It would be a shame to host a conference about food and not have any throughout the day. Well, the organisers of Yedi Istanbul have nothing to be ashamed about. While the food served was not advertised as the main attraction, it certainly stole the show, not to mention coffee roaster Kronotrop’s cart was certainly a welcomed sight. Before the day’s events started, attendees were offered breakfast. Thankfully, it wasn’t the typical, now ubiquitous, Van Kahvaltı (Van breakfast) advertised everywhere (suspiciously looking like many breakfast-spreads throughout the country). After the morning session, we slowly made our way outside to find lunch. And, we found a lot of it. The Bomontiada courtyard was separated into seven sections, each reflecting the tastes of Turkey’s seven regions. Like the end of any full day, you’re less hungry for food than you are for a drink. The very cool Kilimanjaro hosted a cocktail hour that was quickly followed by a mezze dinner. If lunch showed the many tastes of Turkey, dinner showed the many sides of Istanbul.
Below are some of our favourites…
Breakfast was graciously hosted by the very creative and hardworking chefs from Istanbul’s famed culinary institute Mutfak Sanatları Akademisi (MSA). We stood in line waiting, mouth watering, and hoping that we would soon be eating what we were smelling. Behind the long makeshift buffet, the chefs quickly worked, stirring, cutting, laughing, and plating the different parts of breakfast unto our trays.
One corner of the tray especially dominated over the others: the mevsim çılbır (a traditional dish of poached eggs in yogurt). The poached egg was placed on a bed of sautéed autumn vegetables, all of which gently came together with yogurt. It may sound heavy, but it was far lighter than any other breakfast-egg dish we’ve tasted. Next on the tray was the obligatory breakfast börek (phyllo-like layers with varieties of stuffing). Refreshingly less greasy than any you will find in the shops, this börek was playfully dubbed Ne Varsa Börek or whatever’s-there börek. In this case, cheese and herbs from Feriköy’s organic market.
Oğle Yemeği ~ Lunch
Lunch at Yedi was a bigger “to-do.” In suite with the name of the event, the courtyard was divided into seven sections, each with one or two tables. So, if the single line at breakfast was chaotic, this was at least seven fold – and totally worth it. While no one was ever entirely sure which line they were in, it didn’t seem like anyone was disappointed with the results. The lunch was especially nice because those preparing the food came from all over the industry, from usta (master of crafts) to fine dining chefs.
The food from eastern Anatolia may not be everyone’s favourite, which is probably why
the organisers decided to bombard us with the best of the region: cheese. From the traditional Kars Gravyer (a gruyere-like cheese) to Van’s famed otlu peynir (lovely crumble cheese packed with fresh regional herbs). Yes, it’s possible to find similar kinds of cheese, here, in Istanbul, but the gentlemen behind the table had a few tricks up their sleeve. After moving past the wheels of gravyer, we were given a something that looked closer to a flexible wafer. Noticing our expressions – intrigued, impressed, slightly frightened – he told us it was kuru kaymak from Erzincan. Kaymak is often compared to clotted cream and usually seen at breakfast tables served with honey. Here, the cream had been dried into a thin layer that melted in your mouth. Unfortunately we were too late for Şemsa Denizsel’s Kars bread, kavılca ekmeğı, made from a strand of wheat unique to the region and one of the oldest too.
The next table over was the Aegean section. There, they were serving up some classics like ot kavurma (sautéed seasonal herbs) and keşkek (slow cooked wheat dish, beaten until thick or creamy) prepared by the team from Kaplan Dağ restaurant in Tire (literally on the Kaplan mountains). After the lovely, but greasy and salty dishes from the Marmara table, the pan-fried herbs proved to be a refreshing palette cleanser before the weighty keşkek. The dish dish is so laborious that it is very rarely made unless for a special occasion. So you can imagine our delight when we saw we saw a couple of people huddled around a pan taking turns at aggressively stirring the wheat. But out greatest delight from this section was just behind us, facing the table. A tall man in a white apron was a tiny mobile cart serving kelle söğüş (sheep’s head sandwich), a true classic from Izmir’s street foods. While we were not able to grab a bite, all the Izmirli (those from Izmir) we asked told us that it tasted like home.
With so many Adana, Iskenderun and Antakya restaurants in Istanbul, it was refreshing to see and taste something else from those regions. Nadya Turunç – later ousted as Chef Maksut Aşkar’s mother – prepared içli köfte (spiced-meat coated in a bulgur shell, fried). Turunç served the köfte typical Aleppo style, long rather than spherical, but with a side of yogurt-sour cream and a wedge of lime. She explained that she’s been making the dish since she was 13 years old. Yeah. She’s mastered it. When we reached the end of the table we were handed şalgam suyu, a salty turnip juice that is served with just about everything in the south. It was a welcomed gulp that cleared our minds and our palettes for the next round.
