His Mother’s Milk

A return visit to Istanbul. There is so much – too much – to be said about the food there, about the glorious collision of Ottoman and Arab, the creeping influences of Eastern Europe and India, its place on the spice route that has gifted it with saffron, pepper, aromats and unguents, the love of produce, of fish still twisted with rigour, gigantic, ruddy tomatoes, organ and muscle and milk. There is so much that I am not going to attempt to say it, at least not now.

Much easier to lump that varied cuisine into a few, very broad and simplistic categories. Firstly, you have the fish restaurants. Some are great, some are awful, most are much of a muchness – a selection of mezze to start, salads, grilled and fried fish, chips. Like I said, these are all pretty similar, at least on first inspection – it’s only when you start looking more closely – the exact selection of mezze, for example, the precise doneness of the fish – that they start to reveal their differences. Something for another time, perhaps.

Secondly – and this is a huge and varied category – you have the street food. Kebabs, yes – including ones we would recognise as doner or shish, but also the glorious, gravy-soaked tantuni, the fat-and-sweetbread-sausage called kokoreç – but also pilafs, potatoes, dubious molluscs, crisp flatbreads topped with lamb… you could wander the city all day, with a different snack every hour.

These foods, though – from restaurant or street – are not the food of Turkey. They are very much a product of Istanbul, of a dining and a drinking culture on the one hand, and of graft and city grind on the other. The food elsewhere in the country – as represented by a few restaurants – is relaxed, more varied and expansive, more redolent of home cooking than the fill-up-and-fuck-off haste of city cuisine. The undisputed king of these Istanbul restaurants is Çiya, in the heart of Kadikoy. As much an anthropological and historical project as an eatery, this restaurant – or restaurants, rather, with a few branches on the same street – serves an eclectic and ever-changing selection of mezze and main courses from all across Turkey, as well from Syria, Armenia, and other related cultures.

We had a pickled, twiggy sea vegetable there, stuffed lamb intestine, a yoghurty celeriac dish that seemed a distant cousin to remoulade; salads of purple herbs and soft white cheese, a heavy paste of beans and dill; and rich, long cooked meat dishes of beef and quince. This dish, though, is one that really stuck in my mind, as it seemed so un-Turkish. Apart from the typical Middle Eastern combination of lamb and yoghurt (which seems to have been concocted just to annoy the Jews, if the Lebanese dish ‘His Mother’s Milk’ is anything to go by) the flavours seem Northern, comforting and hearty – although with that light, green freshness that is typical of Turkish food.


This recipe is as close as I could come at home; I think the original had vegetables not readily found over here. Enough for 4, with rice and bread and salad.

1 breast of lamb, boned
1 onion, halved
2 cloves of garlic
1 red chilli

500g yoghurt – ideally live, which’ll be really tangy. If not, squeeze in some lemon at the end
1 tbspn cornflour
1 leek, halved, sliced, and washed
a handful of chard stalks, chopped (you could have the leaves on the side, blanched and dressed)
4 cloves of garlic, peeled but left whole
2 tspn dried mint
olive oil
salt and pepper
pepper flakes, sumac, and fresh parsley, to garnish

Cook the lamb first. You could use other stewing cuts, diced, but breast is what I got. Place in a casserole with the vegetables, cover with water, season and bring to the boil. Cover and put in a gentle oven for a couple of hours until really tender.

For the sauce, you first need to temper the yoghurt. This is easier than it might sound – although I must admit I cocked it up the first time. All you are doing is stabilising it so the emulsion of fat and liquid doesn’t split when heated. First put the yoghurt in a large bowl, and really beat it until it loses its structure and liquifies. Then mix the cornflour to a paste with cold water, and beat than in too. Really make sure it’s mixed.

Scrape into a pan, and bring to a boil, stirring constantly – in one direction only, apparently, though I haven’t tested this. As soon as it starts to putter, turn it right down and simmer gently, stirring now and then, for 5 minutes or so, until it thickens nicely. I don’t know if it’s saveable when split; try not to let that happen. Just don’t let it get too hot. Thus nurtured, the yoghurt will last for a day or so in the fridge and will be able to handle a certain amount of cooking.

