A taste of Istanbul

A city scape at sunset with a mosque in the background and restaurants in the foreground next to a body of water.

Food writer Cemre Torun shares what inspired her to collect recipes from more than 100 of the city’s most beloved restaurants

By Can Remzi Ergen Above image by Stefan Kostoski Friday 23 October, 2020 Short read

When a salad with a juicy sauce arrives at the table, we Turks love to drop a piece of bread into that salad bowl. We call this act şamandıra, which means buoying. The intention is for the bread to soak the mixture of flavours, then we serve it to our loved ones sitting at the table. It’s a way of transporting love. Food writer Cemre Torun’s new project, Restoranlar Evde (Restaurants At Home), is a similar buoying act for the Turkish food scene amid an unexpected and uncertain pandemic.

In this case, the piece of bread is a book, and it carries to people not only cherished flavours, but the recipes behind them, too. It is also a rescue act – a physical and financial act buoying the Turkish food scene amid COVID-19. 

‘It had only been a few weeks since restaurants closed and we were locked up at home,’ explains Torun. ‘Chefs and writers in different parts of the world were initiating projects to help the industry in their countries. I immediately started to think about what I could do and came up with the idea of a book including recipes from Istanbul’s restaurants. I wanted it to be a “time-capsule” cookbook of the crazy times we were experiencing and collect these recipes from the city’s most loved restaurants.’

Over a period of a few weeks, she called 106 restaurants and chefs in Istanbul and asked for their signature recipes (one of which is shared below). 

‘COVID-19 is impacting global food systems and has threatened food security and nutrition, especially in populations that were already vulnerable. This has many implications on world hunger and health,’ says Torun. ‘The pandemic has also showed us how vulnerable food systems are, as food insecurity is mostly driven not by food shortages, but disruptions in supply chains. The effects of COVID-19 on agriculture and food production are yet to be seen. All parts of the system have been hit hard – producers, farmers, schools, hotels, as well as restaurants, of course. Restaurants have suffered all over the world, some having to close their doors permanently.’

At some point during any Turkish dinner, especially at a restaurant table and when some alcohol is involved (it had best be a Rakı), one way or another the discussion always comes to this: ‘What will be the future of the world?’ But this time the question is more pertinent than ever, because it is about the very place that this question is being asked: the fate of the restaurant table in a post-COVID-19 world. ‘Many restaurants are braving it through this time, holding their heads up,’ says Torun. ‘I think, like in many other countries, there will be a bigger emphasis on hygiene. And there is a growing awareness of the effect food has on our lives and on the world. I think issues like food waste and sourcing locally will gain more interest.’ Time will tell how our salad bowl may change going forward, but as long as we have bread to drop in it we’ll probably be ok. 
An aubergine being grilled over a naked flame.
A plate of mashed up aubergine.

Recipe: Patlıcan Beğendi from Beyti 

Beyti is one of the oldest standing restaurants in Istanbul, dating back to the 1940s. The perfectly executed aubergine beğendi is a classic.

8 ‘kemer’ aubergines (long, slender variety)
2 tbsp butter
2½ oz flour
15 oz milk
2 oz kaşar cheese, grated
2 oz aged kaşar cheese, grated
White pepper
Black pepper

1. Wash, then dry the aubergines. Pierce them with a knife and char the skins by placing them directly onto a gas stove or charcoal barbecue. 
2. Peel the aubergines and drain them of excess juice in a sieve. 
3. In a pan over a low heat, melt the butter and add the flour, stirring continuously for two to three minutes. 
4. Add the milk and whisk until it thickens. Then add the drained aubergines and the cheese. 
5. Season the mix with salt. You can also add nutmeg, white pepper, and freshly ground black pepper if you wish.
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