I'd be the first to argue against a common misconception regarding the Turkish diet: that it revolves around lamb. While it's true that many Turks eat lamb, it's also true that many avoid it. Turkish cuisine is about so much more than lamb. It encompasses the dairy-heavy dishes of northeasterners, the fish dishes of those on the Black Sea, the meals rich in vegetables and leafy greens of Turkish people on the Aegean and the beef-centric specialties of those in south central Anatolia.
But dang, when Turkish folks do do lamb they sure do it right. And at Babaoğlu Kuyu Kebabi in Tire they've been doing it right for decades.
We'd come to Tire, a smallish city not far from Ephesus, for its massive weekly market. (More on that market later). But before we could market, we had to eat. And where else should we eat but at a favorite spot for market vendors?
"This is a perfect breakfast for sellers at the market, who will be working the whole long day without a break," our friend Serkan said as we approached Babaoğlu's door.
Piles of cut wood, fuel for the pit, sat on the pavement, nearly encroaching on the shop's stoop. In the front window roasted lamb ribs and a leg, and rounds of pocked pide, hung from hooks; steam rose from a shallow cauldron set over a brazier.
After six days of clear skies on the Aegean coast our first day inland was cool and rainy. We welcomed the wall of meaty steam that slapped us in the face as we pushed open Babaoğlu's door.
When I awoke that morning before dawn, my belly still full from nearly a week of hearty eating, the thought of lamb for breakfast had held less than zero appeal. But as I watched Babaoğlu's usta working his cleaver my stomach rumbled to life. Suddenly I was starving.
We started with Tandır Çorbası, soup that accompanies meat cooked in a tandır or pit oven. There wasn't much to it -- fatty lamb stock, rice, red pepper -- but it was pure comfort, an ideal precedent for the feed that was to follow. Garlicky vinegar, a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkling of kirmizi biber (crushed red chilies) added a bit of zip to the rich meaty broth.
Then we moved on to the main attraction, opting out of liver and specifying meat half fatty, half lean. To assemble their kebabs owner Fikri Babaoğlu (dishing up soup, up top) and brother Selahattin pluck a pide from the hook in the window and slap it to the side of the small tandoor-type oven behind their prep counter. While the bread warms they prepare the meat, shaving it from ribs and leg and shoulder bones and hacking it into bite-sized pieces.
The warmed bread, sliced into thickish strips and dipped into red pepper-infused meat juices (in the small shallow tin, above), is a bed for the lamb. If one asks (and this one did), a few additional spoonfuls of meat juice will be drizzled over the lot. The kebab arrives at the table piping hot and ready for a generous sprinkle of fragrant dried wild thyme.
Babaoğlu's kuyu kebabi is a knife and fork dish; the chewy pide, though soaked in meat juices, resisted mushiness to the final bite. The meat was fabulously tender. After my slow start I seriously contemplated a second order.
As we ate market vendors and Tire locals came and went, some leaving with a takeout packet or two. Occasionally a young helper would emerge from the back room, which houses the pit oven, with a freshly roasted chunk of meat or a side of ribs blackened and crusty from the fire. At that moment forks and knives would pause in mid-air as eyes followed the lamb to its resting place on a hook in the window.
Fikri Babaoğlu told us that his family has been preparing kuyu kebabi in Tire for over a century. They do lamb right -- so right that we rose early enough the next day to return for Round Two.
Babaoğlu Kuyu Kebabi, Gumuspala Caddesi, Hasir Pazari Sokak No. 16, Tire; 90-232/512-0116; about 15TL for one serving, including soup. Go early -- the Babaoğlu brothers sell out by 10, sometimes earlier on market day (Tuesday and Friday).