The Marmara station was manned by several people including speaker Ayşe Tükrükçu. It only seemed appropriate that she was dolling out her soup. While gulping down her soup we quickly collected some more from the table. By the time we made it to the end of the table, some of us had finished everything on their plates. We especially liked the sardalya/tuzlu balık, a Gallipoli tradition, preserved salted anchovies. There was the typical midye dolma pilaf-stuffed mussels prepared by Orhan Usta. Finally, there was one thing in particular that really impressed us: hardaliye. If ever you see some in Istanbul, grab it because you won’t be able to find this drink in many places, we’ve looked. Hardaliye is a very old drink that was very popular in Edirne during the late Ottoman period. It is a fermented grape drink and like present-day boza, it is not alcoholic – it’s not wine, but it was very nice to sip while munching down the sardalya.
It was difficult to be objective with the table because their region produces some of our favourite dishes: the Black Sea. The Amasya Köy Kadınları, or women of Amasya villages, prepared bean stuffed vine leaves. Instead of the neatly rolled, cylinders, these vine leaves were wrapped into a square and piled as high as the women serving them. Istanbul’s delicious Klemuri prepared classics like fasulye turşusu kavurması, fried pickled beans served warmer than room temperature and delightfully refreshing. They also prepared one of the region’s favourites Rize-style hamsili pilav, horse mackerel pilaf. It was savoury, warm and just a little sweet. It was delicious. Finally, no Black Sea meal would be complete with mısır ekmeği, corn bread.
Admittedly, by this point, we were moving slow. And, while we were discussing the benefits of moderate food consumption – and the regret of not having done so – we hit our next region, or part of it. Another usta sporting a white apron was manning a small cart whose glass pane was filled with çiğ köfte, raw spiced meat wrapped in a fresh leaf of iceberg. Unlike, the many çiğ köfte stations we pass everyday, Hüseyin Usta we serving up genuine raw köfte and it was delicious.
Unfortunately, by the time we had gotten to the table, the bell was ringing and we were being ushered back into the Babylon Bomonti hall. However, we did hear from others lucky enough to snatch up the last bits, and we missed out. The very prolific food historian Asuman Albayrak prepared forgotten Central Anatolian dishes like Yozgat’s arabaşı, chicken tomato soup thickened with dough. Because of the effort put into the dish it usually prepared only for special occasions. Albayarak also prepared göğ domates yemeği, a very old dish served at room temperature made from green tomatoes and rice.
Akşam Yemeği ~ Dinner
After our very cool cocktails prepared by the equally cool mixologists at Kilimajaro, we were herded to the other side of the courtyard, through a long hallway behind Monochrome, and up an elevator. The space alone probably deserves its own article. A-line wood ceilings hang over a space large enough for at least seven long tables that could (and was) seating some 32 diners. By the time we arrived, some were already seated and chatting up their new dining neighbours, while others were walking around, while still more were coming in. On each table there was a generous servings of mezzes and at least four Yeni Rakı bottles. Not only did our hosts organise wonderfully creative breakfasts, regional lunches, and now they found a perfect way to end the day. Every attendant was invited to Istanbul’s çilingir sofrası, internationally known as the rakı table. And despite the size of the venue, we all felt comfortable enough to jump from table to table.
While the atmosphere was great, the food was better. All dishes were brought in from various restaurants and taverns throughout Beyoğlu. While some are higher end than others, some more traditional, they have all become well-respected institutions of the district. Unfortunately, with tourism at its lowest, Beyoğlu’s institutions, boutiques, restaurants and bars are suffering. Thus, it is all the more touching to discover that none of them accepted any payment for the night’s efforts. From Beyoğlu Balık Pazar (fish market), the gentlemen at Reşat Balıkçı prepared their famous lakerda, a pickled bonito delicacy – and a perfect complement to a glass of Yeni Raki. 9 Ece Aksoy brought their equally notable midiyeli lahana sarma (rolled mussel-stuffed cabbage). It is a delicate treat that isn’t enjoyed enough. One of the oldest and well-respected, Asmalı Cavit Beyoğlu meyhanes (taverns) put their acılı ezme (spicy tomato spread) and közde patlıcan salatası (roasted eggplant salad) on the table. Let’s face it; a çilingir sofrası is empty without them. Veering away from the traditional, Yeni Lokanta (literally, new restaurant) prepared a mezze of grated carrots with walnuts and ginger – certainly a new and welcomed addition to the table.
There is a Turkish expression that is often spoken at the table when in good company: yemek bahane, sohbet şahane, food is the excuse for great conversation. While it is a lovely expression, this writer has always had her misgivings about it. Here, however, food in its issues both celebrated and condemned was an excuse as well as a vehicle for great discussion.