The first time I ever visited Istanbul, it snowed. As the snowflakes swirled down and the aroma of charcoal-roasted kebabs filled the streets of the city, I immediately fell in love. The combination of pristine landscapes and Middle Eastern style – clichéd as that may sound for a city that straddles Europe and Asia – utterly captivated me. I set out to roam up and down the steep alleyways. Sooty snow piled up on the edges of the streets, and it was hard to get a grip on the slippery ice. That very first day, between the Kurdish-style breakfast and the meaty feast of a typical Turkish grill for dinner, Istanbul secured its place on the list of my favorite cities in the whole world.
The criteria for making the list are simple, if somewhat irrational. My favorite cities don’t necessarily win you over with their lively and sophisticated social scene, or dazzle you with their beauty (Istanbul is truly breathtaking, but Bangkok, also on the list, is quite ugly and polluted, and often calls to mind a half-deserted futuristic city with masses of weeds growing out of its ruins). Favorite cities are those where simply wandering the streets yields tremendous pleasure. They don’t need to go to any special effort or put on elaborate firework displays. Their very being, their just being there, is all it takes to inspire a peculiar joy.
The roots of this nearly blind love lie in my elusive sense of familiarity even with places where I’ve never set foot before. Through literature, I felt like I knew Paris long before I actually walked its streets; I knew Warsaw thanks to ancestors who lived there many years before. In Bangkok I identified with the locals’ relentless pursuit of good food, 24 hours a day; and in Istanbul, which has a food scene every bit as spectacular as that of the Thai capital, I felt a strange sense of kinship from the moment I arrived there, largely thanks to Turkish cuisine.
Pomegranate concentrate, red chili flakes, bulghur, olive oil, lamb, rosewater, saffron, rice, sesame, yogurt, hyssop and sumac. These are just some of the basic elements of Turkish cuisine, so familiar to anyone who comes from a Middle Eastern country, especially a nation of immigrants like Israel. Yet on that first morning in Turkey, they still held a special fascination. It was all so familiar, yet so new and exciting.
Since that first visit, I’ve gone back to Istanbul many times, and in different seasons. The former Ottoman capital, whose empire encompassed our region for 400 years, became a hub of culinary knowledge and ingredients from the entire area. In the palace kitchens, beautifully crafted dishes were prepared and served to the sultan and his court, and their renown spread from there throughout the empire.
If I could, I would travel on foot from Egypt to Istanbul and beyond, to trace the evolution of the foods of the old Ottoman Empire. Imagine, if you will, a journey in the footsteps of the chickpea – from the hummus and ful of Egypt to the Levant and the southern reaches of Antalya, and then to the capital of the Empire up to the edge of the Black Sea and Central Asia.
A gastronome never ceases to yearn for his or her favorite cities and their eateries. There are days when I wake up in the morning to find myself dreaming of pide – a boat of golden-brown dough filled with cheese and sujuk sausage – from a place next to Taksim Square. And there are nights when I long for balik manti or lakerda – little fish-filled dough pockets cooked in a warm yogurt sauce from one of the places in the Beyoglu district. It has been six months now since my last visit there, and a string of lethal terror attacks isn’t the only thing that has kept me away. Newspapers and art galleries are being shut down by the government, and friends who have lived in the city for many years now talk of leaving due to the increasingly extremist political climate. So what is one who is longing for Istanbul to do? (Until perhaps he can’t resist and buys another plane ticket despite everything?)
In Israel, despite the Ottoman heritage and the large Turkish-Jewish community here, there are not so many possibilities. In Yehud and in the Levinsky market in Tel Aviv, there are a few little places – in the form of delis, butcher shops and bureka joints – that can somewhat assuage one’s appetite. It’s not easy to find restaurants that serve a full Turkish menu. But for the past four months, one night a week, young chefs Muli Magriso and Arik Darhani have been a glimmer of hope for lovers of Istanbul and Turkish food.
Magriso, 29, comes from a Turkish family, and got his start in the restaurant business at age 20. Darhani, 31, is of Iraqi and Yemenite extraction, and started out as a cook in the Tika restaurant, a wonderful Turkish place that opened in Herzliya in 2006 but was unable to survive the turbulent Israeli restaurant scene. Both chefs worked their way through a good number of local restaurants until they eventually met in the kitchen of chef Haim Cohen’s Jaffa-Tel Aviv restaurant. “We became good friends,” says Magriso. “And then I joined Arik in his elite catering business.”
“And then the Turkish idea hit us,” says Darhani. “Ever since Tika, I always loved the ingredients and the techniques. Muli had all these stories and memories from home, and so we decided we had to learn more. We started with cookbooks that we ordered online and by getting together weekly to go to the Levinsky market and collect ingredients. Then we’d go to one of our homes to cook up some traditional Turkish recipes and try to make them relevant to the time and place in which we live.”
After the pair met the owner of Onza, a restaurant in Jaffa (owned by the same group that owns Kitchen Market and Mashya), they decided to try to make Sunday night Turkish night at the restaurant. “The first time we did it, maybe 20 people came,” says Magriso. “But it caught on quickly and began to grow.” Among the dishes served by Magriso and Darhani, and inspired by the famous Turkish meze, were jajik – a yogurt, mint and cucumber dip; warm eggplant salad with clarified butter and pistachios; stuffed grape leaves made according to Muli’s Istanbul-born grandmother’s recipe; beans with tomato and parsley, and a myriad of other classical Turkish hot and cold meze and pastries.
To the typical Turkish bean paste, they added a spicy lemon-pepper-based seasoning; there was also a vegetarian kubba with spinach and kashkaval cheese, and simit, the marvelous Turkish sesame bread that they bake on the premises and serve with tahini, onion and sumac. The flavors and cooking techniques are Turkish, but the chefs also make insightful connections between old and new, between Istanbul and Jaffa. Onza is not far from the Saraya, the Ottoman governor’s palace of old.
On Sunday night, with modern Turkish music being played and a Turkish-Jaffan menu of meze and anise being served, suddenly one gets that same wonderful feeling that comes from wandering the streets of Istanbul or sitting in its restaurants. Besides the meze, there are also main dishes – fried fish, a variety of pide and burak, and Gaziantep-style kebabs. When Onza’s owners observed the positive response to the Turkish nights, they offered the young chefs a deal: Starting the following week, the Turkish menu would be offered at Onza every night.
Turkish menu at Onza (first course 18 shekels, main courses 64-108 shekels), 3 Rabbi Hanina Street, Jaffa. (03) 648-6060