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As we lumber through Istanbul’s traffic, Gençay Üçok tries to explain just how important food is in Turkey. “Food is the centre of Turkish homes,” the chef says. “Nothing is just food. Every single dish has a story ... People love to feed you so much that you can almost die from being fed. All my childhood memories of my grandmother are of her chasing me with a plate of something to eat.”
Üçok now cooks at his own restaurant, Meze by Lemon Tree, serving beautiful and deftly modernised versions of Turkish favourites – chard leaves wrapped around delicately spiced rice pilaf, tomato salad speckled with pomegranate seeds or silvery anchovies with olives and fennel. He also gives food tours of his home city and tonight he has promised to show me some of Istanbul’s lesser-known dishes. We set off for Istanbul’s outer limits, driving through street after street of concrete apartment blocks punctuated by mosques and churches, passing families barbecuing lamb and game birds on scraps of grassland.
After an hour, we pull up at Meşhur Kanatçı Haydar’ın Yeri, in Kocasinan, a big peach-painted restaurant. Under a retractable roof and next to a small ornamental pond we’re served what everyone else has travelled here for – chicken wings. Sticky and spiced with sweet pepper and paprika, garlicky and charred over coals to a perfect degree, they are demolished along with hunks of bread, a bowl of roughly chopped shepherd’s salad (raw onion rubbed with salt, cucumber, bell peppers and tomatoes) and grilled mild green chillies. Chicken wings (kanat) cooked this way was a craze that started in the 1990s when the original chef, Kanatçı Haydar, opened this restaurant.
Our next stop is Meşhur Tavacı Recep Usta, a few miles across town. Üçok explains that the chef here is known for his skill with lamb, which he cooks slowly and serves on flat metal tava pans. “Recep Budak is known as the ‘pan chef’ and cooks the best shepherd’s roast,” says Üçok. The large terrace is packed with smartly dressed Turkish families so we sit inside, where the walls are decorated with pictures of the chef embracing TV stars and politicians.
After walnut salad and kofte dumplings, the famous shepherd’s roast arrives in its pan – incredibly tender cubes of lamb in gravy, covered with a thin sheet of flatbread for mopping up the sauce. They don’t serve alcohol, so we drink moreish ayran instead, chilled yoghurt thinned with water and slightly salted, whisked until fluffy and served in long-handled silver bowls. Finally we rouse ourselves with a cup of thick, strong and intensely bitter mırra coffee.
There is nothing so fancy about our next stop. Kadırgalar Caddesi street runs alongside a conference centre and concert venue, and every night, from early evening until four or five in the morning, it becomes home to dozens of sucuk stalls.
“Sucuk sausage has to be 100 per cent beef with garlic and spices,” says Üçok. “You pan fry it, then serve it wrapped in bread, with scrambled eggs – or barbecue it at a picnic.” A steady stream of late-night customers emerges from the dark to queue at the sizzling grills, lit by bare bulbs strung from huge red umbrellas, each decorated with dozens of links of rust-coloured sausage. Üçok leads us to Mehmet Ercik’s stall, set on a junction under traffic lights. Perched on plastic stools as the traffic roars past us, we eat juicy, smoky sausages wrapped in fresh lavas – flatbreads smeared with fiery red pepper paste.
To end our night, and to soak up aniseed raki or Efes beer, we do as the locals do and go for a bowl of iskembe, tripe soup. We head to Tarihi Haliç İşkembecisi in the Fatih district, a café overlooking the Golden Horn inlet which opened in 1930. We make our way to the bustling rooftop, past rooms decorated with antique rifles, antlers and old sewing machines, to eat the lip-sticking yellow broth. Üçok shows me how to mix in ground chilli flakes, salt, garlic and vinegar (which I can’t help thinking is to disguise the taste). Do you eat this at home? Üçok looks shocked. “Of course not. It absolutely stinks when you cook it!”
Meze by Lemon Tree
Asmalımescit Mahallesi, Meşrutiyet Caddesi 83/B, Beyoğlu, 0212 252 83 02, www.mezze.com.tr
Chicken wings: Meşhur Kanatçı Haydar’ın Yeri
Mahmut Bey Caddesi. Depo duragi. No. 371, Kocasinan Mahallesi, Istanbul (Next to Gelisim hospital), 0212 550 51 30, no website
Lamb: Tavacı Recep Usta
Yazmacı Tahir Sokak No. 22 Sahilyolu, Suadiye, Istanbul, 0216 410 92 22/23, tavacirecepusta.com
Sucuk: on Kadırgalar Caddesi, near Lüfti Kırdar Convention Centre
Tripe soup: Iskembe
Abdulezelpaşa Caddesi No. 315 Haliç-Fatih, Istanbul, 0212 534 94 14, www.haliciskembecisi.com
For Gencay Tours contact KD Tourism & Travel, Istanbul; +90 212 236 51 61; www.kdtours.com
Tavuk Kanat: Sticky chicken wings
The open-air restaurant Meşhur Kanatçı Haydar’in Yeri is famous for its chicken wings, served with shepherd’s salad and grilled long green peppers. The only other thing you’ll need is piles and piles of napkins … and, maybe, a cold beer.
20 chicken wings
4 tbs hot red pepper paste
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
4 tbs olive oil
4 whole garlic cloves, lightly crushed
1 tsp ground cumin
Olive oil for frying
Salad and bread to serve
● Mix all the ingredients together, except the oil, in a large bowl. Place in the fridge to marinade for a couple of hours. Preheat the oven to 230C. Heat a little oil in a large pan over a high heat and brown the wings all over. Do this in batches of three or four at a time otherwise they will stew rather than brown.
● Arrange the wings in a single layer in a roasting tin. Cook for 10 minutes then reduce the heat to 200C and cook for a further 15-25 minutes until the wings are crispy, brown and cooked through (exact cooking time will vary depending on the size of the wings). Turn them halfway through cooking if they’re browning too fast.
● To check they’re cooked through, pierce the fattest part of a wing down to the bone – it should feel really tender and the juices should run clear.
Recipe extracted from ‘Istanbul: Recipes from the Heart of Turkey’ by Rebecca Seal (Hardie Grant, £25)