All that you wanted to know about a true Turkish breakfast, and you never dared to ask

Rule number 1: it’s mostly savory. Number 2: it’s an important moment of the day, they have it at around 10 in the morning. Number 3: whether you’re in a luxury hotel or staying at a Turkish friend, it will be a rich triumph of delicacies

11-08-2022
by Sonia Gioia
A small (or almost) selection of all the delicacie

A small (or almost) selection of all the delicacies that make the typical Turkish breakfast

This story is in fact two stories in one. They both take place on the banks of the Bosporus, in Istanbul. They appear to have little in common, but this is not true. What joins them is an ancient and across-the-board rite, capable of cancelling the differences between the sparkling Ottoman palaces and the more popular and domestic Turkish everyday life, uniting the Turkish people more than (or almost as much) as what the legendary president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk did. The statement could sound as blasphemous, if we weren’t talking of breakfast. Turkish breakfast, that is. There’s no doubt even Atatürk would agree.

 

A historical photo of Çırağan Palace and, below, the fire that destroyed it in 1910

A historical photo of Çırağan Palace and, below, the fire that destroyed it in 1910

The current Çırağan Palace, now an extra luxury hotel of the Kempinski group

The current Çırağan Palace, now an extra luxury hotel of the Kempinski group

Çırağan Palace, fried aubergines and the Kempinski hotel. We’re on the western, European side of the Bosporus, the strip of water separating the two banks of Turkey. This is where sultan Abdulaziz between 1863 and 1867 had Çırağan Palace built, with interior of wood walls and ceilings, exterior of marble in delicate colours. The beautiful Ottoman building was devoured by a fire in 1910. The fire destroyed the interior and what survived was basically only the marble, including the marble sculpted in the dreamy arabesques of the indoor hammam, still shiny and intact to this day. What caused the fire? There are no proves. However, it is very likely that the fire was caused by a capital sin, a sin of the palate: some fried aubergines, the ingredient that are to Turkish cuisine like tomato to the Mediterranean diet. A sapid, yet undocumented legend. What is certain instead is that in 1987 the palace was bought by a Japanese company, completely renovated and added to the Kempinski hospitality jewels. The sultan suite today costs over 35K dollars per day, but even if you had the money, it wouldn’t be enough to grant you a place among the portraits of Edmondo De Amicis and Bono Vox, among the famous people who stayed – at some point - at Çırağan..

 

An Italian teacher in Istanbul. In 2005 Roberta D’Aversa, born in Puglia in 1976, after graduating in Italian language and Culture in Siena, was called by an Italian-Turkish company in Bursa which was looking for teachers of Italian as a foreign language. Without thinking twice, she left without knowing a single word of Turkish. Once she arrived, a driver sent by the company picked her from the airport. Impossible to talk with that man. It was easy, however, to smile, like anywhere in the world, and that was enough. The current airport in Istanbul is a futuristic cathedral of surprising size, designed in 2009 to be the largest in the world, and opened in 2018, spreading over 77 million of square metres. But at the time, Roberta landed in the comfortable Atatürk airport. During the trip she noticed the nationalist pride that stands out on the red flags with the moon and the star every so many metres. The luminescent and surprising beauty of Haghia Sophia, the earthly architectural expression that is closest to the spiritual rarefaction of the Sky, an architectural miracle of light and blood (10K men worked to build it). The cleanliness of Istanbul, built following the urbanistic model of Rome, but which contrary to the Eternal City, eternally crushed under the weight of its rubbish, can show a domestic cleanliness in the most remote street corner (but then the two capitals can compete in terms of density and chaotic traffic). Soon the driver would find a way to invite her for dinner. Though embarrassed and uncertain, she agreed: «It was not a date, as I feared. The composure of that man immediately swept away all my fears. It was just time for the Ifṭār, the evening meal that for Muslims breaks the daily fasting during the month of Ramadan. It was the first gesture of kindness and hospitality I received from these people, of which I would have endless demonstrations over the many years of my stay in Turkey. I felt at home. From the very first moment».

