Found in Translation: The Food of Istanbul’s ‘Master Chef’

Musa Dağdeviren made me seriously consider learning Turkish. Ever since I met him, six years ago in Napa at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, I was dying to be able to converse with him in his language, the only one he speaks. Like me he was part of the multi-national group of guest chefs and food writers taking part in several Worlds of Flavor Conferences. From the first time I saw him mix herbs and spices to season his kebabs, vegetable stews, and salads, I was bowled over by the unbelievably enticing and complex flavors he created in dishes that looked simple and straightforward, like the liver kebap (the Turkish spelling of the word) smothered in a blend of dried mint, cumin, and Urfa pepper; or his refreshing zahter salad—a fragrant, tangy mixture of minced fresh thyme shoots, parsley, onion, and scallions dressed in olive oil with lemon and pomegranate molasses.


Read also the wonderful NewYorker story about Musa.


I wanted to ask him how he came up with these amazing dishes, so different from the Turkish food I had known all my life. Unfortunately we had to communicate in English through an interpreter who knew little about cooking and ingredients, and this proved quite a challenge. I guess, during these first meetings, the only thing I could surely convey to Musa (pronounced Moo-SAH, stressing the last syllable) was how much I loved his food, and he probably liked mine, because he asked me to write for his magazine. Besides being an incredibly talented chef, Musa is also a passionate scholar, and this is obvious if you leaf through Yemek ve Kűltűr (Food and Culture), his wonderfully produced monthly publication that explores the history and roots of various dishes, ingredients, and cooking techniques. Unfortunately the texts are in Turkish and have not yet been translated.

“Marianna can translate whatever you want to write for the magazine,” he told me through the interpreter. He was referring to the Greek-Turkish author and researcher Marianna Yerasimos, whose book 500 Years of Ottoman Cuisine, is one of my favorites, a book that I consult often. Marianna lives in Istanbul, and seldom comes to Greece, let alone the island of Kea, where I live, so for years we were exchanging e-mails and phone calls. She is as passionate about food as Musa, and she often writes for Yemek ve Kűltűr. Meeting her in person and going with her to Ciya, Musa’s restaurant, was a dream of mine that I finally realized last month.

The 45-year-old chef has been all over the U.S. and English press: three years ago Paula Wolfert called him “Master Chef” and “culinary anthropologist” in her Food & Wine column, numerous U.K. publications raved about his food, and last April Elif Batuman did a wonderful piece about him for the New Yorker. Don’t think, though, that Musa is the Mario Batali of Turkey. Far from it! His is the kind of food that connects with many of the new working-class residents of Istanbul because it reminds them of their mothers’ village cooking. It also appeals to sophisticated traditionalists, probably not a large category of Turkish foodies. In his country—much as in mine—chefs that are praised abroad tend to be smirked at by the local bloggers and food writers. If his restaurant was a very expensive venture in a glitzy part of Istanbul, these same foodies—who blog in detail about Dan Barber and Jean-Georges—would probably look at him differently; strange as it may sound, though, Musa does not wish to be famous. He just wants to continue his incessant research, reviving yet more almost-forgotten dishes and adding them to the vast repertoire of his restaurants, the menus of which follow the seasons strictly.

The first Ciya Kebap opened in 1987 and later Ciya Kebap ΙΙ followed. In 1998 Musa and his wife launched Ciya Sofrasi. This last one is the chef’s pride, the place where he serves stews, pilafs, and salads—dishes that women in the poor villages of Anatolia cook at home, foods of the poor that very rarely appear on restaurant menus. All three Ciyas are near one another in Kadiköy on the Asian side of Istanbul, a 20-minute ferry ride from the buzzing Taksim, far from the flamboyant Sultanahmet. In this spectacular, traffic-plagued city on the Bosporus, ferries often replace the subway, and we reached the pier and swiped a metro-like card to pass through the automatic gates and board.

