Istanbul and Beyond: Exploring the Diverse Cuisines of Turkey
Robin Eckhardt, with photography by David Hagerman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $35 (352p) ISBN: 978-0-544-44431-7
*Note and disclaimer: When I originally posted this review, I somehow managed to leave the disclaimer out when I copied and pasted from my Word document. This note is to correct this oversight. I was one of the recipe testers for Istanbul and Beyond. I also received a copy of the book from the author as a gift with no expectation of a review in return. I’ve been enamored with the recipes from the beginning, and this blog post comes from my wish to write about that. I received no compensation for the review and all opinions are my own.
“Everyday Turkish food is essentially uncomplicated, but it is never boring,” writes Robyn Eckhardt in her intro to this comprehensive cookbook. The many recipes and stories in the book’s pages back up her argument. Much more than a collection of recipes, Istanbul and Beyond is equally at home in the kitchen, on the coffee table and in the bedside reading stack. Even people who don’t cook but enjoy reading about food and places will enjoy this tour of Turkey’s many cuisines and geographies.
The tour begins in Istanbul, where Eckhardt shares what a native of that city once told her: “There’s no such thing as a purely Istanbul dish.” When people from elsewhere think of Turkish food, they usually picture Istanbul’s kebabs, börek, and baklava. True to the book’s title, Eckhardt leads us well beyond, showing us the tremendous culinary diversity of Turkey’s eastern provinces.
She guides us along the Black Sea coast, where anchovies, leafy greens, and fresh herbs abound. Next are the border provinces of Ardahan and Kars where Turkey meets Georgia and Armenia. Here, an emphasis on beef and dairy products is balanced with vegetables, handmade noodles and an array of dishes brought from elsewhere over the centuries. Moving south along the Azerbaijani, Iraqi and Syrian borders, we learn about wild herbs called otlar, and the yoghurts and cheeses made with them. We learn, too, about the famed isot peppers that are sundried and ground into Urfa chili flakes. In Hatay province, we are introduced to the region’s heady pomegranate molasses, bounty of olives, and intense spices. Finally, the tour heads northeast again to visit the varied topography of the central Anatolian provinces where Indian knotgrass grows wild and local cooks dry or freeze it for winter use.
Eckhardt’s informative recipe headers and intros to each region are rich with snippets of daily life—the result of many years of travelling, eating and researching around Istanbul and Eastern Turkey with her husband, photographer David Hagerman. Hagerman’s vibrant photos bring Turkey to life on almost every page: local kitchens, landscapes, wood oven bakeries called firin, men carrying a huge wheel of cheese through a field, women hanging noodles outside to dry, a wonderful image of a man pouring pomegranate juice into a steaming cauldron…
Eckhardt learned many of her recipes hands-on with both professional and home cooks, bakers, cheesemakers, and others. Among the recipes collected here are ones I’ve never seen before, like the simple and surprising Creamy Fig Pudding (p. 328), and Buttery Cardoons with Eggs (p. 240), a dish that has me planning to plant this relative of the artichoke in my garden this year.
The recipes are clear and easy to follow. Many are simple to make and feature just a few ingredients. A few require more time and skill, but the author provides step-by-step guidance, and the results are well worth the effort. These include an outstanding Mint and Onion Börek (p. 50); fancy Coiled Poppyseed Bread (p. 326); and my personal favourite, Coiled Tahini Buns (p. 52). Fortunate to be among the recipe testers for this book, I tested the tahini buns on a warm afternoon with a soft breeze blowing through the windows. I found myself smiling as I stretched out ropes of dough along my counter, appreciating the meditative aspect. I’ve since made the buns many times.
I made the Savory Coiled Nigella and Fennel Buns (p. 292) for breakfast, following the suggestion to let the dough rise before chilling it overnight, and baking the buns in the morning. These fragrant seed-dotted breads make a beautiful presentation. Both these and the tahini buns freeze wonderfully well.
A spicy egg salad enlivened with a dash of red pepper flakes and the crunch of flat leaf parsley (p. 260) is on the table in 15 minutes—perfect for cooks in a hurry. An outstanding beet dish with garlicky yoghurt and walnuts (p. 317) takes more time, but most of that is spent simply waiting while ingredients cook or rest to develop flavour.
Sun-dried Tomato and Pomegranate Salad (p. 269) takes only half an hour to prepare. This brilliant red, green, and white salad is a feast for both the eyes and the taste buds—a celebration in a bowl.
Tahtakale Market Chicken Wings with Thyme-Chile Salt (p. 59) had my husband repeating “So good!” like a mantra between bites. As he dipped the last wing in the seasoned salt, he asked me how soon I could make it again.
At Robyn’s recent book signing in Montreal, at Appetite for Books, a heady fragrance greeted me as I entered. It turned out to be Warming Cinnamon Tea (p. 205). The combination of infused spices made it perfect for the chilly spring day, and the tea surprised me with its clean finish. Bookshop owner Jonathan Cheung had also prepared Spicy Bulgar Köfte (p. 220) and chickpea flour–based Leblebi Cookies (p. 325). The köfte were tender, fluffy and moist, with a kick from a mildly spicy relish made with sweet-sour pomegranate molasses. The cookies had a tempting nutty scent and a slightly crumbly, yet fluffy texture. Their subdued sweetness made them a winner for me.
This book is a pleasure to cook from. It lies flat on the counter and stays open to the recipe you started with. No annoying page-flipping while you fetch an ingredient from the fridge, and no need to hold the pages open with a heavy rolling pin. The straightforward layout features clear, readable fonts. Ingredients and headings for numbered steps are in bold text so the cook can glance over at a recipe while stirring at the stove. Finding recipes is a breeze thanks to the well-structured index, with recipes listed by both English and Turkish names and cross-referenced by category and ingredient. As well, a list of recipes by category at the front of the book makes it easy to choose a dish according to one’s needs, be that breakfast, soup, pickles, a side dish, or something else.
All the ingredients are easily found at local Turkish and Middle Eastern stores, and the author provides a list of online sources at the back of the book. Only two recipes use grape molasses, so some cooks may balk at buying this ingredient, but it is inexpensive and worth adding to the pantry: the delightful Pan-Seared Sweet and Sour Chicken (p. 312) requires a half cup; the generous quantity called for in the recipe for Sesame-Crusted Bread Rings (p. 318) is the secret to the special flavour of these bagel-like breads. In the Stocking Your Turkish Pantry section, Eckhardt also mentions several other simple ways to use grape molasses.
he Sweet and Sour Chicken a few times—twice for guests—and it’s always a hit, so I am already well into my second jar of grape molasses. This recipe is just one of the reasons Istanbul and Beyond is such a welcome addition to my cookbook collection and my kitchen.
To join Robyn Eckhardt and David Hagerman for book signings and presentations, hands-on cooking classes and other activities, check out the schedule on their Events Page. You can find Istanbul and Beyond at your favourite independent bookstore, or at the usual online sources, such as Amazon, Barnes&Noble, and Indiebound.