For many years now I have wanted to write a cookbook truly authentic to the Turkish dining experience. Forget the stylist – each dish would quiver under a haphazard mountain of chilli and garlic and then be photographed completely obscured by a thick cloud of Marlboro Reds. It would also feature an audio option where you can have your parents record the myriad ways you’ve disappointed them so that you may listen to the ‘feedback’ as you dine each evening. I don’t know that Efendy chef and Anatolia author Somer Sivrioglu has anything to fear; publishers aren’t exactly rushing to return my calls.
Although they’re not returning mine, they’re clearly returning others’, as Turkish food – and subsequently – Turkish cookbooks, are back in a big way. From Sivrioglu’s aforementioned Anatolia (still hands-down my favourite Turkish cookbook ever), to Sevtap Yuce’s Turkish Meze, these heavily styled books are not unlike travel porn, each mouth-watering recipe interspersed with images of Hagia Sophia at sunset, or fishermen hanging off the Golden Horn at sunrise. If I were 20 years old, I might tell you: “That’s totes the point since the city is so freakin’ ’grammable, riiight?”. Right.
Pomme Larmoyer’s Istanbul: Cult Recipes – all chic, Lonely Planet-esque cover with gilded gold mosques and star-splattered skyline – falls well within this sphere. It features 270-odd pages of beautifully shot classics as well as the obligatory city vistas which, although meant to be inspirational, may also serve to make you feel a wee bit depressed about the fact that you are stuck in your dark and soulless kitchen, cooking a dish others are eating in fabulous places (but that’s just my take). At first I feel conflicted; not only is the book not written by a Turk (not saying non-Turks can’t master the cuisine, but they are much more likely to use terms like ‘East meets West’ and ‘Turkish Delights’ within the copy, which SLAYS me), but also, the book is such a departure from the types of Turkish cookbooks I normally cook from (text-heavy, 1970s tomes with morbidly obese chefs on the cover – often the only image to be found), that I’m simply not sure if it will be any good. Information on the author is scarce; but a press release tells me she is a food writer, editor and traveller.
The recipes chosen are what we would call ‘crowd pleasers’ – plenty of smoked eggplants, roasted meats and decadent sweets in sugary syrup (not a single brain pâté in sight)...
To be fair, Larmoyer has her work cut out for her; it’s no easy feat taking a cuisine which has rich layers of history running through every dish – largely due to the Ottoman Empire’s 600-year-old reign which took up much of South Eastern Europe, Western Asia and North Africa, and condensing it into a little over 100 recipes. To Larmoyer’s credit, she has done a tremendous job. The recipes chosen are what we would call ‘crowd pleasers’ – plenty of smoked eggplants, roasted meats and decadent sweets in sugary syrup (not a single brain pâté in sight), and the book itself is easy to navigate, with a helpful photographic ingredient index, should you not know what mastic gum or purslane looks like.
Some of the highlights of the book (for me anyway) are the profiles on local food identities and Larmoyer’s recommendations on the best places to order most of the dishes featured within the book should you find yourself in Istanbul any time soon. Her recommendations are spot-on and her section on street food – often considered the soul of contemporary Turkish cuisine – is welcome. Extra brownie points are awarded too, for choosing simpler recipes any home cook can master, leaving your guests with the sense that, yes, you truly are amazing at everything you do.
That said, I feel I must deduct some of those very same brownie points for being a bit too reserved with her herbs and seasonings with some of the recipes. With the vine leaves for example, although there are variations for the meat filling, most will almost always include mint, parsley and tomato; Larmoyer’s does not. Also Turkish home cooks will never add corn starch to sűtlaç (rice pudding) – they will only use milk, sugar and rice and then stand there stirring it for one hour as they swear profusely and yell at their children. As my 80-year-old father likes to remind me, "You want sűtlaç? Then you must suffer for sűtlaç." (Although I get the feeling this is his motto for most things in life.) But perhaps my biggest gripe is serving size. When a Turk cooks, they will make enough to feed everyone in the street for a month such is the shame that someone will ask for seconds and you will not have any to dish out. You cannot go to the (not inconsiderable) effort of making vine leaves only to make 25 as the recipe suggests. Hedge your bets and double up on ingredients.
My verdict? For those interested in mastering the basics of Turkish cuisine, Istanbul: Cult Recipes is the perfect book to help get you on your way, and let’s face it, a pretty gift to find under the Christmas tree to boot. But if you want an authentic Turkish dining experience, why not just come to my parents’ armed with a carton of cigarettes and a list of 99 problems so they can tell you how disappointed they are that your lazy tush couldn’t make it to 100? Afiyet olsun!
Cook the book
Köfte in the form of a vegetarian amuse-bouche. Very, very good!
The pomegranate molasses used to dress this salad is very different from pomegranate juice, and far more like a thick vinegar. Do not overlook it because it has a unique sweet–sour flavour.
This can be made with either cubes of meat or as meatballs.
You can find this pastry, made from kadayif (angel hair pastry) and cheese, from the Middle East to Greece. The Turks use a desalted cheese; mozzarella does the job very well.
Recipes and images from Istanbul: Cult Recipes by Pomme Larmoyer (Murdoch Books, $49.99, hbk).