Once we were on shore, Marianna guided me through the busy roads of this old neighborhood, bypassing imposing construction sites to reach the relative calm of the pedestrian streets of Kadiköy. Before going to Ciya Sofrasi we wandered through the vibrant market that surrounds the restaurants. I marveled at the variety of fruits and vegetables still on the stands in September: plump sour cherries and green unripe grapes that in Greece are available only early in the summer. But Turkey is a vast country with varied landscape and diverse climates, hence this enviable abundance. I couldn’t stop photographing the display of silvery palamut (small bonito), their bright red gills exposed to assure customers of their freshness. Stopping at Marianna’s favorite spice shop—although she lives on the European side she likes to shop here—I got the most wonderful Urfa pepper; semi-dried sumac berries, not just the usual powder; and incredibly fragrant turmeric.

When we at last arrived at Ciya Sofrasi’s entrance, a multicolored display of casseroles and pots welcomed us. Musa was waiting and led us to a table to drop our shopping before showing us around and introducing us to his cooks and assistants. The baker makes fresh pita constantly in a pizza-like oven where he also bakes the restaurant’s signature kebap: chopped beef with walnuts, wrapped in thin pita dough and served with fresh cheese, parsley, mint, and sumac. At the basement, in the immaculately clean prep-kitchen, a young woman was rolling flawlessly identical dolmas stuffed with Musa’s perfectly spiced bulgur, tomato, and pepper paste mixture.

There are so many things I would like to ask Musa, so many foods to decipher, but speaking through an interpreter is always frustrating!
As we sat down the plates started to arrive: the Zahter Salad—more pungent with its local herbs than the Napa recreation; a flavorful muhamara (red pepper dip) and the cigar-like dolmas followed. Then we were served tiny okra stewed with sour unripe grapes—an ancient Anatolian combination—and a dish of warm, wilted, yet still crunchy lettuce leaves in a silky yogurt sauce with fresh mint and tarragon, which I found irresistible.

Urfa Kebap Patlicenli, spicy ground beef balls skewered interchangeably with cylindrical long eggplant pieces, were grilled so that the eggplant obtained an enticing smoky and meaty flavor. To serve this kebap Musa un-skewered the meat and vegetables and rolled them on warm pita, adding chopped onion, parsley, and a sprinkling of sumac. Most of his kebap are half-meat, half-vegetable, creating wonderful combinations inspired by the old-time Mediterranean way of using precious meat frugally. “Ekonomiani bil,” (learn to economize) Marianna said, and Musa laughed, as they both remember a much-repeated childhood slogan. As the little plates kept coming I enjoyed every bite enormously, finally forgetting to take notes and just tasting with pleasure, so some dishes have probably gone unremarked on, but certainly not forgotten. But I will never need a note to recount the last dish: Vişne Kebabı—meatballs with fresh sour cherries in a light tomato sauce with onions. It is Musa’s fruity version of a Gaziantep dish with roots in Syria. “It has to be made with lean meat and fresh vişne (sour cherries),” he explained, dismissing the common heavier Middle Eastern variations made with dried or frozen fruits.

Musa dedicates a part to of the very attractive Ciya website to “vegetables” and shows pictures of 25 unusual greens from Anatolia and the Black Sea that he uses throughout the year; but the captions are in Turkish only. Our two countries have so much in common, and we share culinary roots far beyond the few greens in the pictures that I often harvest from my garden. Unlike many food experts in both sides of the Greek-Turkish border, Musa refuses to take part in the long-lasting heated debates regarding who first invented dishes like dolmades, trahana (or ksinohondro), and pita. Like me, he believes that peasant recipes and cooking techniques are related to geography and each region’s produce, not to a specific ethnic group. There are so many things I would like to ask him, so many foods to decipher, but speaking through an interpreter is always frustrating! While I was yearning to have long conversations with Musa about the similarities and differences of our food, and learn more about the wonderful fresh, dried, and preserved ingredients he sources from all over Turkey, I had to let him and Marianna discuss food politics and future articles they were planning for the magazine.

And this brings us back to my urgent need to learn Turkish.


Recipe: Cartlak Kebap (Liver Kebab With Onion Salad)

Recipe: Zahter Salad (Fresh Thyme, Parsley, and Onions in Pomegranate Molasses Dressing)

Recipe: Biber Cacigi (Pepper and Yogurt Spread)




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