Like many of us bunkering down with baking trays and comfort foods, chef Somer Sivrioğlu has become absorbed with daydreaming about and creating foods that are the culinary equivalent of a warm hug on a brisk Autumn day.
"For me, it's all about karnıyarık with pilav," he says of the traditional Turkish dish, eggplant stuffed with a combination of sautéed onions, minced beef, garlic, tomatoes, peppers and parsley.
"My nanna Akife was a terrific cook and this was her best dish. She used to make it when the whole family – my uncles, aunties and cousins – came over and eating it today brings me joyful family memories over a table."
That Siviroğlu should hark back to a dish so closely tied to his childhood in Turkey is no great surprise. The chef and restaurateur, cookbook author and television host is, after all, a man who has built his success on introducing authentic Turkish cuisine to the Australian masses through his Sydney restaurants.
Establishments where national dietary touchstones (the long Turkish breakfast filled with crumbly cheeses, olives and all manner of jams and preserves, lahmacun – thin, flat pastry topped with ground lamb, sumac and peppers), and beyti – kebab with garlic yoghurt and iskender sauce) feature heavily.
"My nanna...knew what scarcity and home economy meant very well and I have to admit that this is something I've also inherited; I believe scarcity creates excellence."
Strangely, one dish that doesn't feature on either menu is Sivrioğlu's Karnıyarik with pilav – simply because it is what Turks call 'Ev yemekleri' (home food). "Readers can get my book Anatolia to make my favourite version and they can learn about the vegan cousin of the dish, Imam Bayildi,” he says. "What you've got to remember when cooking these dishes is that eggplant has 80 per cent water content and it is like a sponge, so if you try to fry it too long or in lower temperatures it would draw all the oil and taste pretty awful. You need to flash fry in hot oil, always."
Unfortunately, the dish has also taken on a new relevance in our current COVID-19 reality – one Sivrioğlu cannot ignore. "My nanna was an expert on creating dishes that did not cost much," he explains. "She lived through the last days of the Ottoman Empire, the independence war, forming of the Turkish Republic and the first and second World Wars.
"She knew what scarcity and home economy meant very well and I have to admit that this is something I've also inherited; I believe scarcity creates excellence."
It isn't just some throwaway line, scarcity is something Sivrioğlu has been keeping top of mind over the last few weeks, the catalyst behind his latest venture, free soup and pide bread kitchen outside his Efendy restaurant. Here, those who are doing in tough in the community can pop by for a free steaming bowl of mercimek (Turkish lentil) soup and some toasted pide. Yes, a warm embrace of a brisk Autumn day.
"I was frustrated to see empty shelves of bread and pasta in our local supermarket in Balmain where older and vulnerable members of the community were not getting what they needed," explains Sivrioğlu of his decision to start the soup kitchen.
"When both of our restaurants closed due to COVID-19, we thought of doing something at Efendy where all our Balmain/Rozelle community and neighbours supported us so passionately over the last 13 years."
In Turkish culture, when a member of the community is sick, neighbours bring over hot soup so Sivrioğlu decided to install a maximum of two chefs at any one time to make lentil soup which is then placed in the simit cart at the entrance of the restaurant for the needy and the hungry to take. A request for gold coin donations to support staff who are currently out of job was placed but Sivrioğlu says he wasn't expecting much in a time when so many are jobless and/or worrying about their own finances.
"We've actually had an amazing response – not only from the industry press but from people calling and leaving credit card donations for $100 (thank you Hugh and Robin)," he says.
"It's the generosity of people that make us believe the post-COVID-19 world is going to be a lot more sensible and humanistic than before."
"Then there are the angels among us like the angelic Ayşe abla twice buying the whole kettle of soup for the elderly Turkish community in need and left us – forcibly - $1,000 to cover the costs. This is more than 10 times what anyone could expect."
Yes, we can search for comfort in carbs, brownies and even in karnıyarık with pilav, but often the best kind can be felt in the actions of those around us. "It's the generosity of people that make us believe the post-COVID-19 world is going to be a lot more sensible and humanistic than before. I have hope."
The yoghurt dough base can be made ahead and kept in the fridge for up to a week.
If you don’t happen to live near the Bosphorus, then this sandwich is the closest you will get to the ridiculously moreish fish rolls sold along the banks of this mighty river.