My Favourite Dish: Esra Muslu
Esra Muslu chats to Tony Naylor about Swiss chard gözleme
We celebrate the world’s best comfort food by asking chefs and food writers from diverse backgrounds to talk about the dishes they love.
See Esra's Swiss chard gözleme recipe.
Esra Muslu's Favourite Dish
After working with Yotam Ottolenghi, the Turkish chef opened her restaurant Zahter in London to bring her seasonal, home-style cuisine to the UK.
"Back home, we eat completely different food. We don't often go out to eat kebabs," says chef Esra Muslu, as she contemplates the grill dishes and street foods which dominate British understanding of Turkish cuisine. "It depends on the person and how you grew up, but my family food was based on vegetables and fish, with a little meat."
It's such 'seasonal, home-style' Turkish cooking which the 43-year-old explores at her new London restaurant, Zahtar – or a small slice of it, at least. As Esra acknowledges, as you travel from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean or out to Turkey's eastern border, in a country simultaneously shaped by centuries of Armenian, Jewish, Persian and Arabic influence, the regional and cultural differences in Turkish cooking are such that it is a never-ending journey of discovery.
That adventure is what keeps Esra, who opened several restaurants in her native Istanbul before moving to London, so interested in food. "For me, cooking never ends," says Esra who, prior to Zahtar, worked with Yotam Ottolenghi. "Go to a different region and there's always something new, a method, flavour, food. Every day you're learning.
"I grew up in a residential area of Asian Istanbul, on the Göztepe side of Kadiköy. We're quite a modern family but, in food, traditional. My mum's generation loved to go to colourful food bazaars to buy seasonal vegetables or locally made cheeses. Now, if people don't have time, they shop online, but there are still bazaars in Istanbul every day. You don't need to go to the supermarket.
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"We ate seasonally and still do. Every year, mum pickles 150 kilos of tomatoes in summer to use through winter. Everything she can't find in winter, she will preserve. You should see her fridge and dry-store!
"For dinner, we'd usually have a soup, lentil, chicken or yogurt, then salads and one main warm dish, with two or three olive oil dishes (zeytinyağlı). We're famous for this method of slow-cooking vegetables in fruity olive oil and a little water, perhaps with lemon, salt and sugar (celeriac with onion, garlic and quince is one example). After cooking, the vegetables in the olive oil dishes should just melt in your mouth.
"We serve these dishes room temperature on the day they're cooked or – if you don't want anything heavy – for lunch one or two days later, when the flavour becomes even more intense. Turkey is so hot in summer, you don't always want to eat hot food. Mum always has a few olive oil dishes in her fridge.
"My grandma – my mum's mother – was also a big cook and, in Istanbul, she'd get the whole family together at her house to eat three times a week. She made her own salami and would roll beef manti dumplings for 20 people and dolmas, too. She had vine leaves in her garden and she'd pick them and make 150 or 200 pieces of these one-bite dolma.
"In that way, Turkish home-style cooking is extremely generous. In the summer, schools close for three moths and families often go to stay near the beach for several months. We'd go to Bodrum, Antalya or Çeşme. Over summer, our breakfast might include six or seven types of cheese with five jams, breads, börek, tomatoes (in summer, they're so sweet!), olive oil dishes and watermelon.
"In the morning, the milkman would come and Mum would buy raw milk and make fırın sütlaç. We'd come home from the beach about 6pm and this cold, thick rice pudding would be waiting for us in the fridge. Other times, we'd make a very loose version of cacik, the salted cucumber and yogurt dressing (which I loved with tomato rice and kofta). Mum would put water and ice in yogurt with cucumber, chopped dill, oil and salt and we'd eat it as a cold soup.
"It would be so hot that, during the sour cherry season, mum would buy 15 kilos of them – which my sister and I would pick the stones out of – and, basically, she would start cooking and then dry the jam in the sun. She'd put the cherries in a pot with sugar for two hours in the sun so all the reactions start happening, boil it for half an hour, then put it in shallow, muslin-covered pots outside to dry. All the colours get very shiny and it's so flavourful, more fruity than sugary.
"You could call my recipe choice, gözleme, Turkey's national comfort dish. It's special because you might eat it at any time: breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner. It's a 24-hour-a-day dish. The most popular filling, aside from minced lamb, is wild herbs and leaves, but each region has its own fillings to match the weather and the season."
Have a look at our other Turkish recipes.
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