Once upon a time I had a love affair with far away Turkey. I was intrigued by the exotic silhouettes of domed mosques with proud minarets; cafes alive with chatter, the smell of coffee and the curling wisps from bubbling hookahs. I had long romanticised the idea of exploring the cave dwellings in Cappadocia with their aptly and ethereally termed fairy spires with barren landscape backdrops so unfamiliar they appear transported from a desert mirage.
Onto the scene slinks a proud Turk, dripping unshakable self-assured sex appeal and sporting the slicked hair, open white shirt and black skinny pants that would become his signature style. He was well schooled in the art of seduction, but alas he seemed to have mistakenly enrolled in the school of feminine seduction and on the frequent occasions that he would drape himself over my desk like a languid cat and toy with his hair with come hither eyes, I found myself far from seduced, but close to channeling a Zinedine Zidane headbutt. With an unrivalled degree of patriotic love for Turkey that fuelled remarks that were at best inflammatory, I found my professional resolve and my love affair with Turkey slowly slinking out the door. The tension-laden feud between us ended spectacularly with the proverbial carpark bout. Jousting and jostling of egos and some childish verbal mud slinging later, an uneasy truce was formed. Over time and with the benefit of physical distance and sheepish remorse, an unlikely if awkward friendship was fostered and with it the love affair with Turkey was slowly allowed to spark and smoulder again.
Upon hearing that Musa Dagdeviren was one of the star international chefs to feature in last year’s Sydney International Food Festival, I even told the Turk to see if he was familiar with the chef or his popular restaurant Çiya in Istanbul. Neither his non-chalant remark nor the generic blurb offered by the SIFF site satisfied my curiosity, so I decided to do my own research on the chef. Amongst the praise was one intriguing recipe for eggplant and lentil stew with pomegranate molasses which, given my affection for eggplant, I felt compelled to try. It was utterly delicious! The eggplant was reduced to a slippery, molten gooey consistency that married perfectly with the tangy, spicy tomatoey salsa and the bright lifting notes of the treacly tart pomegranate molasses.
So impressed were we with the recipe that we immediately booked ourselves in for Musa Dagdeviren’s SIFF offering at Efendy in Balmain. A five course Turkish tasting menu awaited us for a mere $95 per person and if the eggplant recipe was any yardstick, we expected a wonderful feast that toured exotic and unconventional flavours from different regions in Turkey. Perhaps it was a mistake to have tried the eggplant recipe beforehand and formed high expectations of authentic and surprising dishes and flavours as we were sorely disappointed with our meal. Of the five courses, two consisted of a very small plates of dip shared between four people but most disturbingly, despite having checked twice before the meal and once when we arrived that the vegetarian amongst us would be catered for, she wasn’t. The main was Visneli Kofte, a village style stewed lamb with sour cherry dish with Muceddere, a side salad of lentil and crushed wheat pilav. When it was pointed out that the vegetarian offering was absent, our vegetarian friend was instructed to enjoy the side of salad. Pragmatic yes, but not quite acceptable. On further complaint she was offered a fish dish and when we clarified that she was a true vegetarian, and the last we heard, fish hadn’t gained honorary vegetable classification, no matter what some “vegetarians” may claim, she was finally offered a vegetarian dish of grilled vegetables. Apart from one interesting mung bean salad dish, we left the dinner feeling largely underwhelmed with the experience. The dishes had not been particularly inspiring and so small we all left hungry and wanting. We speculated why the specific dishes had been chosen for that menu, since any one of Musa Dagdeviren’s recipes we’d stumbled upon sounded much tastier, more adventurous and perhaps a better mascot for their Turkish regions. Perhaps the Chef had been briefed on a very timid Sydney-sider palette, uneducated even of stereotypes of Central Asian cuisine? Because “safe” would be one description of the dishes served during that meal.
Since that meal we’ve made the eggplant and lentil stew many more times, at home and for family and friends, and it’s secured a permanent place in our recipe repertoire. This recipe, published in Food and Wine, represents Antakya, a Turkish coastal town. Though I have no preconception of what Antakya is like – the rich, slow cooked silken flavours of this recipe whisper of home cooking comforts and paints me vivid pictures of simple abodes, friendly Turkish hospitality and sparkling azure waters. My imagined idyllic vision may be far from the mark, but it has me wondering whether other Antakyan dishes are just as delicious and makes me pine for travel. If only the dishes served at that SIFF dinner were as satisfying and wanderlust inspiring.
Eggplant and lentil stew with pomegranate molasses
(Marginally adapted from Musa Dagdeviren’s recipe published in Food and Wine)
Ingredients (serves 6):
- 2 medium eggplants
- 1/2 cup of lentils (we used canned lentils)
- 2 medium tomatoes, chopped
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 long green chillies, stemmed, de-seeded and coarsely chopped
- 2 tbsp mint leaves, chopped
- 1 tbsp tomato paste
- 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper
- 1/4 cup pomegranate molasses (available at Middle Eastern supermarkets)
- 2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
- Partially peel the eggplant so it has lengthways stripes then cut each eggplant lengthwise into 4 even slices. Score each slice with a crosshatch pattern and sprinkle with salt. Let stand for one hour on a baking sheet.
- Meanwhile in a small saucepan, cover the dried lentils with 5cm/2 inches of water and bring to the boil. Reduce heat to moderate and simmer for about 15 minutes until tender then drain. Skip this step if using canned lentils.
- In a bowl combine the tomato, onion, garlic, chillies, mint, tomato paste, red pepper and 2 teaspoons of salt.
- Rinse the eggplant slices and pat dry.
- Coat a large heavy enameled cast-iron casserole pot with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, then 1/2 cup of the vegetable mixture, layer on half of the eggplant pieces and top with half of the lentils. Repeat layering process with the remaining ingredients. Pour remaining olive oil around the sides of the pot and over the vegetables and then drizzle with the pomegranate molasses.
- Bring the pot to the boil then cover and cook on low heat for about 90 minutes until the eggplant is very tender. It is worthwhile checking halfway through the cooking process and pushing the ingredients down gently into the stewing liquid to aid complete stewing.
- Serve hot, warm or at room temperature. The stew can be made ahead of time and tastes best when allowed to mellow for a few hours.
This recipe is sure to satisfy eggplant lovers and perhaps even pique your curiosity about Turkish food as it did mine. The only better way to sate my interest is to one day visit Turkey and Çiya and discover for myself whether Musa Dagdeviren’s dishes served at Efendy were really the best representations possible of those Turkish regions and his mastery of Turkish cuisine. A wonderful and most convenient excuse to travel!
Dedicated to the Turk, an unlikely counterpart in a friendship.