"What on earth am I doing, sitting here in eastern Turkey thinking about northern Thailand?" I thought to myself.
Dave and I were tucking into a beautiful spread at Kristal, a friendly lokanta in the old section of Kars. I was working on the haşam, a simple beef and potato stew. I sat opposite a large window, and as I chewed I watched the mid-day parade: scarved older women en route from the weekly market, toting plastic bags of red apples and miniature green pears, chard and tomatoes, chicken and lamb; men sporting jaunty wool caps and enormous moustaches whose lazy pace suggested a destination no more pressing than the tea house; a horse-drawn cart piled with round cabbages; two sheep, a goat, and a cow standing in the back of an open truck. A Kars scene. Yet my thoughts kept drifting to a lunch we'd eaten almost 18 months ago on a farm in northern Thailand.
But ... I'm getting ahead of myself.
Most of what I knew about Kars I'd read in Orhan Pamuk's novel Snow. Pamuk's Kars is a desolate, unfriendly city thick with intrigue and foreboding. The novel takes place during an especially harsh winter (the Turkish translation of 'snow' is 'kar'). Here it was summer, but first impressions didn't work to dispel Pamuk's image of the place.
Located in northeastern Turkey near the border with Armenia (and touristed most often for its proximity to the ruins of the abandoned city of Ani), Kars was the last Ottoman outpost before Russia. The city was taken by the Russians and occupied for appoximately 40 years, until the Russian Revolution in 1917.
Kars' time as part of the Empire is evident in what Pamuk calls "Russian houses" -- hulking structures of grey stone blocks, many of which lie empty, their windows broken or missing altogether. The old part of the city is bordered by a river -- an angry, roiling river on the day that we arrived -- and is watched over from a hilltop by castle ruins. Most of the roads are still paved with cut stone.
By the time we checked into our hotel the weeping gray sky was adding to the city's distinctly unwelcoming vibe. Rude service and lackluster kebabs at dinner did nothing to improve our spirits, nor did the series of fierce thunderstorms that rumbled through the night.
But in the morning we woke to a clear turquoise sky. The river, though still churning, sparkled in the sun. The air was crisp (now it felt a treat to be wearing polar fleece in June) and clean and sweet. Walking the streets of Kars, we found a city quite unlike the one we thought we'd arrived in.
The oppressiveness we'd felt the day before seemed to have evaporated with all evidence of rain. Kars' denizens smiled. They shook hands, they chatted, they insisted we sit down for for tea. Karsians are incredibly friendly, we found.
And in this new light, the old Russian houses were really quite beautiful. Some are painted hues more suggestive of the seaside than an inland city hemmed in by plains and pastures.
The night before we'd looked forward to escaping Kars. But that morning we wished we could spare a few more days.
The next day, our second and last in town, we wandered into a shop selling nothing but kaşar (a gruyere-like cheese special to Kars province) and honey, another local specialty.
The owner invited us inside and fed us slice after slice of cheese -- buttery young kaşar, aged kaşar with crunchy 'crystals' reminiscent of those in a good parmesan reggiano, toasted cheese sandwich-worthy orta ('middle' -- not young and not old) kaşar. It was all wonderful.
Cheese, we'd heard, is an essential part of the local breakfast, and the villages around Kars produce several varieties. After our kaşar tasting we wanted more. Where, we asked the shop's proprietor, could we find a good Kars breakfast?
'Kristal,' he answered. 'Orada,' pointing up the street.
We followed his advice and walked the half block to Kristal, a bright and pleasant spot with a glass display case for hot and cold dishes up front and perhaps 15 tables in rows of two arranged the length of its narrow dining room.
The welcome was cordial. We ordered Kars breakfast -- the works. A young waiter was sent out for cheese: kaşar, string cheese called çeçil peynir, çakmak peynir (a creamy, salty white cheese similar to Bulgarian feta), and an exceptionally rich and soft vanilla-hued specimen with a not-unpleasant funky edge.
Black olives, cucumbers, tomatoes, honey, bread and tea were brought from the kitchen. Kaymak the consistency of thick whipping cream was ladled from a glass bowl in the front case onto a saucer.
But then, as we were swooning over our breakfast, Kristal's chef began carrying stainless steel pan after pan into the dining room. Lunch prep had begun, and it was taking place not six feet from our table.
We ate cheese and bread and drizzled honey over kaymak and tried to ignore the scents of wood oven-baked vegetables, slow-cooked meats, onions and tomatoes and eggplants sauteed in olive oil, and dried legumes coaxed to tenderness in meaty broth.
We were due in Erzurum that evening, to catch a morning flight back to Istanbul. There would be no second chance, at least not this trip. It became obvious: we would have to return to Kristal for lunch. In three hours. And we did, after a brisk walk and a hike up to the castle.
We weren't really hungry. But it didn't really matter.
The secret to a fine Kars breakfast is good ingredients, which means that a halfway decent eatery can put together an exceptional morning feed. But lunch is another matter; it's all about what happens in the kitchen. And what's happening in Kristal's kitchen is something exceptional.
Kristal was opened in 1952 by the father of Tahsin Kaya, who now runs the restaurant with his brother. The recipes date back, and Kristal's current chef has been on the job for years. Dishes change by the day (only lunch is çeşit yemeği -- various dishes; at night Kristal serves döner and kebap). The food is unbelievably delicious.
