You probably won’t find the name Imam Cagdas-or Gazientep-in your typical Turkish guide book. But mention either place to a Turk and you’ll get the sly, conspiratorial look reserved not for tourists but insiders. Imam Cagdas (pronounced "ee-mam cha-dahsh"), which is also the name of the owner, is arguably the most famous kebab house in Turkey, a boisterous, two-story storefront founded by Imam’s great-grandfather in 1887. The day of my visit, guests included the city mayor and the commander of the local army base, not to mention 700 other hungry customers. And it was slow season!
Turkish gastronomes have the sort of reverential regard for Gazientep that Americans have for New Orleans. Gazientep is the sixth largest city in Turkey, a booming, dusty metropolis located 30 miles west of the Euphrates River near the Syrian border in south central Turkey. The few American businessmen I met here know it as a center for textiles and machine-made carpets. Foodies know it as the pistachio capital of Turkey, not to mention a city whose collective fondness for chile peppers would rival Santa Fe.
But the stars of the show are the kebabs, which are stacked in towering piles on metal trays in Imam Cagdas’s open kitchen. The variety bears testimony to the Turkish culinary imagination. There is sogar kebab-skewers of ground lamb and whole shallots that are seasoned with a few drops of pomegranate molasses before serving. There is semit kebab, springy sausages of ground lamb and bulgur wheat spiced up with fresh mint and allspice. For sheer visual appeal you can’t beat sedzeli kebab: shiny purple chunks of eggplant spit-roasted with ground lamb. And that’s just in winter. Imam Cagdas varies the half dozen kebabs it serves on a typical day according to the seasons.
Gazientep might seem like an odd place to begin a story on Turkish grilling. It’s not particularly easy to get to and it’s certainly not on the tourist circuit, but the love of barbecue here is evident even before you land at the airport. A few years ago, an airline pilot passing over Gazientep radioed the fire department to report a forest fire. Closer investigation revealed the thick cloud of smoke to be the output of thousands of portable grills brought to the woods by families for holiday picnics.
Almost every restaurateur worth his salt in Turkey claims to have a chef from Gazientap-as I was to discover on my next stop: the restaurant Develi in Istanbul.
When in Istanbul
Develi is the sort of restaurant I came to love so much in Turkey: fancy enough to have tablecloths, but relaxed enough for men to pass the evening drinking raki (anise liquor) and eating mezze (appetizers) with their buddies after work. The night I was there, I saw no women and no foreigners. According to its fifth-generation owner, Ali Develier, Develi was opened in 1912 by a camel trader from Gazientep. Today, the four-story restaurant seats 450.
I started with pilaki, a variety of dips and salads seasoned with fruity Turkish olive oil. Lamejun, Turkish ground lamb pizza, came next, followed by freshly baked pida, a Turkish bread that tastes like a cross between focaccia and pita. In short order, I was served the house specialty, ground lamb and pistachio nut kebabs, followed by lemony shish kebab and Ali Nasik kebab, a sausage of ground lamb served on a bed of puréed grilled eggplant and yogurt. (The idea of pairing grilled meat and puréed eggplant is suppose to have originated with a Bursa grill jockey whose name means "Gentle Al.") Desserts are exquisite pastry confections doused with butter, syrup, and rosewater.
I don’t mean to give the impression that grilled fare is solely restaurant food. Indeed, Turkey’s most popular "barbecue" is a street food known as donner kebab. Donner means "twirling" or "turning" in Turkish the kebab in question consists of thin flat strips of spiced lamb (or sometimes chicken), layered and stacked to make a giant roast that turns on a vertical spit in an upright rotisserie.
The genius of donner kebab is that each portion comes off the roast freshly grilled and delicately crusty. (Good donner kebab is like a prime rib with nothing but end cuts.) Donner is always carved from the bottom up to allow the dripping fat from the top to baste the meat. Actually, there are two types of donner: yaprak (literally "leaf" donner) made with whole lamb and kyma, made with ground lamb. I prefer the former.
The sliced donner is rolled in a piece of pita bread or a sheet of lavash with sliced lettuce and tomatoes and yogurt sauce. It’s fresh, hot, and succulent, and a serving costs less than a dollar.
My last night in Turkey, I wandered the streets of the Beyolu (a lively neighborhood in istanbul that reminds me of the Latin Quarter in Paris). I came upon a smoky grill restaurant tucked away amid the area’s taverns and cafés. No one spoke English, but it really didn’t matter, for the menu was self explanatory. In the center of the restaurant stood a troughlike brazier perhaps 12 feet long and 2 feet wide, crowned by a hand-hammered copper hood decorated with scenes of Turkish country life. Around the brazier ran a marble counter with seats for a dozen guests. It reminded me of a sushi bar that specialized in grilled lamb instead of raw fish.
Kiyi’s (for such was the name of the restaurant) pit master is Murat Dademir, a big, gracious man in his thirties, from Adana in southern Turkey, who tilts his head in a kindly way when you ask him a question. When I met him, he was making adana kebab, molding ground lamb spiced with fiery Aleppo chiles onto flat metal skewers by hand. In rapid succession he turned out some of Turkey’s most popular grilled dishes: iskander kebab, thinly sliced ground lamb served over diced pida with yogurt, hot tomato sauce, and melted butter. Next came durum-thinly sliced grilled lamb wrapped with lettuce, tomato, onion, and yogurt in a sheet of lavash.
When Murat learned of my interest in Turkish grilling, he offered to make me a special salad called ezmeli. He laid a skewer of bull’s horn peppers directly on the coals until the skins were charred and blistered. Tomatoes and slender Turkish eggplants were charred the same way. He scraped off the burnt skin (or most of it-a little was left on for flavor), then cut the vegetables into bite-size pieces. He tossed them with chopped parsley, fruity Turkish olive oil, and freshly squeezed lemon juice-exquisitely delicious proof that even a vegetarian can eat great grilled fare in Turkey.
In the end, I didn’t have a favorite grill joint in Turkey. I enjoyed kebabs in a wide range of settings, at street stalls and restaurants on every level of the socioeconomic scale. That is to say, I ate like a Turk!
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