We were one hundred percent on vacation when we drove into Mardin, Turkey in early June. But a chance encounter led us to a story. Our article on this ancient southeastern city's bid to become the region's capital of art and culture was published in last Sunday's New York Times Travel Section; you can read it here.
Mardin's lanes are linked by abarra, vaulted passageways
Mardin is a historically and architecturally rich city that sees few foreign visitors, despite the fact that it's fantastically popular with domestic tourists who descend in throngs on the weekend. I hope our article inspires a few more yabanci to visit.If you ever make do make it to this intriguing little town, you'll need some sustenance. As you might expect, we've got a recommendation.
On our first morning in town a tiny kebab shop near Mardin's food market and just below its main street, Cumhuriyet Caddesi beckoned -- not with a smoking grill, but a window display of kaymak.
Maybe you've heard of kaymak, which is often described as "Turkish clotted cream". It's difficult to visit Turkey and not be converted to kaymak. In the weeks leading up to this last visit the word "kaymak" came up in conversation between Dave and I at least 10 times a day.
Kaymak is made by skimming or "lifting" the cream that rises to the surface of boiling milk. What we didn't realize until this trip is that it has regional variations.
In western Turkey the best kaymak is made with high-butterfat water buffalo milk and comes in thick slabs rolled up like a jelly sponge. In Kars kaymak is made with cow's milk, and the result is semi-liquid, like whipping cream. The kaymak we ate in Van, made from sheep's milk, took the form of half centimeter-thick sheets with lightly bubbled surfaces, something like an Indian appom or the raw side of an American-style pancake before it's flipped.
In Mardin paper-thin, almost translucent sheets of kaymak made from goats milk resemble no dairy product I've ever seen. Arranged in layers on shallow plates like yufka or phyllo awaiting transformation into a borek or baklava, they drew us into a kebab shop where we ordered one to share (and ended up with two).
The kebabci (kebab seller) cut each of our kaymak into rough pieces, doused them with serbet or sugar water and served them with bread. Our kaymak were creamy in the middle and crackly at the edges, and bore just a whiff of goatiness -- a good thing in my opinion, to balance their dairy richness. In short, they were spectacular. We barely touched the bread, and got up to leave assuming we'd be back the next morning for more.
But on the way out we passed the kebabci mincing a gargantuan mound of lamb with his long curved knife. Something in the way that he took his time, mincing and remincing while adding a bit of salt or crushed red pepper now and again, suggested that this guy might be an usta, or 'master'. It became apparent that we wouldn't be returning the next day for breakfast, but later that same day. For lunch.
When we returned around 12:30 the little shop was filled with smoke, and our kebabci was doing a bang-up business. While he slid chunks of lamb and tail fat onto some skewers and shaped chopped meat into kofte around others, a helper grilled
while another assembled.
Delivery orders were stacked on a counter top and we had to wait a good half hour or so for our meals, as customers sharing the small counter with us (total seats: about 9) dug in.
The product justified the wait.
Our izgara kofte (grilled lamb logs) were perfectly seasoned, a bit heavy on the crushed red pepper and aci (spicy) as per our request, crusty and charred outside but very moist within. Once again I left my bread aside (except for the bit that had been moistened with lamb drippings) to concentrate on the star of the show.
Accompanied by a sweet little salad plate of onions soured with sumac, tomatoes, and springy parsley our gorgeous grilled lamb almost made us forget about the kaymak. (Almost)
A kebab and kofte usta indeed.
Kebab shop, on the lane between Cumhuriyet Market and Cumhuriyet Caddesi, Mardin. Morning through afternoon. Closed Sunday.