The latest, and often most talented, celebrity chef in Turkey is your mother. This truism, poached from a friend over the weekend, captures something extraordinarily simple about Turkish cuisine: it traditionally doesn’t blend well with the latest avant-garde trends and celebrity-chef gimmicks. Food is an essential part of Turkish identity and Turks are quite protective over their identity.
Food, like just about everything in Turkey, is a complex and often layered affair. Some recipes have developed naturally over thousands of years, taking in influences from around the world; primarily a result of Turkey’s unique geographic position at the edge of Europe, Asia and the Middle East. It is not uncommon to find Persian, Anatolian, Greek, Mediterranean and northern European influences in a simple plate of Turkish food.
The sheer size of Turkey provides some additional layers, too. From the dark leafy greens that typify food in the Black Sea region to the strongly Mediterranean influences that typify the Aegean Coast and the Syrian and Lebanese delights that can be found in Gaziantep, one could easily spend a lifetime unpacking this rich culinary tradition.
This all begs the questions: why is our imagination of Turkey’s food landscape filled with simple kebabs and kofte? Why don’t we see Turkish chefs opening new experimental establishments in Paris, London or New York?
To tie in with Istanbul’s fantastic rise as a global city and its fresh branding campaign, a slew of new restaurants has opened with the explicit goal of demystifying Turkish cooking and giving it a modern spin. Yeni Lokanta, a small bistro in Istanbul’s popular Beyoglu district was the most concentrated attempt. The Turkish head chef, fresh from an extended stay in New York, delivers a welcome introduction to Turkish classics. Yet while Yeni Lokanta provides an excellent experience, it does not push the food envelope forward by any means.
This experimental void is going to be filled this autumn. Riding the success of his popular Alancha restaurant, which is nestled on a hill overlooking the windswept Aegean Sea near Izmir, chef Kemal Demirasal is bringing his wildly forward-thinking but grounded take on Turkish cooking to Istanbul.
I am not necessarily one to sing the praises of deconstructed and avant-garde cooking but Istanbul is painfully devoid of these types of culinary options and for no good reason. The attention that establishments like Alancha will bring to the Istanbul food landscape is a necessary ingredient to open up this cuisine to the rest of the world.
To know Turkish food is to know Turkey. While we don’t all have Turkish grandmothers to guide us with our culinary discoveries, Istanbul will soon become a hub for forward-thinking yet authentic cuisine that is accessible. This is long overdue.
Joseph Dana is Monocle’s acting Istanbul bureau chief