Photos by Mathias Depardon
I BECAME A MORNING person in Istanbul. It was neither the muezzin’s call to prayer, ringing solemnly over the minarets, nor the glow of sunrise over the Bosporus that converted me. It was the kaymak, the clotted cream that accompanies morning meals in Turkey. When there is cream to be combined with village honey and then spread on oven-warm bread, I can undo decades of sleeping-in habits and rise to the occasion—the occasion called kahvalti or Turkish breakfast.
Every region in Turkey has a variation on kahvalti, from the kind with freshly milled olive oil poured over sliced tomatoes and cucumbers in tiny villages on the northern Aegean coast to the repast of flaky golden flatbread envelopes (katmer) filled with cream and sprinkled with pistachios in the south central city of Gaziantep. In Van, in eastern Turkey, an entire street is dedicated to breakfast, the shops renowned especially for their local cheese and honeys.
Regardless of regional variations, there are some things you can always expect to find on your plate: bread baked that morning; honey and cream and preserves (rose jam! fig marmalade!); green peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers.
One of my favorite spreads is a sweet, nutty paste made from pekmez, a grape extract, mixed with tahini. And there will be cheese. At the simplest meals it will be beyaz panir, a soft, unaged white cheese much like mild feta. A fancier meal will include a wider array of accompaniments. Finally, there is the other main reason to become a morning person—menemen, Turkish scrambled eggs.
Something magical happens to eggs when they meet onions and peppers and tomatoes in the small copper frying pans in which menemen is cooked and served. The vegetables are stewed together in the pan until the bottom of the mixture caramelizes while the top stays soft. Then the eggs are stirred in. The best menemen is cooked just to the point at which you can scoop up the thick and creamy, sweet and savory mixture with your bread.
Kahvalti translates literally as “before coffee,” which is a tad ironic in modern Istanbul, where tea flows like a river. But in the centuries of Ottoman rule before the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Turks did drink coffee with their kahvalti. The state’s significant investment in Turkey’s young tea trade in the early years of the republic may have changed beverage habits but didn’t alter the tradition of sumptuous breakfasts.
The bounty of elements is central to the appeal of kahvalti, but even more critical is one overarching quality that brings them all together: the freshness of the ingredients. Home cooks and professionals alike have their favorite markets and stores. They make their choices based on which vendor brings eggs from his grandmother’s farm, which merchant knows someone who knows someone in the Black Sea region who makes the best chestnut honey, or which bakery has the freshest bread in the neighborhood at any given moment.
Olga Irez, a food blogger and restaurateur, hosted a monthly breakfast club in her kitchen in Istanbul until a recent move to Alaçati on the Aegean coast. She takes the shopping aspect of preparing kahvalti very seriously. Not only did she move from Russia to Turkey “for the food,” she told me, she also chose her neighborhood, Kadiköy, on the Asian side of the city, because it is renowned for its sprawling market. Olga, who learned Turkish cooking from her mother-in-law, started serving breakfast in her home after deciding that she could do a better job than the average restaurant. On the Sunday morning I attended, about a dozen travelers and locals trooped into the sunny modern apartment with its open kitchen, where Olga had laid out the breakfast buffet we would graze on throughout the morning. She had supplemented the usual treats with her own freshly baked sourdough bread, a purslane salad with walnuts, and cheeses from the Marmara region, where her mother-in-law runs a guesthouse.
For most Istanbullus, the notion of cooking “local” and “seasonal” is not a culinary trend; it is a way of life, a tradition that accompanied the historical evolution of the city itself. As Istanbul (known as Constantinople into the early 20th century) grew, it swallowed up the villages on both banks of the Bosporus. Now a global metropolis, Istanbul still retains aspects of village custom. Most neighborhoods host a pazari (market) day when vendors from the villages around Istanbul set up their stands to sell fresh produce, yogurt, eggs, and oils. If you want the finest cherries or homemade cheese, go to one of these weekly pazaris.
Istanbul abounds with restaurants that specialize in kahvalti, but the best breakfast you eat, albeit eggless, might be one you gather yourself. Go early to one of the markets. Sample the olives and cheeses that the friendly vendors will practically thrust down your throat. Choose the best-looking fruits and vegetables. The prices are usually written on pieces of cardboard, so there’s no need to haggle. Take the makings of your breakfast to the nearest waterfront park. Settle down on a bench under a fig tree. There will undoubtedly be a tea shop a few yards away, and a polite young waiter will bring you tea in tulip-shaped glasses. Eat, drink, gaze at the other continent across the Bosporus, and feel grateful that you got up in time for breakfast.
Menemen (serves 4)
Based on a recipe by Olga Irez
8 tablespoons olive oil
2 long green peppers, halved, seeded, and finely chopped
2 large tomatoes, peeled and finely diced
4 large eggs, lightly whisked
A pinch of salt
A pinch of red pepper flakes
A pinch of dry thyme
1. Warm up the olive oil in a non-stick frying pan.
2. Add the chopped green peppers and cook on the medium heat until the peppers start softening yet do not pick up any brown color (about 3 minutes).
3. Stir in the diced tomatoes (make sure you find the most succulent tomatoes the season allows) and simmer for about 5 to 7 minutes, or until most of the moisture evaporates.
4. Fold in the eggs. If you like scrambled eggs on the runnier side, stir them just 2 to 3 times, and remove the pan from the heat. For firmer eggs, continue cooking for 1 to 2 minutes, gently stirring. Don’t overcook your menemen to the point where the eggs are dry and crumbly.
5. Serve with plenty of bread.
This appeared in the May 2015 issue.
Want more from Shahnaz? Explore sadya, India’s slow food here.
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