby hospital workers. Many famous people – musicians, politicians and gourmets – have eaten here, and one high-profile customer especially appreciates her food: she goes once a month to make food for first lady Emine Erdoğan, who hails from Siirt.
“I’d like to teach people so they can keep this tradition,” Ümit says. Then she can pass the kitel baton to someone younger and move on to her dream plan for retirement: living on the coast and riding her bicycle.
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