On the last day of our stay in Istanbul we made a pilgrimage to Ciya Sofrasi. Situated on the Asian side of the city, Ciya has become known as one of the best restaurants in the city so we were expecting a great lunch. Part of the joy in visiting Ciya is the ferry ride across the Bosphorous, from Karakoy to Kadikoy, a great way to travel. Nothing like a bit of sea air to perk up the appetite.
Ciya is the thinking person’s gaff – a chef/patron, Musa Dagdeviren, who has a sophisticated and intriguing philosophy about Turkish cuisine and politics, part sociology, part ecology and altogether a marvellous eating experience. The restaurant itself is no frills. But oh the food! Dishes are all traditional village recipes, many almost forgotten. Most chefs in Turkish restaurants are male, but these dishes draw on the inspiration and knowledge of generations of women cooking in rural domestic kitchens. Not being Turkish, I was not poised to have a madeleine moment, although many diners have reportedly been moved to tears eating food at Ciya that they have not encountered since childhood. But even a newcomer to traditional Turkish food could appreciate the delicacy of flavour and the devotion to a long culinary tradition.
The meal began at the salad bar where there was a wide variety of salads and mezze, a vegetarian’s nirvana. It is a self service affair, you help yourself to as much as you want – a lot in my case – and the plate is weighed.
I particularly enjoyed a thyme salad and another of mustard leaves. The yoghurt and wheat salad , outstanding tabouleh, and delicate dolmades filled our mouths with sunshine and fresh fragrance. In all the food markets in the city, dried peppers and aubergines hang in curtain formations. These vegetables have been hollowed out and dried, ready to be rehydrated and stuffed at home.
What a convenient arrangement in a culture devoted to stuffing veg. I was particularly excited to eat the stuffed peppers and aubergines at Ciya which were simply delicious.
After mopping our plates clean, we were up on our feet, briefly, to survey the wide variety of main course options. Pots and casseroles bubbled away filled with intriguing dishes.
I so badly wanted to try everything that a most helpful assistant offered to bring us a half portion of many of the dishes. The most unusual was a plate of lamb intestine stuffed with pilaf which I understand to be a dish rarely seen on the Istanbul circuit.
It was a step too far for my one son who found the texture a bit on the slimy side, but that just left more for the rest of us. My favourite was the sour cherry and lamb stew – a casserole of sour cherries, bits of Turkish bread and tiny balls of mince which my son jokingly suggested may be goats’ testicles. At Ciya, nothing would surprise me.
A plate of warm yoghurt soup was a revelation. Unbeknown to me it is practically a national dish and one to which I have become addicted. (See recipe). The falafel was gentle and herby, not heavy on the chilli as is often the case in Middle Eastern cuisine. In fact the whole meal was suffused with brilliant use of herbs. As we left I noticed a huge platter of stuffed artichokes that had evaded my notice!
Sadly we ate at Ciya on our last day. Had we discovered its charms earlier, we would have been crossing the Bosphorous for every meal. Chatting to the chef after our meal, I asked him why there was no Ciya recipe book and he said he would ‘tell the boss’ about my request. A local diner, listening to our conversation, interjected at this point, saying ‘if there was a recipe book there would be no more mystery’.
I had to agree. We live in an age in which we expect to be able to recreate what we have eaten in restaurants – or at least we want to think that we can. Of course dishes can never be exactly replicated as we lack the skill and the equipment, never mind the local ingredients. Yet restaurant cookbooks proliferate. Perhaps this is a democratisation of cooking, sharing tips, educating the public on how to cook and how to eat. Or perhaps it is as much to do with commercial concerns, making money for the chef’s brand. Returning home, I have tried to recreate some of the many dishes we ate in Turkey, but without the ingredients, the sun and the Bosphorous there is only one way forward – to return to Istanbul.