A guide to the New East

Coast to kitchen

Take a culinary tour across the Black Sea with Caroline Eden’s new cookbook

Journalist and travel writer Caroline Eden’s Black Sea: Dispatches and Recipes – Through Darkness and Light is a beautifully presented culinary exploration of the countries and communities surrounding the Black Sea: from the Jewish legacy of Ukraine’s Odessa to Turkey’s rugged northern coast. Eden’s lyrical descriptions are interspersed with mouth-watering recipes and arresting photography.

In this extract, Eden explores the cooking of modern-day Istanbul, drawing out a set of culinary influences that rippled across the Black Sea with waves of migrants fleeing persecution in the borderlands of Tsarist Russia. 


 

It was lunchtime in Beyoğlu and the thin alleyway of Kallavi Sokak was packed with office workers all anticipating a decent lunch. Drifting out of kitchen windows was the remedying smell of baked börek, while firing out of different competing cafe doorways were waiters – men and women in tight jeans and white shirts – keen to serve, holding plates high, rhythmically and nimbly funnelling in and out of the packed laneway. Waiting silently, watching from under wooden chairs, were Istanbul’s bushy-tailed cats, on high alert for fallen scraps. It is a scene played out most days.

Commanding the alley is Ficcin, with the most tables and the quickest turnover. Indoors, and in the alley, diners raised their hands, ordering more salad, cold yogurt soup and shredded Circassian chicken as Ficcin’s waiters dished out little heart-shaped china bowls of dried mint, red pepper flakes and sumac, taking down more orders as they went. Inside, on the walls, old paintings of dark forests and ancient forts hinted at the cuisine served: food of the North Caucasus. A nettlesome and guarded region in southern Russia, wedged between the Black Sea and the Caspian. A place of expulsion, shouldering a sad history.

At the end of the 19th century, more than a million Muslim highlanders and Tatars were forced out and deported by the Russian Empire. Sent across mountains, and then by ship across the Black Sea from ports around the Caucasus, hundreds of thousands lost their lives, dying of disease, starvation, storms, and dehydration on their journeys. Many survivors ended up in Turkey’s Black Sea cities — Trabzon, Samsun, Sinop, Varna in Bulgaria, and Istanbul. In memory of their ancestors who perished in the Black Sea, some descendants of the victims refuse to eat fish today. 

Leyla Kılıç Karakaynak, one of two sisters who run Ficcin, is a fourth generation Istanbullu but her family roots are in the North Caucasus, in mountainous North Ossetia, where locals trace their identity back to the Iranian-speaking medieval kingdom of Alania, remaining largely detached from the Russian mainstream today. Despite living here for several generations, she told me that where she’s ‘from’ still very much depends on who she’s talking to. In Turkey, the feuding clans and tribes of the North Caucasus tend to be clubbed together under the label ‘Circassians’, a misleading catch-all term for all Eurasian highlanders, but that’s not the case across the Black Sea. “Here, Ingush, Georgians and Ossetians are all put together, but back there, we are not. We are different,” as Karakaynak put it. It wasn’t until she first travelled back to North Ossetia, 10 years ago — a long-delayed homecoming of sorts — did she realise what had been saved, and what had been lost.

Ficcin, both the dish and the restaurant, equals the best sort of Istanbul eating there is: unpolished, filling, feel-good food

Circassian Chicken

Not the prettiest dish in the world, but considered a classic in Istanbul and served widely. It works best as a meze dish, or a lunchtime side, or served on rice for supper


SERVES 4
• 400 ml/1⅔ cups chicken stock
• 2 large skinless chicken breasts
• 2 slices of stale bread, crusts removed
• 80ml/5 tablespoons milk
• handful of walnut halves, toasted
• 80ml/5 tablespoons milk
• 1 large garlic clove, crushed to a paste with ½ teaspoon salt
• ½ teaspoon black pepper
• ½ teaspoon ground allspice

FOR THE GARNISH
• 2 tablespoons walnut oil
• 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
• 1 teaspoon pul biber (Turkish pepper flakes)
• small handful of toasted walnut halves
• a few coriander (cilantro) leaves (optional)

Pour the stock into a saucepan with the chicken breasts. Bring to the boil, then simmer and poach for about 10 minutes or until cooked all the way through. Remove the chicken from the stock and, once cool, shred into a bowl, using your hands, pulling the cooked chicken into 2.5cm/1 in-long pieces. Set aside 100ml/generous one third of a cup of the stock (save the rest for another use).

