We’re delighted that Leanne Kitchen is our guest blogger this week. She travels extensively throughout Asia and the Middle East, documenting people and their culinary traditions. Leave a comment on her post and recipe below, and you’ll be eligible to win a copy of her latest book, Turkey (giveaway good in the US and Canada only).
The first time I waddled happily out of Van Khavalti Evi (Van Breakfast House) in trendy Cihangir in Istanbul, a restaurant making a feature of the celebrated breakfast foods of Van, I determined to visit that far-flung city near the border with Iran a.s.a.p. Breakfast is by far my favorite meal of any day so anywhere that’s famous for a good one rates with me.
Van is situated on the gorgeous lake of the same name—the largest in Turkey. As I bus in from the north, we skirt this mighty, azure mass of water, sparkling with more shades of blue than I realize existed, long before the city comes into sight. There’s a spectacular show of wild flowers along the shore (it’s spring), a dramatic trail of snowcapped mountains to the south, itinerant beekeepers camped about the roadside, and a highway reduced to a frequent crawl by flocks of sheep and their herders. The environs, it goes without saying, are picturesque. The town itself though is bland and utilitarian but the longer I stay (and the more I return), the more Van grows on me. The atmosphere is laid back. (Generally. Being a largely Kurdish area, I’ve also witnessed edgy demonstrations and the venting of anti-government frustration). It’s friendly here. People I have barely met offer to take me on day trips. Or cart me off to Kurdish weddings. In parks, folk urge me to share their picnics or invite me into their homes for endless rounds of tea. Turks are renowned for their hospitality but in these poorer, Eastern (and largely Kurdish) parts, the desire to look after strangers is ratcheted up several notches from the national norm.
Breakfasting is taken so seriously here there is an entire street, Kahvalti Caddesi (Breakfast Street), devoted to its consumption. Establishments along here I find a touch sanitized so I haunt places on the ramshackle alleys behind the wonderful cheese market, these are grungier and simply more fun. Typically their windows are littered with tubs of glistening olives, neat chunks of gooey comb honey, elegant folds of kaymak (thick clotted cream made around here from sheep’s milk), mounds of rich local butter and some interesting variations on the general theme of cheese. Included in the latter is the fabled otlu paynir, or “green” cheese, so-called on account of the chopped wild mountain herbs that are incorporated into the piquant, white curd. Locals tank up on The Works, which includes plates of all of the above, plus boiled eggs, wedges of tomato, slices of cucumber and mountains of ekmek, crusty, chewy bread delivered hot from wood-burning ovens, in the nearby bake house. Hungrier types order murtaga, eggs scrambled with butter and flour, or kavut, a local specialty made by toasting coarse whole meal flour then cooking it to a thick porridge with butter, milk and sugar. The thing to do with the ubiquitous cacik around here is to stir soft butter through it. Everything is intense and bright with flavor and memorably textural—from the firm snap of sweet cucumbers to the unctuously spreadable fresh cheeses.
Generally I’m happy with a breakfast selection edited down to a few, mind-blowingly great essentials—piles of bread, an indecent amount of kaymak and quantities of the peerless local honey. The cicek, or “flower” honey from Van, is famed all over Turkey. Its flavors are deep and nuanced and it’s the perfect counterpoint to rich, tangy kaymak and the smattering of chopped local walnuts that invariably comes with it. The Turkish word for breakfast, kahvalti, means “before coffee” so consequently tulip-shaped glasses of strong, sweet (make that really sweet) tea are the thing to accompany morning food. Tea and an overloud TV, blasting out details of the latest Galatasaray, Bestiktas or Fernerbahce victory at those who care. And in this soccer-crazed nation, everyone (except me) invariably does.
Back in Istanbul, if I’m not hanging out in a Van-style breakfast house, choosing what to eat in the morning is easy. Simit, oft described as the Turkish bagel, is always my go-to, break-the-fast carb hit. Moreish circlets of dense, chewy crumb and a crunchy sesame-encrusted crust, simit are easy things to conjure at home. I’d rather be eating them in Istanbul of course but when that’s not possible, whipping up a batch at home becomes the next best thing. I turn on a Mercan Dede CD then inhale a spread of fresh simit, ripe tomato, cucumber and crumbly tulum cheese from the Turkish grocer. And pretend I’m about to catch the ferry to Kadakoy. The Van vibe, though, is not so easy to replicate. You really need to be there and for breakfast freaks, it’s utterly worth the schlep.
Simit is, for me, the quintessential Turkish food. To describe these round, chewy bread rings as “sesame-encrusted bread” really isn’t doing them justice; their flavor and deeply satisfying texture are quite unlike anything else. Turks eat simit daily, as a snack, but they really come into their own as fortifying breakfast fare, accompanied by cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers and olives.
1 pinch sugar
3 teaspoons dried yeast
3 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
2/3 cup pekmez (see note)
1 1/2 cups sesame seeds
Combine the sugar and 1/4 cup lukewarm water in a small bowl, then sprinkle over the yeast. Set aside for about 8 minutes, or until foamy, then add another 1 1/4 cups lukewarm water.
Combine the flour and salt in a bowl, then add the yeast mixture and stir to form a coarse dough. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 6–7 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and elastic. Roll the dough into a ball and place in a lightly oiled bowl, turning to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm, draft-free place for 1 hour, or until doubled in size.
Preheat the oven to 425˚F and line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Punch the dough down and turn out onto a lightly floured work surface and divide it into 10 even-sized pieces. Combine the pekmez with 1/3 cup water in a large bowl. Place the sesame seeds on a large plate. Working with one piece of dough at a time, use your hands to roll the dough out to make ten 22‑inchlong ropes. F old in half so the two ends align, then lift off the board and use your hands to twist each rectangle into a two-stranded “rope.” P lace back on the work surface and join the ends together to make a circle, pressing the ends firmly together to seal. Repeat with the remaining dough to make 10 rope circles.
Dip each ring, first into the pekmez mixture, immersing completely to coat, then drain well and toss in the sesame seeds, turning gently to coat. Transfer to the prepared sheets and set aside at room temperature for about 20 minutes, to puff slightly. Bake in the oven for 15–18 minutes, or until deep golden and cooked through. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Simit are best eaten on the day of making but will keep, frozen in an airtight container, for up to 1 month.
Note: Pekmez is a molasses-like syrup made from the juice and must of certain fruits, usually grapes or figs. It is available from Middle Eastern and Turkish grocery stores.
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