Chef Musa Dagdeviren takes a break at Worlds of Flavor 2009
I first heard about Turkish chef Musa Dagdeviren in 1999, from my Turkish teacher.
I was one of only two students taking second-year Turkish at UC Berkeley. My classmate and I had different interests (he, politics and me, Turkey and Turkish food -- mild obsessions which I allowed to distract me from the dissertation on Chinese politics I was supposed to be writing), so our teacher Ayla split us up for one-on-one tutorials. What a blissful school year it was; for ninety minutes three times a week I learned by reading and talking with Ayla -- who is also be a cookbook author -- about almost nothing but Turkish yemek kulturu (food culture).
Ayla told me about a chef in Istanbul who was doing something daring -- serving halk yemegi ('food of the people' -- 'peasant food', in other words) in his restaurant. Musa Dagdeviren was unusual not only for his food, but for the way he gathered recipes and discovered new ingredients (especially otlar - wild herbs and greens): by spending time with home cooks and artisan food producers in small, out-of-the-way villages all over the country.
His approach to his own country's cuisine resonated. In China my most memorable meals had been eaten not in Shanghai, where we lived, but in the Anhui, Jiangsu, and Liaoning villages in which I'd conducted research. A three-week road trip around Anatolia the previous year had shown Dave and I that there was much more to Turkish cuisine than Ottoman court specialties. And Chef Musa's methodology appealed to the academic in me -- I never did finish that dissertation, but my love of focused research at the grassroots level has never faded.
Years ago, before I abandoned that dissertation to write about food, I copied a quote of Musa's onto an index card. It still occupies a corner of my bulletin board:
I get very excited when I discover poor people's dishes, because I believe only poor people can create great food. If a man has money, he can buy anything, but a person who has nothing must create beauty from within.
Thanks to Chef Musa the dining scene in Istanbul has changed radically over the last decade; his restaurant is no longer the only one serving dishes that originated in Turkey's hinterlands made with unusual, often foraged ingredients. When not cooking there he's often conducting his research around Turkey (and now, in northern Syria as well). More recently Musa and his wife Zeynep Caliskan started publishing the quarterly food journal Yemek ve Kultur (Food and Culture), a sort of Turkish Gastronomica devoted mostly to Turkish culinary culture and history.
Shaping seasoned minced lamb onto skewers for Adana kebap
At last week's Worlds of Flavor conference Dave and I finally met Musa, as well as Zeynep and Burak Epir, chef-owner of Turkish restaurant Pilita in San Francisco, as he was leading CIA students and chef-instructors in the preparation of Adana kebap (minced lamb seasoned with plenty of Maras biber, shaped onto flat, sword-like skewers and grilled).
Adana kebap prior to grilling
Despite the pressure (the kebabs were to feed hundreds of hungry conference-goers) he was obviously having a great time. Fame aside, this is a chef who's clearly most in his element when he's mincing meat with a two foot-long scythe-like knife or wrist-deep in sliced onions, herbs, and sumac, tossing a salad.
Given his democratic approach to food I suspected that Chef Musa would be a great partner in culinary conversation. And I was right. On the last day of the conference, after his kitchen duties were finished, we sat down and talked Turkey. I asked questions and he responded in volume; within every answer was a nugget or two that we could have chewed over for hours.
What came through most is this man's passion for discovering -- and preserving -- Turkey's little-known, under-appreciated regional ingredients and recipes. His love for what he does is so infectious, and I greatly look forward to continuing this conversation when Dave and I return to Turkey in a few months.
Born in Gaziantep (also called Antep, a city in southeastern Turkey known for its fantastic food), Musa got an early start on his career when he began working in a bakery at age five. After opening a restaurant with two friends in Gaziantep he moved to Istanbul in 1977, where he opened Ciya, a kebap and lahmacun eatery, a decade later. In 1998 he opened the more upscale Ciya Sofrasi, and followed in 2001 with Ciya Kebap II.
Tossing slivered onion with mint, parsley, and sumac to accompany the kebap
How would you describe the food at your restaurants?
It's seasonal, reflective of geography, and representative of regional culture. Different geography means different lifestyles, different ingredients, different flora and fauna, and that creates different food cultures. Geography connects a people. Religion, race, and ethnicity pull them apart.
Where or from whom do you get your inspiration?
From my own geography, whcih stretches from the Caucuses to Mesopotamia, from the Balkans to the Mediterranean. Turkey has seven different regions and I literally study all of them. They're all different, and I study these differences on the spot. I also study books, Ottoman engravings and inscriptions, old postcards -- all of these things that I find in old shops, at auctions, and on EBay. I try to identify the regions that foods come from. Somebody may say "I created doner kebab, I created Adana kebab, balkava is from Antep [Gaziantep, a city in Turkey's southeast]..." This is false. I study the etymology of dish names and try to find a food's region. After much study I can begin to understand who was cooking what, when, and why.
I'm so disappointed that at traditional culinary schools in Turkey French cooking is taught. Students learn this and they don't even know how to cook five mutton dishes! I'm trying to show that we don't have to go outside of Turkey to find great food -- it's in our own villages.
In Turkey people are publishing books like 'Breads of the World'. Why not 'Breads of Turkey?' Why not 'Simits of Turkey'? There are so may different kinds of simit. And this is why we started the magazine.
You know, when I opened my first restaurant people never thought that our own local cuisine would be anything interesting. But now there are more upscale restaurants doing Asia Minor cuisine. It's become a trendy thing. And that's good.
Preparing to de-skewer a grilled kebap onto a piece of warm lavash
How long have you been doing this kind of culinary research?
Since the seventies. I have a huge library at home, and its ongoing. For example: I've found that there are 114 different types of tarhana. It's crazy, you know, often people do not even know what they're own neighbor is cooking, it could be completely different to the version that they make. Turkey is so rich in culture, and geography .... so for instance there are countless processes of yeasting bread, making cheese. As I study more I find more, and as I find more I find I need to study more.
How do you do your research? What do you do on a typical research trip?
I go to a village. I don't cook right away
... that's not the way. I sit and drink tea and talk with the village
elders. I seek out the village's older generation of cooks and I talk
to them, try to pull out their memories. If there is a special
occasion, a wedding or a special feast day, I will by the sheep for the
big meal, I'll buy all the ingredients, because I don't just want to
take from the village, I want to contribute. Basically I am like an
apprentice. I watch, I help, I cook, I clean up...
And I try to see what the village is
offering -- does it produce an interesting ingredient? A special pepper
or cheese or other kind of food? And I'll try to find connections
outside the village where they can sell that, so that the whole village
will prosper. I talk to the people about maybe setting up a village
institution to protect an especially interesting ingredient, to make a
seed bank maybe .... those sorts of things.
Adana kebap wrapped in lavash, served
Can you tell me about a dish or an ingredient that you've discovered recently?
Oh, yes. In Karaburun, a town on the Aegean across from [the Greek island of] Kios, I learned about an old woman who makes a cheese called peynir kelle. She gathers wild herbs in high pasture, then braids them and forms them into a hollow ball. The smell is nice, very aromatic. She milks her goats, makes the cheese, and then puts the cheese into the ball, which she then dips in salt, covers with more fresh herbs, and lets it sit for a year. The cheese is dry and crumbly, it tastes garlicky and of oregano. Outside it's greenish from the herbs. It's not a heavy cheese, but very light, very good.
Nobody in the village is interested in reproducing the cheese and selling it, but I want to find a way to distribute it. Someone has to take this woman under their wing and protect her cheese, and promote it.
Many thanks to Chef Musa, Zeynep, Burak, Mehmet -- and also to Jale, for help with translation.