Put the bread in a dish, pour over the milk and leave it to absorb. Then, in a food processor, blitz the toasted walnuts and garlic paste until you have fine crumbs. Add the milky bread and pulse. Pour in the remaining chicken stock, along with the pepper and allspice, then blend until you have a sauce the consistency of double (heavy) cream.

Pour the walnut sauce over the chicken and toss it through to coat. Before serving, warm the walnut oil in a small pan and add the paprika and pul biber. Set aside. Plate up the chicken mix, scatter over the walnut halves, coriander (cilantro) and pour the pepper paprika oil over the top.

In North Ossetia, Soviet rule and cultural cleansing had destroyed the habits and culinary traditions that her family had cherished — and closely guarded — in Turkey for the past 150 years. “You could say we overprotect the culture here,” Karakaynak said, explaining that what she found in North Ossetia was far from an idealised motherland. Instead, it was an experience summed up by one word: extinction. Under Soviet rule, women worked to survive but in Turkey, where the refugees settled, women lived traditional lifestyles of cooking and child rearing, much how their ancestors had done before the arrival of communism. What had been lost there, had been saved here, retained within Turkey’s North Ossetian diaspora, in Turkey’s Black Sea cities. Strong traditions of hospitality, beliefs and fables were held onto, kept and were handed down, along with inherited recipes for dishes like Ossetian pies and sour cream porridges. “We kept our cornbread recipes, sweet and savoury ones, back there it was the folklore food of legends.”

I ordered lunch. The ‘Circassian ravioli’, as they’re listed on the menu, meant 15 or so potato dumplings covering the entire dinner plate, lying partly hidden under a blanket of thick Turkish yogurt laced with orangey-coloured pepper oil. Onto this goes Turkish pepper, sumac and mint, spooned from the heart-shaped bowls. Fiendishly good. It is remarkable, given the manti’s primitiveness, that these parcels are capable of hooking you on first bite. But they’re addictive. Fresh and thin, the warm potato helps them to melt as they meet teeth and tongue. The signature namesake dish here is ficcin. A simple baked pastry filled with ground beef. It takes pride of place at the very top of the menu, which is a printed-out Excel spreadsheet. Robust and offering few frills, ficcin, both the dish and the restaurant, equals the best sort of Istanbul eating there is: unpolished, filling, feel-good food. It may have been the middle of summer, but this would have been the food that got Karakaynak’s ancestors through long, bitingly cold winters across the Black Sea in the mountains of the North Ossetia.

Black Sea Beans

Kuru fasülye, creamy pale beans in thick red buttery gravy, is possibly Turkey’s favourite bean dish. It is cooked by bean ‘ustas’ (masters) as getting it right is harder than it might look. Given the proliferation of excellent yayla (mountain pasture) butter accessible to Black Sea cooks, this dish is especially good there. Butter is key for this recipe so it pays to use rich, creamy farmhouse butter, if possible — your beans will thank you for it.


SERVES 4
• 300g dried cannellini beans (dried beans have more texture and flavour)
• 1 fresh bay leaf
• 2 slices of stale bread, crusts removed
• 60g/4 ½ tablespoons good salted butter
• 1 small onion, grated
• 3 garlic cloves, very finely chopped
• 1 teaspoon salt
• ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• 2 tablespoons tomato paste
• 2 whole dried red chillies, plus 4 extra whole to decorate
• 1 x 400g/14oz can chopped tomatoes

OPTIONAL ACCOMPANIMENTS AND GARNISHES
• lemon wedges
• parsley leaves
• sliced red onion
• hot peppers (guindillas or similar)

Rinse the beans then soak them in a large pot of water for at least 5 hours, preferably overnight, covering the beans by at least a few inches. You want them to have soaking water to cook in so make sure they have enough.

