When we lived in Berkeley (California) years ago we patronized a mostly-meat restaurant cum retail butchery on up-and-coming Fourth Street. It was a unique set-up for the time: you could pick up an aged steak to take home and throw on the grill from the same kitchen in which the restaurant's meat was broken down and prepped.
I don't know if this is still rather uncommon in America (is it?). But like so many culinary trends in the States -- artisan breads and cheeses, stone ovens, locavorism, nose-to-tail eating -- butcher block-to-plate is nothing new in the world.
You realize this as soon as you set foot in southeastern Turkey's Hatay province. In the bowels of capital city Antakya's old çarşı (market) are several kebap restaurants where glass cases displaying slabs of meat, rib racks, hearts, testicles, and other parts double as front windows. The meat is prepped within sight of diners and orders are ferried across the market's wide aisle and slid into a bakery's wood-fired oven, and when they emerge dishes are carried straight to the table.
Father and son advise how to make the best kebab
Outside the city proper, kebap-eries go one better, combining restaurant, butcher, grill, and wood-fired stone-oven bakery under one roof. At the end of September we went to Antakya to document the production of pomegranate molasses. But before we could do that we had to eat, and so our hosts treated us to lunch at their favorite such establishment.
It's a nondescript place set off the busy road out of Antakya that forks right to Reyhanli and left to Iskenderun. It employs father and sons, cousins and uncles, mothers and maybe sisters and/or aunts ... To be honest, while introductions were being made I lost track of all the blood ties that connect everyone who works there.
But even if I hadn't been told so I'd have known that this is a family-run business, just by the pride in everything that's served -- from the blistered and crispy tomato puree-smeared katıklı ekmek and chewy, charred cubes of tongue (cooked on an outdoor grill) that we ate between sips of creamy ayran as an appetizer, to the pide (baked in the wood oven housed in a building next to the butchery) and kebaps that we dove into upstairs, at a table with a view of a ribbon of highway and stubble-carpeted grain fields stretching to pomegranate orchards at the base of green foothills.
The flour for that pide, by the way, is made from wheat grown on the family farm. Their own cows supply meat for their kebaps and milk for their ayran.
Yerli yerli yerli -- local, local, local. This is the mantra once you get beyond Istanbul and Turkey's other tourist hubs. On the menu were Antakya specialties tepsi kebabi and kağıt kebabı. Both kebap consist of meat minced with seasonings; while the former is cooked in a tepsi (flat round pan or dish), the latter is roasted on sheet of paper (kağıt = paper).
Whether a kebap made with minced meat is cooked in a pan or on paper, superior flavor and texture are foretold in the prep stage. In Antakya and elsewhere, starting with pre-ground meat is a no-no. No kebab maker worth his salt would use a meat grinder. A single knife -- a mezzaluna-like ziir or a long-bladed single-handled instrument -- or two large knives or cleavers used together (pounding a staccato rat-a-tat-tat as the kebab maker brings them to bear, one after the other, on butcher block and meat) are all that are needed to reduce a hunk of meat to mince.
To prepare their kebabs father and son first chopped the beef,then added salt, then chopped again. They then chopped the salted meat together with a vegetable and herb mince (garlic, long red peppers, parsley). That's three long periods of mincing altogether, and in the end meat and seasonings were as one. Try that with a food processor or machine grinder and see if you don't end up with a gummy mess.
They then molded the meat into large thin patties, meat pies if you will, one for the tepsi and one for the paper. Tomato and onion wedges and green chilies were added to the tepsi kebap, and then came a bath of domates salcasi (sun-dried tomato paste) diluted with water, enough to almost submerge the kebab.
Into the wood oven they went.
Fifteen or so minutes later we sat down to lunch: the two kebab, a wickedly spicy ezme (a relish-salad of tomatoes, onions, garlic and chilies), silky hummus, sesame-crusted pide, lavash and a plate of fresh long green chilies, mint and parsley with wedges of Hatay's distinctive green-skinned lemons for squeezing. (A plate of fresh herbs and lemon accompanies most Hatay meals.)
Both kebab had merit. The moist and tender tepsi was perfect for wrapping, with bits of its tomato-onion-pepper garnish, in lavash. I like the paper kebab most on its own, with nothing to distract me from the smoky, slightly chewy and intensely beefy beef.
Either way, a reminder that when it comes to cooking meat, butcher knows best.
The finished tepsi kebab