Ok. Sweat down the vegetables in a little oil – you want some structure, not a stewy mush – and then add the mint. When the lamb is ready, add this too, and stir in, letting everyone get acquainted, and encouraging the meat to break down further. Add your stable yoghurt, bring to the boil and let it all simmer, stirring some more, for around 15 minutes. Season liberally and garnish with spices and herbs.

There you are – fresh, comforting, filling.


I’m hesitant about posting this recipe, as it is really something I should disapprove of. I’ve written before about my dislike of ill-considered fusion food, the lack of respect for ingredient or tradition that it implies, but that is exactly what this is – a gleeful mishmash of the technique of one culture (Korean) with the ingredients of another (Turkish), the end result unrecognisable as being from either. I’d like to think this is partly justified by the Turkish love of pickles, if not exactly in this form, or at least by the deliciousness of the end result. Maybe I’m just a hypocrite, though.

This is a little more involved than the basic pickle recipe I posted before, though not by much, and although the hands-on process is spread over two days, both stages are quick and simple. It also lasts a while once it’s been made, and continues to improve up to a point – although traditionally kept for months or years, you should probably eat it within 2 or 3 weeks to be on the safe side. As with anything like this, sterilise your equipment, which is easier than it sounds – wash utensils and bowls really well, and either boil your jars on the hob, wash well and then dry in a low oven, or just stick them through the dishwasher.

Apologies for the specialist ingredients. If you don’t have a Turkish grocer’s nearby, some large Tescos sell them.

makes 1 litre jar

600g of celery (1 large head), sliced
2 bulbs of fennel, sliced
3 tbsp sea salt
2 tbsp caster sugar
4 small dried chillies

Put the vegetables in a plastic or glass bowl with the chillies, sprinkle over the sugar and salt, then massage it in to the veg, making sure it all gets a coating. Weigh it down with something like a plate and a can, and leave at room temperature overnight.

6 cloves of garlic
10 brown anchovies
2 tbsp Turkish pepper flakes
3 tbsp Turkish pepper paste
1 tbsp caster sugar

1/2 a white onion, sliced in fine half moons
1 carrot, grated

Fish the chillies out of your veg and blitz them with the rest of the paste ingredients until smooth. You might need a little (up to 50ml, say) water to get it all going.

Drain the celery and fennel, rinse thoroughly and drain again. Mix with the onion, carrot, and paste, and pack into a sterilised jar. How long you leave it is up to you – mine is lovely now at 6 days, though it was pretty good after a couple. When you’re happy, stick it in the fridge, where it will continue to mature, but much more slowly.

Try with buns and wraps, or stirred through rice or grains; eat, shamefully, out of the jar, using cheese as a spoon; David Chang recommends (proper) kimchi on oysters, but I can’t confirm this.

Turkish-American Beef Dinner

I think some of the best restaurants exist within imagined worlds. Sometimes this is simply the idealisation of memory – Russell Norman’s Polpo, for example, creates a version of Venice surpassing the original, largely from the raw materials of his own rose-tinted memories. Taken a little further, restaurants can provide an idealised version of something which never existed in the first place – to stick with Norman’s group, his Spuntino creates the perfect Italian-American neighbourhood bar, all bitter cocktails, mysterious shellfish, rich pasta and deep-fried treats, which would be unrecognisable to anyone who has endured a red-checkered red sauce joint in the wrong part of town.

These restaurants, and others – Pitt Cue being a good example – are prime hipster locations, where context is an important as content. The food, while always strongly themed and very well executed, does not need to be groundbreaking as it is not the whole of the story. When you dine at Pitt Cue Co., you aren’t just eating pulled pork – you are imbibing a whole culture, of PBR, snap-back caps, beards, plaid and Southern rock – a fantasy of US barbecue culture that has already been filtered through East Coast hipster culture before it arrives here.

