Chef Coskun Uysal’s voice swings between impassioned and frustrated tones when he talks about his native cuisine. He wants to prove to Australia that Turkish food is more than just kebabs and dips. It’s why he opened Tulum restaurant in Melbourne's Balaclava in 2016, and the reason he penned a cookbook, Tulum: Modern Turkish Cuisine. Still, it’s a daily struggle.
“When people come here, they still ask me, ‘Don’t you have dips here? I thought this was a Turkish restaurant, why don’t you have a kebab?’” They’re still asking after five years,” he says.
Back home in Istanbul, where the chef was born, dining out is different from home cooking – to the point where Uysal views them as two separate cuisines. Away from the house, people socialise over the famed kebabs and dips, but home cooking is a different kettle of balik.
“My mum makes minimum of four or five dishes every single night, all one-pot dishes,” he says. “For example, fresh green beans braised in olive oil and tomatoes (fasulye) with some rice and some soup. You don’t get that outside home.”
“When people come here, they still ask me, ‘Don’t you have dips here? I thought this was a Turkish restaurant, why don’t you have a kebab?’” They’re still asking after five years."
At Tulum, Uysal takes these dishes, preserves the original flavours and “makes them a bit sexier” for restaurant dining. That includes cilbir, a traditional dish of poached eggs on yoghurt that’s also a customer favourite. His version features a slow-poached egg on smoked yoghurt with brittle, salty chicken skin. Burnt butter crumble is added tableside.
“I respect where I come from, and I respect the old people’s cooking, but I use that as a base,” says Uysal. “I think it’s time to look forward rather than look back, so I’m taking that and using modern cooking techniques. The flavours are absolutely there, but it looks a bit different.”
But for Uysal, cilbir is more than comfort food; it’s sentimental.
“The reason I’m so emotionally attached this dish is because when I was a boy living with my parents, my mum had to work two different jobs. I’d miss her all day and when she came home, she knew I was very hungry, so she would have to do something very quickly before cooking for the entire family,” says Uysal.
She’d take yoghurt from the fridge, add a touch of salt and garlic, place poached eggs on top and serve it to her son with pita as a pre-dinner snack, even though cilbir is usually a breakfast dish in Turkey.
“When Turks order the cilbir [at Tulum], because it looks quite messy when you serve it the original way, they say, ‘Oh, sorry, we didn’t order this, we ordered the cilbir’,” says Uysal. “Then when they dip the pita in, they keep coming to the kitchen and say it reminds them of their mother or grandmother. One woman was actually crying because the flavour reminded her of someone else.”
Uysal hopes to change the perception of what Turkish food is and can be, not just to share it with others, but also to inspire young Turkish chefs who are unable to travel and study cooking overseas the same way he did.
“Then when they dip the pita in, they keep coming to the kitchen and say it reminds them of their mother or grandmother. One woman was actually crying because the flavour reminded her of someone else.”
“I want to break this idea of ‘just kebabs and dips’ … to show people that Turkish cuisine can be simple but also sophisticated,” says Uysal. “There’s nothing wrong with kebabs and dips, that’s equally good, but the culture is not just that.”
He has also called upon fellow Melbourne chefs to help his cause during his Flying Carpet dinner series. Each will create a one-off menu using Turkish ingredients. Helly Raichura from Enter Via Laundry kicked it off with dishes such as minced lamb kibbeh with macadamia, barberries and salgam, while Dave Verheul (Embla), Clinton McIver (Amaru) and John Paul Twomey (who has just finished at The Carlton Wine Room) will follow in June, August and October respectively.
“I explained to them that I need their help. It was actually me screaming, ‘Hey! We have more, we have more [to Turkish cuisine] – just stop thinking about kebabs and try this one!' They will help me a lot to express myself by making Turkish dishes through their eyes.”
Cilbir and chicken skin
- 2 eggs
- 200 g chicken skin
- Sea salt to taste
- 150 g butter
- 10 g sumac
- 5 g maras chilli or other red chillies
- 200 g butter
- 100 g milk powder
- 400 g plain yoghurt
- Pita or bread to serve
- Poach the eggs in a sous-vide machine at 62°C for 45 minutes (if you don’t have a sous-vide machine, you can poach an egg in a pot just before serving the finished dish, after steps 3-8 are completed).
- While the egg is poaching in the sous-vide machine, preheat the oven to 180°C.
- Scrub the chicken skin with a knife to remove excess meat, then season with salt.
- Place the skin between two sheets of baking paper and weigh it down with a pan before placing it into the oven. This prevents the skin from shrinking.
- Roast the skin for 25 minutes, or until the skin becomes crisp and golden.
- In a pan over high heat, melt 100 g butter until it becomes a nutty caramel colour, then add the sumac, chillies and a pinch of salt. Set aside.
- Add the remaining butter and milk powder to a small pot and cook slowly over low heat, until the butter browns and the mixture resembles a crumble.
- Using a smoking gun with pine chips, cold-smoke the yoghurt for 15 minutes and salt to taste (alternatively, replace the smoked yoghurt with plain yoghurt).
- To assemble, place yoghurt in a shallow bowl and place the hot poached egg on top. Arrange chicken skin around the egg and top with the crumble. Serve with warm pita.
My dislike of breakfast has been well documented, but when I lived in Sydney I would go to this one place religiously to eat this dish, yes, at breakfast. I don’t remember the name of the place, and sadly it has since closed, but the memory of their delicious Middle Eastern dish lives on in this cracking recipe.
Making your own water pastry for this Turkish savoury slice helps keep it light and crisp, with a gorgeous golden top.
This supremely satisfying breakfast dish of poached eggs with a yoghurt sauce really is fit for a king – there are records of it being cooked in the palace kitchens of Ottoman sultans dating back to the 15th century. The addition of the herb butter and Turkish chilli flakes is a more recent inclusion, but it adds just the right amount of kick to put a pep in your step in the morning.