The king of künefe

January 19, 2011

Every region of Turkey has its signature dishes, and one of Antakya’s tastiest is künefe, a pudding of a kind of vermicelli with soft cheese sandwiched in the middle. The whole thing is griddled to a crispy golden colour and doused in sugar syrup. It is, quite simply, delicious.

If you want good künefe in Antakya, the only place to go is Yusuf Usta’s shop Çinar Alti, nestled in a small square off the old city’s bazaar area. By the time I visited him last week, I’d already had the chance to try künefe in two or three other places, so was feeling fairly confident in my abilities to judge a good one.

But before I could taste Yusuf Usta’s künefe, I was treated to a demonstration of exactly how it’s made. First, flour and butter is rubbed together until tiny lengths of dough are formed. This takes quite some time, so Yusuf Usta sensibly leaves this arduous task to his assistant.

The spaghetti-like dough is packed loosely into the base of a large copper tray, which is then covered with a soft, somewhat tasteless cheese, crumbled evenly to cover the bottom layer of dough.

Another layer of dough covers the cheese, and the whole shebang is placed over a very hot charcoal fire. It takes about ten minutes for the künefe to become golden brown and the cheese to start to meld into the mixture.

When the first side of the künefe is ready, Yusuf Usta shows his true skill and tosses the large dish to cook the other side.

Another ten minutes to crisp up the other side, and the künefe is ready to eat. By this point, my mouth was seriously watering, and I couldn’t wait to try the tasty-looking concoction that had formed in front of me.

The finishing touch is a couple of spoonfuls of sugar syrup that simmers away in a large pot. I bit into the crispy künefe and as the hot, soft cheese and syrupy sweetness hit home, I can honestly say I was in heaven. Yes, it was true – Yusuf Usta is the king of künefe.

(Çinar Alti is at Ahmediye Cami Içi No:2, Antakya, Turkey. Tel +90 326 212 6888)

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Adventures in Antakya

January 15, 2011

I’m spending a few days in the south-eastern Turkish city of Antakya, very close to the border with Syria. I’ve come here because I’ve heard it’s very different from the rest of Turkey, not least because it was once part of Syria (from 1918 to 1938) when that country was under French rule.

For me, the clearest way to witness the cultural history of this fascinating place is in its food. So I was very excited to visit the city’s main food market today. Although many of the fruit and vegetables were similar to those I find in the markets in Istanbul, the thing that really sets it apart was the people selling the stuff.

The immediate difference, in my eyes, was that there were many many more women behind the stalls. I don’t know why, but you just don’t see women doing that kind of work at the Istanbul markets.

Anyway, I just wanted to show you some of the hard-working, well-worn faces I came across today. They all clearly lead very tough lives, and work very hard. But they were all so kind to me, and insisted I took a sample of whatever they were selling.

This couple (above) were selling the typical Antakyan salty yoghurt, the consistency of which was more like cream cheese, but much fresher and lighter in flavour. Delicious, of course. They also had the driest, wrinkliest black olives I’ve ever eaten – but surprisingly sweet.

As is often the case at this market in Antakya, people come and sell even very small amounts of produce from their smallholdings. This woman (above) came armed with a couple of pumpkins, some homemade cheese and a 2-litre bottle of fresh milk.

The herbs this woman was selling (above) were unlike anything I’ve ever seen. To be honest, at first glance they looked like the sort of thing you end up with after giving your garden a good prune. But absolutely everything in this mishmash was edible – and fantastically flavoursome. But don’t ask me what any of it was – I haven’t got the faintest idea!

This, believe it or not, is a radish (above). They don’t half like their radishes in Turkey. And when they are as sweet and peppery as this one, I can understand why.

My very first meal in Antakya included a black carrot stuffed with minced lamb, rice and spices. Several meals later, I still think that was one of the best dishes I’ve eaten here. I got very excited when I saw this pile of black carrots at the market (above), but sensibly came to the decision that I was not going to be able to stuff a couple of kilos of them in my suitcase to take home.

It seems to be the case in Turkey that the surrounding streets are completely taken over with people selling produce on market day. I like to think this woman has a veritable garden of paradise behind this house, which she heaves onto the street each Saturday. I doubt that’s even where she lives, but it’s a nice thought.

Clove at first sight…

January 9, 2011

Christmas and new year’s eve are pretty much non-events for me and Süleyman – mainly because he has to work both evenings, but also because there just isn’t the same emphasis on those particular holidays in Turkey.

I have to say, it doesn’t bother me too much, but what I do miss is the chance to cook something special for the two of us.

Luckily, it’s Süleyman’s birthday a week after new year, and that day he doesn’t have to work. So I always use the opportunity to make a fairly big celebratory meal.

This year, Süleyman expressed a desire to have something along the lines of the slow-cooked lamb shanks I’d made last year when our friends Meryem and Özgür came for dinner. But, said Süleyman, could I do it with cloves? It turns out he’d eaten a lamb dish with cloves in a restaurant a few years ago, and had loved it. I told him I was pretty sure I could come up with something.

What I did come up with was a recipe for duck with prunes, plus various other herbs and spices, one of which was cloves – courtesy of an old post by David Lebovitz. Looking at the list of ingredients – red wine, cloves, bay leaves, thyme, orange zest, pancetta (which I replaced with a spicy beef sausage called suçuk, as porky products are nigh on impossible to get here) and garlic – I saw no reason not to substitute the duck with lamb.

So, on the morning of Süleyman’s birthday, I set to work. I heated some olive oil in a nice deep frying pan, and when smoking hot, added the shanks and browned them all over.

While they were sizzling away, I started peeling some baby onions that I’d decided to add to the dish. And what a flippin’ pain that turned out to be. Not only were they fiddly beyond belief, but the fumes were so powerful I ended up with streaming red eyes. I only managed to deal with about half the bag, and I have a strong suspicion that the rest of those little buggers are going to be sitting in my vegetable rack for rather a long time.

Once I’d cried a river over the onions, I removed the lamb shanks from the pan, added pretty much a whole bottle of red wine, let it bubble away for a few minutes, then threw in all the other ingredients. David’s original recipe calls for the meat to be put in the oven at this point, but as regular readers will know, that’s not an option for me, being oven-less. So, instead, I simply put a tight-fitting lid on the saucepan, turned the heat way down low, and let nature take its course.

Cooking lamb shanks this way, I have found, is just as good as using an oven, but it does take a little longer to make the meat really soft and succulent. But, as the birthday boy and I had plans, after an hour or so of cooking, I turned off the gas, with the intention of finishing it later.

Süleyman and I then toddled off to Istanbul’s Pera Museum to see a stunning exhibition of the work of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. And, I have to say, the intense colour and passion in Kahlo’s paintings put me in the perfect mood for the intense flavours of the dinner waiting for us at home.

Another couple of hours of cooking was needed once we got back. So, while the lamb was gently simmering, and Süleyman and I were getting gently sloshed on some more delicious red wine, I somehow also managed to conjure up some mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli. About half an hour before the lamb was done, I added about 200g of stoned prunes to the mix, which provided a gorgeous sweetness to the whole affair.

Dinner was served – and, if I do say so myself, it was truly scrumptious. Lamb in Turkey has quite a strong flavour (I get the impression the animals are slaughtered at an older age than in the UK), so it held up to the clove-y aroma wonderfully. And what’s more warming on a winter’s night than a spicy lamb stew? Not much, I can tell you.

I don’t think Süleyman would mind me saying his taste in food is perhaps a little traditional. Traditionally Turkish, that is.

The Turks, I am discovering, are very protective of their customs – and cooking in particular. So, although this means you can go to pretty much any restaurant here in Istanbul – and most people’s homes, too – and get an amazing Turkish meal, it’s harder to find decent non-Turkish food.

And, as much as Süleyman loves his grub, he can sometime be a weeny bit suspicious of some of the dishes I cook – simply because it’s something he’s not familiar with.

So, when I pointed out some slices of vivid orange pumpkin at the market the other day, and asked if he liked it, I wasn’t surprised when he told me he’d only ever eaten it as a sweet – as that is the traditional Turkish way with pumpkin.

I resolved to change his view of this vegetable and bought some with the intention of making something savoury with it, but not really knowing what. When it came to using the pumpkin, I noticed I also had some jerusalem artichokes left, and it occurred to me that the two might go very well together.

I was, however, fully aware that it could result in a rather odd concoction – and if my tastebuds thought it odd, then god knows what Süleyman would make of it. Oh well, nothing ventured, I thought.

So, here’s what I did. I roughly chopped a red onion and sautéed it in olive oil along with a chopped clove of garlic. I wanted the flavours to be resolutely Mediterranean, so I added a couple of bay leaves, and a sprinkling of dried thyme and rosemary. Once the onion was soft, I added the jerusalem artichoke and pumpkin, both of which had been cut into smallish cubes. I added enough water to cover the bottom of the pan, seasoned well with salt and pepper, then left it all to simmer until cooked. (This actually took much longer than I thought it would – the pumpkin, in particular, I was surprised to find, took a good half an hour to become really soft and sweet.)

About ten minutes before the end of the cooking time, I added a chopped red pepper and a couple of skinned and chopped tomatoes. Finally, to make the dish a little more substantial, I made use of some minced beef I had left over. Here, the mince is very fine, in readiness for it being made into köfte. This means it’s very easy to squish together into tightly bound wee balls, with no need to add egg or breadcrumbs.

I rolled my mince into walnut-sized pieces and simply dropped them into the cooking juices of the pumpkin, artichokes, tomatoes etc. They took barely five minutes to cook through.

And what did this bizarre assortment of ingredients taste like? Well, the delicious earthiness of the jerusalem artichoke really permeated the whole dish, and, added to the sweetness of the pumpkin and a hefty hint of beefiness from the meatballs, it was a surpringly tasty combination.

And, luckily, even Süleyman thought so.