 

A royal breakfast at Kempinski

A royal breakfast at Kempinski

Menemen

Menemen

Breakfast at Kempinski. On the first floor of Çırağan Palace, a sparkling room with flowery frescoes hosts special events for special guests. The dominating emblem is the tulip, the flower that represents Istanbul and Turkey: who knew that the most famous and even iconic flower of the Netherlands in fact was originally from the banks of the Bosporus? In the middle of the room, facing the sea, a table of royal proportions prepared for breakfast (the one at Tiffany’s, by comparison, was something for the poor). What with crystals, silverware, signature ceramics and freshly washed linen, you can eat a huge and dreamy amount of menemen, a dish very high in proteins, made with eggs, peppers, tomatoes, and onion, a must at breakfast time. Then there’s a profluvium of raw vegetables (tomatoes-cucumbers-peppers) cheese, alone, as with kasar and lor, or inside a börek, fried puffed pastry filled with cheese, minced meat and vegetables. Pastry typically served is a doughnut covered with sesame seeds (street food sellers have one oozing Nutella). Of course, there are nuts, like the best cashew nuts we aver ate, and then walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts. And of course, there’s a chargrilled spicy sausage. And then again eggs, but this time çilbir style, with pepper from Aleppo (a variety of sweet chilli used in Turkish cuisine as much as salt and pepper), yogurt, lemon, butter, garlic, herbs and (if you want) honey. Breakfast is soaked with two drinks, tea and coffee, but it’s the former that dominates the scene: Turkey is among the countries in the world with the highest consumption of tea. Every fine person in Turkey drinks seven or eight glasses per day. There’s of course coffee too, for those who want. Turkish style. But usually breakfast is not its moment. Now, one can of course wonder if all this abundance is not the fruit of a luxury five-star hotel with a heritage. The answer is no. Because while it is true that at Çırağan Palace porcelain and silverware add an Arabian nights’ brightness to the rite, breakfast is a shared heritage, widespread, homely, celebrated in every corner of Turkey. Regardless of the social condition.

 

Çay, the Turkish tea 

Çay, the Turkish tea 

Simit

Simit

Karnıyarak

Karnıyarak

Breakfast at home. «It didn’t take me long to understand that Turkish breakfast is considered a national heritage. It’s savoury. It has royal making, ceremony and proportions. It took me even less to adapt to this new custom», says Roberta, who’s a practicing sweet lover, rather than savoury. Turkish breakfast was therefore a conversion to her. «You eat it at around 10 am, not right after waking up, and especially at the weekend, you will set the table with great care. It’s served with simit, bread and sesame dough which every person buys from their trusted bakkal, the word that stands for the grocery shop but also for the shop owner, and mostly drink çay, the tea you sip from small tulip shaped glasses. The soundtrack is given by the samovar simmering all the time».

The surprise of surprises is the perfect match between the sumptuous breakfast served at Kempinski and the twin meal that all families, no matter the background, will have too. The basic food: olives, cucumbers, tomato «and white cheese (beyaz peynir), similar to feta, but don’t try to make this comparison with a Turkish person, or they would find it offensive». Indeed, because not only the table reveals a large quantity of similes with the Mediterranean diet, but also a special match with some food that is universally associated to the Greek peninsula. Instead: «People say Greek yogurt, but who knows that yoğurt is a Turkish word?». And who knows that among the bright red dishes that lighten up Turkish cuisine there’s karnıyarak, that is to say a cult dish in south Italy too, the peel of the aubergines, fried and stuffed [but fry carefully, remember the fire at Kempinski]?

Going back to breakfast: «Turkish men, usually not accustomed to the kitchen, are usually capable of preparing some magnificent menemen, which on the Black Sea they serve with a special texture, a mix in which eggs, tomatoes, onions and peppers become a cream. Another dish in which eggs have a main role, is sucuklu yumurta, a sort of frittata with a spicy salami made with beef, of course».

 

Ali Onal and Roberta D’Aversa

Ali Onal and Roberta D’Aversa

Footnotes. Whether you’re staying at the Kempinski or are lucky to spend some intimate time with a Turkish family, breakfast deserves a slow rhythm, dedicated and friendly. It is one of the very powerful Turkish seductions, one of those single moments that are worth the trip. There’s more. Be aware, before you leave, that you will go back with a sort of saudade, an ache for Turkey, an inconsolable nostalgia that will take most of the space in your luggage and in your memories. To win this feeling Roberta D’Aversa married a Turkish man from Samsun on the Black Sea. His name is Ali Onal and every Sunday morning he prepares a sumptuous, regal breakfast, savoury but not too much, for her.

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso


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