Other, more interesting restaurants manage to apply this sleight-of-hand to an entire cuisine. Look at St. John and its subsidiaries. “A Kind Of British Cooking”, the recipe books tell us, and Fergus Henderson’s writing emphasises this, highlighting the skills and recipes he learned from his parents and grandparents while ignoring his own background in French classical cuisine, as well as the then-fashionable southern European influences he imbibed at the Eagle. The result, particularly, I think, at Bread & Wine, is a delicate fusion that dare not speak its name, a recreation of a traditional British cuisine that never actually existed.

With all this in mind, I was thinking about the similarities – briefly mentioned, but never fully explored, in the Pitt Cue book – between American barbecue and Turkish cuisine. Both are cultures of pickle and smoke, of intense meat and charcoal cut through and balanced by crisp vegetables and sharp, sweet liquors. They even drink pickle juice as a pick-me-up in Turkey – although without the bourbon first. Imagine the perfect Turkish-American diner … the short-order cook a moustachioued usta, the hashes spiked with biberi pepper, the chopped salad laced with sumac … This dinner was the result of these imaginings.


for 3 or 4 people

Pastirma is a Turkish dry-cured beef, similar to bresaola, but coated in a clay-like spice paste for the final stage of the curing process. Here, the same spices are turned into a barbecue dry-rub.


1kg brisket



Make up a brine with 1 litre of water, 120g of salt, and 15g of sugar. Immerse the brisket in this for three days. When it’s ready, dry it off with kitchen towel and leave in the fridge, uncovered, for six hours or so to dry further.


2 tblspn fenugreek

4 tblspn hot paprika

2 tblspn black pepper

2 tblspn cumin seed

1 tspn allspice

1 tblspn garlic powder

3 tblspn Turkish pepper flakes

handful of Maldon’s salt

Grind the whole spices and mix with the rest. Rub liberally all over your brisket, wrap in clingfilm, and leave in the fridge overnight.


This entirely depends on your cooking arrangements. I used a stovetop smoker, which I loaded with a mix of hickory and apple, and smoked the brisket for 2 hours before finishing in a low oven, covered, with a little liquid. If you have a decent barbecue you could do the whole thing on there; alternatively, you could do it entirely in the oven. It won’t be quite as tasty, but you could add some urfa chilli or even some smoke powder to the dry rub to approximate the flavour. Whatever way you choose, it’s going to take a long time, so you’ve got a while to get on with the sides.



The Québécois pretend to a sort of European sophistication which eludes their dip-chewing, denim-clad, beard-sporting compatriots. Poutine, however, is their national dish. Make of that what you will. This is a happily bastardised version.

1.5kg new potatoes

1 heaped tblspn flour

a knob of butter

1 pint of liquid (I used a mix of the meat juices, wine, and bought stock)

a big handful of feta cheese

Parboil the potatoes, then cut into whatever shape you like. Proper poutine is made with fries; I went for chunks. Oil, season, and stick in a hot oven.

While the potatoes are roasting, make the gravy. Melt the butter (in a pan, obviously), stir in the flour, and cook until it smells nice and biscuity. Add your liquid a bit at a time, stirring, and simmer until thickened. When you’re ready to eat,  pour the hot gravy over the hot potatoes and crumble over the feta.


This is adapted from Rebecca Seal’s lovely book Istanbul.

1 small red cabbage

1 celeriac

2 carrots

1 red onion




1 tblspn tahini

juice of one lemon

1 crushed garlic clove

2 tblspns yoghurt

Slice the onion in half moons, then place in a small bowl, cover with vinegar, and sprinkle over a big pinch each of sugar and salt. Leave to macerate. Shred the rest of the vegetables. (If you’re doing this in advance, squeeze some lemon over the celeriac to stop it discolouring).

Whisk the tahini, lemon juice and garlic together with some salt until it turns creamy. The tahini will stiffen and split; persevere. Stir in the yoghurt.

A bit before you want to eat, mix together all the vegetables and dress with the tahini yoghurt. Let it down with a little of the onion vinegar if it seems claggy, and season appropriately.