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Worlds of Flavor: Ancient Fires, World Flavors & the Future of American Cooking
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Ayfer Unsal

Ayfer Unsal
Ayfer Unsal

Ayfer Unsal is a cookbook author and food journalist who writes for Turkey's largest food magazine. You can meet her here.

You are from Gaziantep, which people say has some of the most delicious food in Turkey. Would you talk about the cuisine of Gaziantep? How does it differ from the cooking elsewhere in Turkey?

Gaziantep is a very important place in Turkish culinary culture because it's on the Euphrates. Paula Wolfert calls it the gastronomic capital of Turkey. In ancient times it was a bridge that connected Anatolia to the eastern world. Spices and eggplant and mung beans went from India to Basra in Iraq and from Basra to Gaziantep.

Gaziantep may be the only place in Turkey where they make beautiful salads with purslane. The purslane salad has tomatoes, onions, red pepper flakes if you like, green peppers chopped fine, sumac and pomegranate molasses. It's so tasty, but you have to consume it quickly. We also dry purslane, and it takes forever because the leaves are thick. We cook the dried purslane with chick peas, black-eyed peas, lentils, bulgur, onions and garlic.

Turkish kebab

The number-one place for kebabs in Turkey is Gaziantep. There are so many varieties. The normal kebab in my town is like this: first comes the flatbread or lavash, then you put the kebab on top of it, then chopped onion mixed with sumac and sometimes parsley. Some people like grilled tomatoes and grilled peppers on top. You roll and eat it like that. And we have truffles in Gaziantep, so you might have a truffle put on a skewer with meatballs. It would cost $30 to $40 a portion, but it's worth it.

Would you describe the role of meze in Turkish life? What meze dishes do you think would translate well to American restaurants?

In Turkey, meze is a companion to raki (distilled grape spirits) and to wine. No matter what you drink, you eat meze. It's usually something made with olive oil a few hours or a day ahead. And we usually put a little sugar in. It's believed that when olive oil and sugar are used together, the dish will taste better after several hours.

Meze culture is so large that I can't say which dish is my favorite, but I like green beans with olive oil. I combine the beans with chopped onions, peeled and chopped tomato, a little coriander seed, a little sugar, extra virgin olive oil and red pepper flakes. I cook it for maybe 45 minutes, and I never serve it hot. It can last four days or more, but you never have a chance to keep it. You can fry the onions in olive oil first, but for me it tastes better if you put everything in raw.

One meze I recently discovered is made with a winter preparation called tarhana. There are many kinds of tarhana, but in my region, it's hulled wheat berries cooked and mixed with yogurt and dried in the sun, and it ferments and has a nice taste. So you would soak the tarhana for a few hours, then add chopped onion, parsley, garlic and olive oil. This is another meze.

There are many meze with eggplant, like grilled eggplant made into a salad with pomegranate molasses. Some meze are made with just tomato and rice, like one from Izmir that's very popular, called "the fish has flown away." It's poor man's food, made with only tomato, onions and rice, but the story would be that there was fish in it but the fish got away.

Pilafs are made all over the Eastern European and Middle East. Would you describe what a pilaf is in Turkey? What are some of the variations on pilaf? Some pilafs are not rice, correct?

Pilaf always accompanies Turkish dishes because they are a little juicy. Some people mix the pilaf in, some eat it separately, but for a good Turkish rice pilaf, the grains should not touch each other. The rice should never be mushy, never overdone. One day they'll make it with tomato, another day with eggplant or with chick peas or zucchini. Another staple is bulgur pilaf.

Tell us about Musa Dagdeviren's restaurants.

Musa Dagdeviren
Musa Dagdeviren

Musa has three restaurants on the Asian side of Istanbul, and they are all next to each other, and you don't have to eat from only one; you can eat from any of them. At Ciya, he serves thousands of dishes from all over Turkey. He is one of the rare cooks who make every kind of local food, so everybody is happy there. Turkey has a lot of ethnic groups—Jewish, Armenian, Greek, Circassian—and Musa cooks their ethnic foods on their holidays. So the Muslim person knows there's always something appropriate when a holiday comes.

Next to Ciya is Ciya Kebab. He serves kebabs from all over Turkey. And he has a bakery that makes certain types of flatbreads that go well with kebabs. And he makes topped and filled breads. Turkish people are fond of hot bread. They'll walk forever to get it.