The ubiquitous Turkish kebab has an inevitable presence in any corner of the world and you can pick it up at your own peril… it is like the draw of the luck. Sometimes it is good, and sometimes it isn’t. Recently we picked it up at the Budapest Railway station, on a long eight-hour journey to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. There were four of us and we had booked the ticket online for a ridiculously low 15 euros a ticket, and till we boarded the train, we were not even sure if this was a genuine ticket.
But it was and the train was as comfortable as all trains are in Europe but more about that exciting journey another day. It turned out to be a no-frills train and we could buy nothing to eat, or drink, either on the train or any of the stations it halted at! Yes, like you, I was also thinking of the plethora of choices available on our stations — from idli-vada to samosa to omelette and of course biryani or curd rice depending on your palate.
But this article is about Turkish food, and returning to the kebabs we picked up at a café at the Budapest station, they were almost inedible. But with little choice available, we downed as much as we could and discarded the rest.
What a far cry this was from the food we had on our trip to Turkey last year — at both Istanbul and Cappadocia.A confession here — the genesis of the trip itself was a Turkish serial, a lovely soap titled Love me as I am on Netflix. In it the heroine’s father owns a meatball or kofteci (kebab) shop and it is the best one in the entire Anatolia region of Turkey. He later comes to Istanbul to set up a kebab outfit here.
Of course the serial showcases the charms of the magical city of Istanbul, the stunning Bosporus and its iconic treasures such as the Hagia Sophia Museum and the Blue Mosque. It brought back a longing to return to the stunningly beautiful Istanbul, and the freshest of air that you can breathe of the Bosporus that separates the European side of Istanbul from the Asian side. Twelve years ago I had visited Istanbul, wowing to return with the husband.
So we found ourselves in Turkey — getting the visa was a breeze! If you have a valid US or Schengen visa, an Indian can get a Turkish visa online for something like $50. We first tasted the Turkish meatball in Cappadocia and it was delicious. The meat was tender and juicy and the bread accompanying it among the best you can find in Europe.
Table olives form a big part of the Turkish diet and the Turks like to consume olives in large quantities for breakfast.
The traditional kebab or kofteci was so good that it took a while to experiment with other food, though grilled fish and prawns almost became a staple. Once in Istanbul, the scope was much larger. In this breathtakingly beautiful city, we took a couple of personalised tours, and our guide Mustafa took us to a couple of restaurants that looked modest from the outside but served delicious food. Here we discovered that peppers or capsicum stuffed with a rice preparation are a regular part of the Turkish diet, and we did try them but weren’t too enamoured by it. The soups on the other hand, were delicious. But kofteci was clearly the king. At one of these restaurants we tried cheese kebab, which was served with peppers and aubergine and was delicious.
Turkey is an olive growing region and table olives form a big part of the Turkish diet and the Turks like to consume olives and each morning, at the breakfast spread in our hotel in both Istanbul and Cappadocia, table olives marinated in brine and spiced up with various Mediterranean spices, occupied the pride of place.
Mezze or a set of starters served in little containers, which is very popular in the Middle East, Greece and North Africa is a big hit in Turkey. The starters come with peta bread and are mainly a couple of dishes of table olives, hummus, finely chopped vegetables garnished with olive oil and spices, and the like.
But the best meal of our trip happened when taking the advice of Scott, the husband of an Indian journalist friend who is now posted in Istanbul. We took a ferry from the European side (where our hotel was located) to the Asian side. On his advice we visited and walked around Kadikoy, an Istanbul hip residential area on the Asian side. Wonder of wonders, within 20 minutes we had crossed from Europe to Asia!
You would expect the European side of Istanbul to be more hep, and perhaps there are localities which are really fancy on the European side too. We were staying bang in the centre of the city, and within walking distance of its architectural wonders such as the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, not to mention the magnificent Suleymaniye mosque, which is so stunning that it literally takes your breath away. And yet we found the Asian side to be really fancy.
Kadikoy (sounds so similar to Kozhikode, doesn’t, it?) was filled with glittering shops and turned out to be a shopper’s delight. What struck my fancy were shoes. The price tag was so reasonable that two pairs had to be bought. But the best part was walking towards Ciya Sofrasi, the restaurant that Scott had highly recommended. To reach it we had to walk through narrow streets — a virtual sprawling, fruit, vegetable and meat market of Kadikoy it seemed — with the freshest of Mediterranean fruits and vegetables. It was a literal assault on the senses… stacks of fresh green chillies that reminded one of home; heaps and heaps of pickled and spiced olives in various hues, fish and meats of all shapes and sizes and of course, mouthwatering pastry that tempted you from the glass display windows of pastry shops.
At Ciya, two of the chefs were working on making naans/rotis in a neat little tandoor. The rotis were so much like our rotis/naans and it was fascinating to watch them rolling out the aatta balls a little and then throw them into the air, and deftly stretch them into thin naans and then carefully place them inside the tandoor using long-handled wooden ladles (see picture). They were making a variety of naans, and we found that one of them was the thinnest of pizza bases. “It is Turkish pizza,” one of the chefs explained to us proudly as he put some veggies and spices on it and pushed it back into the tandoor.
We stuck to our recommendation which was the garlic kebab, and a lamb casserole, two specialties of the place and when these arrived on the table, they left us breathless. The garlic kebabs made with garlic, of course, lamb and a pomegranate sauce in the tandoor, and are served along with onions grilled in the same oven! Simply delicious was the verdict.
On the menu were also a plethora of mouthwatering choices… such as poppy seeds kebab, yoghurt kebab (made with hand-chopped lamb or beef and yoghurt); sour kebab (made with aubergine, tomato and pomegranate molasses) and the most special of all — the Ciya kebab, made with hand-chopped lamb/beef, walnut, cheese, parsley and mint.
While hopefully there will be other occasions to try out other varieties of kebabs, what was I thinking when I packed some Turkish kebabs at the Budapest station? A chicken or cheese burger would have been far safer! Grateful I didn’t try the Turkish delight, which was also available!
Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat