Turkey intrigues me. I haven’t been yet, though my son, L.J. has and loved it. It represents a mix of the exotic and the familiar, the east and the west, a combination that I find particularly fascinating. Mehmet Gürs is a chef from Istanbul who embodies all of that. Half Turkish and half Finnish, Gürs is equally comfortable and proficient in both worlds, balancing “the cool and calm of the north” with “rich and vibrant Anatolia.” His restaurant, Mikla, is widely considered to be the finest in Turkey while his popular chain called num num belies influences from his days obtaining his BS in Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Management at Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island.
Using a video made by his wife, Gürs explained that his cuisine is not traditional Turkish food, nor is it Ottoman food. Of the latter, Gürs says that his cuisine “has nothing to do with it.” Neither is his food “Scandinavian. – we’re not doing herring or gravlax.” Gürs has observed the traditions of Turkey and fuses them along with the incredible produce of the country and tries to “blend a little bit of (his) Viking background into it.” He “doesn’t like being in a box,” adding that perhaps his only limitation in what he does comes from “the geographical area where (he) live(s) – Anatolia (the Asian part of Turkey) and its surrounding, neighboring countries.” As a result, despite his global sensibility and his lack of adhering to a formal traditionality, Gürs’ cooking at Mikla remains essentially Turkish, but much like what his peers Rene Redzepi in Copenhagen and Alex Atala in Sao Paolo have done, Gürs has crafted an exciting new Anatolian cuisine based around the products and traditions of his home country. In his desire to do this, Gürs has felt a need to explore and understand the products and traditions of Anatolia and has for the last two years worked with an Anthropologist who has traveled throughout Anatolia to discover and dig into the culinary traditions and products of those areas. To Gürs, “it’s really a joy to see that there are still really pristine products.”
With Cihan Cetinkaya, Gürs’ right hand man and the corporate chef in charge of all the restaurants doing the cooking, Gürs entered into his presentation entitled, “A Fresh Look at Anatolian Staples” stating “A lot of people are afraid, especially in Europe…of food that comes from the other side of the Bosphorus.” He described the food of that region as being “very simple” and not using “any of the luxury products.”
The first they presented was centered on lamb, “a very popular meat in Anatolia.” because of their nomadic traditions and their pork-less religion Gürs explained to the largely pork-crazy Italian audience that it is quite difficult to get good quality pork in Istanbul, so he doesn’t use much of it. Gürs noted that he is using less and less animal based product in his cooking having concerns about the state of the world’s fisheries and more. Most of the meat that he does use is lamb., which is of incredible quality. The lamb used for this preparation, shoulder, was cooked sous vide for 18 hours at 60ºC.
To accompany the lamb, they prepared a frik from wheat that had been smoked in the field in order to dry it, since the climate of that particular area where the wheat comes from is not hot enough to dry it otherwise. The smoky flavor is described as almost like a bacon. The frik is cooked like a pilaf with olive oil, tomatoes and onions with sumac added at the end of the cooking to provide acidity to the dish and a “sour kick.” Frik, Gürs said, is a dish that is enhanced by sitting and letting it “relax” after it is cooked to continue to absorb flavor and moisture.
Another component of the dish was created from an eastern Anatolian plum leather or pestil, traditionally made by pouring a plum paste on sheets of cloth and letting it dry. The particular leather used in the demo was from an artisanal producer in Antioch. Dried fruits were used to flavor food in a lot of Ottoman cooking. The pectin in the preserved fruit is used as a binding agent in much the same way gelatins and other hydrocolloids are. This leather was chopped roughly, soaked in water to soften and cooked/mixed at full speed in a Thermomix to give it a smooth silky texture. Fresh, reduced pomegranate juice was added into the thermomix.
Thick yogurt (known as “Greek” style yogurt in the US) is a common ingredient in Turkey with traditional kebabs and other dishes. In the east, it is common to add salt to yogurt and reduce it for about four hours. The yogurt’s proteins denature leaving a crumbly product. Gürs and his team came up with their own version to use in the restaurant. They place fresh yogurt in a coffee filter and let it sit overnight to drain “until it is almost like a cheese,” add a lot of sea salt so “that it is very salty” and then some whipped cream to bring ” a little silkiness” to it.
Gürs explained the way the construction of this dish moves from a traditional western one to an Anatolian one. Starting with the meat, it has a very western appearance. The smoky, rice-like frik is still somewhat western, but a step towards the east, The sweet plum pestil, however, pushes the dish over the border and the salted yogurt pushes it “even more.” The next element, though, pushed the envelope even further.
Describing this element as something that people either love or hate and “a nightmare” for wine-pairing, Gürs described a product called tarhana that is comprised of wheat that had been mixed with yogurt and then fermented before being dried on the rooftops of the huts.. It is a very strong product that is then processed by Gürs into a very fine powder and sieved to remove some of the pieces of wheat that may still be in it. The powder is cooked with a lamb stock and two kinds of chili paste from the southeastern part of Anatolia in a Thermomix. The peppers are cooked over an open fire in copper pots until they are reduced and the product is brought by the small producer to the restaurant.
The new spin that Gürs has put on certain traditional elements of this dish present a challenge. As in Italy, France and other cuisines with strong traditions, many of these elements had been honed over many years and established themselves with variations from home to home and have strong personal and cultural associations. It is therefore difficult to innovate for its own sake. According to Gürs “to take something and bring it to a different stage is very difficult…it is just that the people are used to eating so (well.)” He added, “Why take a perfect dish that has been there forever and ever and just for the sake of innovation and modernity put it into something else, which is very often not as good as the one that has been perfected by mothers and grandfathers and whatever for generations and generations?”With this dish, he feels that they have “a better result” though he also understands that not everyone will agree and “one has to be very careful of not destroying the beauty that has been there.” It took them some time to come up with a conservative way of innovating and respecting the tradition all while still pushing boundaries. In this way they managed to use the wheat and yogurt product to enhance the dish, while respecting its cultural integrity.
This dish was cooked over several days and required pre-cooking a number of its elements. In discussing this dish, Gürs made a point of mentioning that traditional cooking in his country does not necessarily mean “Turkish” as Turkey has only been around as an entity for the last 80 years or so. Prior to that there were “layers and layers of cultures around” with plenty of spices that filtered through from everywhere including Anatolia. The dish was plated with all its elements together, a bridge between west and east, just as Turkey itself is. According to Gürs, “it is a very non-traditional Turkish dish, but it is 100% Anatolian, anyway.”
Gürs followed this dish with a dessert made using pumpkin and a technique that has been used in Anatolia for centuries yet resembles in product the contemporary technique of gel spherification created by the Adrias and their team at elBulli. Using a calcium bath made with unslaked lime similar to one used earlier in the day by Josean Martinez Alija, they marinate the cut up pumpkin for 24 hours. The pumpkin is then cooked in a spiced sugar syrup (2 parts sugar to 1 part water) for about two hours. The pumpkin pieces are removed from the cooking syrup and aerated every half hour in much the same way that a fried potato is fried twice to enhance the final product and leave a crunchy outer coat and a soft inside. The pumpkin winds up sweet and crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside leaving a “candied” pumpkin.
The next element to contribute this dish were “birdshit” pistachios (because of their size) from Southeastern Turkey. For a Turk, pistachios are like grapes used to make wine. The differences between different kinds of pistachios and where they’re from is like the differences between different kinds of grapes as well the variations in terroir. Not all pistachios are the same. These early harvest pistachios had been pureed and full of flavor. This is made just once a year and sourced from an artisan who specializes in this. The pistachio paste is mixed with some milk and frozen to make an intensely flavored, “kick-ass” ice cream via a Pacojet.
He added two additional products to the plate, a traditionally made, fire roasted, stone-ground sesame paste. Currently there are only three people left in all of Turkey making this paste this way. According to Gürs, “Unfortunately, this product will probably be extinct very soon.” The other product is a molasses made from reduced grape juice.
Gürs finished his presentation to answer a question on the plight of the world’s diminishing seafood, a cause of major concern to him on many levels beyond just a culinary one. He has been working with Greenpeace and other organizations to try to regulate the size of fish allowed to be caught in the Eastern Mediterranean to help allow fish to reach reproductive age and to spawn and produce more fish.
What was so fascinating about this presentation to me, was how Mehmet walks a very fine line between culinary anthropology and preservation and that of modernism and innovation. That he is working from within an extraordinary culinary culture that has until recently remained largely intact makes it all the more interesting. That he is working within a culinary culture that is now beginning to rapidly disappear makes it that much more important. In much the same way that it is important for people to eat heritage breeds of animals in order to save them, it is important for people like Mehmet Gürs to explore, study, use and even innovate with traditional products and techniques in order to bring attention to and save them. Personally, this is something I am going to have to try to experience for myself at some point in the not too distant future before either that culture or I disappear.