Adventures in Turkish cooking

Somer SivriogluIstanbul-born chef Somer Sivrioglu moved to Sydney when he was twenty-five. He now runs the extremely popular Efendy restaurant, where he draws on a multitude of cultural influences to recreate the food traditions of his homeland. He's sharing those traditions in his cookbook Anatolia, which reimagines Turkish cooking with recipes ranging from the great banquets of the Ottoman Empire to the spicy snacks of Istanbul's street stalls. (Enter our contest for your chance to win a copy of the cookbook.) With every recipe, Anatolia tells a tale about the rituals, myths, jokes and folk wisdom of both ancient and modem Turkey. Chef Sivrioglu graciously provided us with an excerpt from Anatolia to share with our Members:

I grew up knowing the difference in sound between a gunshot in the next street and a bomb in the next suburb. Even in the midst of civil war, mybabaanne(grandma) retained her sense of hospitality. 'Do not close the door, Somer-our neighbours might think we want to keep them away', she would tell me every time I shut the door to the family apartment in Istanbul.

My grandad had bought the apartment building in the Kadıköy neighbourhood after selling his hotel andhamam(Turkish bath) in the rural town of Eskişehir. He'd moved the whole family to the multicultural suburb on the Anatolian side of the city, giving one flat to each of his children so the whole family could live near each other. The block felt like a village, with the hallways full of cooking smells floating from open doorways.

I was lucky to be a kid during that time in Turkish history. People still shared food with their neighbours; every store in your suburb knew your name; the butcher would keep all the high-protein offal for families with growing children; and kids from different ethnic backgrounds not only played together but also ate together in whatever house they happened to find themselves around supper time.

We had neighbours with Greek, Armenian and Sephardic Jewish backgrounds, and I was blessed to taste their everyday meals. In an era of curfews, suppression and terror, I felt strangely safe in the company of family, friends and neighbours.

In 1980, Turkey, moving towards a freemarket economy, suffered another military coup. My parents separated and I was living in another suburb in another kind of apartment, with double locks on the door. I had more toys and fewer friends, and a lot less diversity in my diet. My friends and I queued for two hours in front of the first McDonald's when it opened in Turkey, so that we could have burgers and Coke.

My priorities began to change after I landed in Australia in 1995. I'd graduated in hospitality from a college in Turkey, and now I was doing my MBA in Sydney, discussing Organisational Behaviour during the day and washing dishes at night (and being told my pan-scrubbing skills were not up to scratch). Living close to Sydney's Chinatown, and eating every cuisine but my own, I re-learned the value of a multicultural society and its contribution to national happiness.

Fast forward to 2007 and I am married to my beautiful wife Aslı. Just after we have our second baby, we open our first restaurant, serving what I imagined to be 'modern Turkish cuisine'. My first menu included okra in truffle oil, crabmantı and Turkish-coffee crème brûlée.

Looking back, I think I was silly. I was trying to impress by using the trendy ingredients of the time. I wasn't being true to myself or my culture. My excuse for playing around with the recipes was that I thought I didn't have access to the kind of produce I could have found in Turkey, so it would be impossible to cook at the same quality.

My mind was opened by a visit from my culinary hero, Musa Dağdeviren, from the world-famous Çiya restaurant in Kadıköy. When I picked him up at the airport, I apologised that Australian ingredients would be limiting. He asked if there was a Chinatown in Sydney and soon he was showing me all the wild weeds, fruits, vegetables and greens he could use. I'd worked just next door to those markets and I'd never noticed. During that visit, Musa made the best 'Sumac salad' I'd ever eaten using a native Australian fruit called Davidson plum instead of sumac.

He showed me that Turkish cooking is less about particular ingredients and more about philosophy. It's about sitting at a table in a Black Sea village, sharing a plate of Armeniantopik, Kurdishkebap, Jewishboyozand Greektarama, and washing down the meal with a glass ofrakıorayran. It's about the ways different cultures have taken advantage of the abundance of produce in the area now called Anatolia.

In Australia, I'm regarded as a Turkish chef with a modern presentation. In Turkey, I'm regarded as an Australian chef experimenting with some sort of Turkish 'fusion'. I think I'm simply doing what the peoples of Anatolia have done for millennia-getting the best out of local produce with techniques tested and proved by my ancestors.

My family and friends are a diverse bunch. We support different football teams, different religions, different politicians, and different sexual orientations. We come from different ethnicities. So we are just like Turkey. We argue a lot-as the peoples of Anatolia have done for thousands of years. But when we sit together around a table, we are united by one idea-we want to enjoy our food.

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