Drain the beans, and reserve the soaking water. Put the beans into a heavybottomed pan, such as a flameproof casserole, and add enough soaking water to cover them by 2.5cm/1 in (if you’re short, add hot chicken or vegetable stock, or water). Add the bay leaf and bring the beans to a boil, skimming off any froth that comes to the top, then lower the heat, cover and simmer over a low heat until soft but with a little bite, around 1–1½ hours, adding more soaking water as you go, or just fresh water if you’re short, if it gets too thick.

Melt the butter in a separate medium-sized pan, add the onion and garlic and sauté for 3–5 minutes on a gentle heat, adding the salt and pepper and stirring often so they soften but don’t colour.

Add the tomato paste to the onions and garlic and stir for a few minutes so the mixture thickens slightly and comes together. Then prepare your chillies. Snip off the stems, and using a knife, butterfly open and clear out the seeds. Toast on a high heat, in a dry frying pan, just for a minute or two, to release the heat. Next, tip the canned tomatoes and 2 of the toasted chillies into the onion mixture, stir and simmer for 20–30 minutes. Make sure to stir every now and again so the mixture doesn’t catch. Use a blender to mix into a velvety sauce.

When your beans are soft, drain and add the tomato mixture. You should have a thick sauce.

Plate up the beans and serve with a whole dried chilli on the top. Lemon wedges, parsley leaves, sliced red onion or guindillas are all nice accompaniments.

That afternoon, across the water in Kadıköy, I found more heirloom recipes from the former Soviet Union at Sayla Manti, a little canteen with a satisfyingly old-school blue and white candy-stripe awning out the front. Operational since the heady days of 1969, the current owner, Fevzi Esen, took the baton from a family whose Tatar grandparents fled the Crimean War, across the Black Sea, arriving at about the same time as Leyla Kılıç Karakaynak’s relatives left North Ossetia, 150 years ago. Immaculate in his Pringle-style sweater and clearly proud of his spotless operation, Esen explained that it has taken patience and determination to get the restaurant where it is today. “I started as a waiter in 1982, and slowly took over the business. I sold my bicycle to buy paintings for the walls, and for meat, I’d buy it on credit from the butcher,” he said as plates of his famous beef manti arrived at surrounding tables. Today, he still uses the same butcher, and still keeps an agreement to pay later, a bit like a bar tab. “In that way, I am a very typical, loyal Istanbullu,” he said.

I wonder about the name ‘sayla’, and Esen tells me without a hint of irony that it means ‘to choose’ in Tatar, then in the same breath adds that the menu contains just two items. But, in typical Turkish style, both dishes are time honoured, and are exceedingly well practised and executed. The first is çiğ börek, which confusingly translates as raw börek, although it is a fried crescent-shaped mince-filled turnover. It is much loved by Crimean Tatars. And the second is beef manti, coming in four portion sizes and topped with butter from Esen’s hometown. He brings in 300 kilos of butter a year just for this purpose and has imported an Italian machine, at great expense, for rolling manti dough out. The food on the menu encompasses “the Tatar daily diet in Istanbul,” Esen added, explaining how he keeps in touch with the relatives of the original owner, including the grandson, who is now 98 years old. As we talk, Sayla Manti fills up with families and well-behaved school children, drinking yogurty Ayran and knowing exactly what to order and expect. This is a place of few surprises, much expectation, and a lot of pride. Esen never intended to change the original menu as he wanted to stay true to the original çiğ börek and manti. His ambition, he told me modestly, was only ever “to make it a little better.”

Black Sea Dispatches and Recipes – Through Darkness and Light is published by Hardie Grant and available now

On Tuesday 6 November, Caroline Eden will be in conversation with Howard Amos at Calvert 22 about the irresistible cuisine, destinations and stories of the Black Sea. You can find more information and book your place here

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