Kristal is a destination restaurant.
Our favorite dish was the house specialty, piti. Chickpeas, suckling lamb, tail fat, a bit of tomato, and saffron are baked for many hours in enameled cups. The flavors mingle and meld, and the chickpeas become thoroughly infused with saffron-and-meat essence.
The dish is served in two parts: first, lavash is torn into strips and placed in a shallow bowl and the piti soup is poured over.
The solid ingredients, with a bit of broth as well (see opening photo), are given their own bowl.
It's a magical duo. I expected the lavash to sink under the weight of liquid as it absorbed the broth, but instead became a layer of light, airy dumplings.
The chickpeas hold their shape, contrasting with lamb so tender it requires eating with a spoon (my fork reduced the meat to shreds). Both meat and broth were assertively lamb-y yet not overwhelmingly so. Everything in the dish was laced with a fragrant, slightly bitter saffron edge that countered the richness of the meat and tail fat and the butteryness of the chickpeas.
That piti was unlike anything we've tasted elsewhere in Turkey, which isn't surprising given Kars' history of occupation and its position so near the border.
After we returned home to Kuala Lumpur I found a recipe for a piti -- described as 'individual lamb stews' -- in the Azerbaijan section of Culinaria Russia. Unlike Kristal's version of piti the book's version includes potatoes and dried sour cherries, prunes or dried cherries and is eaten sprinkled with dried mint and sumac. But otherwise it's essentially the same dish of meat and chickpeas, and it's served the same way, soup and solids in two separate bowls (sans lavash).
Another winner at Kristal was etli zeytinyağlı patlıcan (eggplant cooked in olive oil with meat), an eggplant split and stuffed with minced lamb -- pudding-soft eggplant, meat nubs both chewy and, for those exposed to the heat of the oven, crispy like crackling. Good fresh tomato paste and plenty of kırmızı biber (dried red pepper) punched up the meaty filling.
Note the bit of broth on the plate -- though cooked in plenty of olive oil this dish wasn't swimming in it.
It's fairly rare to encounter an etsiz (meatless) güveç in Turkey, so when Tahsin Bey recommended this dish we pounced on it. Turkish cooks seem to have an innate ability to cook vegetables 'to death' (as my mother would say -- soft, in other words) without leaching them of flavor.
The güveç perfectly demonstrated that unique way with vegetables. It was a mixture of standards (eggplant, carrots, spicy long green peppers) and seasonal items (peas, a couple varieties of summer squash, favas), oven-baked long and slow with olive oil. The result was a mess of limp but not mushy vegetables that retained their individual flavors while swimming in a rich vegetable 'jus' that tasted of each one.
We finished with a typically Turkish fırın sütlaç (pudding) capped with an oven-browned skin. Dave and I are hard-core sütlaç fans, and Kristal's version was spot-on -- smooth, full fat-creamy, and telling of milk first and sugar last. It was served sporting a mound of pulverized hazelnuts, a northeastern flourish.
But back to that haşam, and the northern Thailand connection. The dish consisted of a piece of beef (visible on the plate above at about 1 o'clock) and a few potatoes swimming in a pool of golden broth/soup. Beef seems to be a northeastern Turkish thing -- it wasn't until we arrived in Kars that we saw huge sides of cow hanging in butcher windows.
Yet every bite brought to mind gaeng man aroo sai gai, a Shan dish prepared for a hands-on cooking course in northern Thailand that Dave and I covered early last year for Wall Street Journal Asia (read the story here, see the slideshow here.)
The Shan dish's ingredients are: chicken, shallots, garlic, salt, turmeric, potatoes, tomato. According to Tahsin Bey the haşam is made with beef, potatoes, tomato, saffron, onions, and salt.
Two weeks later at a tea house in Istanbul a common thread showed itself. The proprietor gave us a short course in herbal teas and Ottoman-style şerbet, walking us through some of the ingredients he uses: dried poppy flower, wildly fragrant mint, sassafrass, rosehips, hibiscus and other dried flowers, and dried spices, among others.
As he described his use of 'saffron' he laid before me a dried root that was unmistakeably -- turmeric.
Marigold petals are sometimes used as a saffron substitute (the poor man's saffron, if you will) in Turkey and countries to its east (Greece too?). Perhaps turmeric is as well. It was the turmeric-potatoes combination in the haşam that had so vividly transported me from Kars to northern Thailand and a lunch that included gaeng man aroo sai gai.
Kars felt as far away from Southeast Asia as I could imagine being. But it seems that even when we are wholly immersed in new experiences and sights and tastes, the mind (or the sub-conscious) insists on casting about for anchors -- connections to what we already know.
By the time we left Kristal Dave and I were thoroughly beguiled with Kars. There's something about border towns that has always appealed to us. Maybe it's the challenge of teasing origins and influences from cuisines and cultures that are the by-product of the merging of so many.
To us Kars is both very Turkish, and very not. Our lunch at Kristal was a delicious teaser.
Kristal, 127 Halitpaşa Caddesi, Kars. (For more on that delicious piti, head over to Istanbul Food.)