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.
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.
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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