After the meat fuelled posts of late, it’s time I veered off the meat freeway and explore other paths. In recent years I’ve been reading more and more about the types of food groups we eat; where the food comes from; what the Western diet has come to be and even what we’d evolved to eat. I’m generally very comfortable about the choices I’ve made so far. Just one little niggling thought keeps lurking in the background, ready to pounce on my rare moments of weakness and dance a feverish tattoo on my guilty conscience. I eat a lot of meat. If my teeth could super-evolve to reflect my diet, I should probably have the sharp nashers of a sleek, muscular, well-oiled feline than the molars of your humble cud chewing grazer. Ok, maybe not sleek, or muscular, maybe just the nashers of a portly fluffy orange housecat.
I’ve read that we’re supposed to have 3 – 4 serves of meat each week. I’m probably closer to 16 serves a week. That’s right, if I can get away with it, I’ll have meat for breakfast too. It was a concerning insight into my diet and I’ve been feebly and half-heartedly trying to decrease the amount of meat I eat ever since. Needless to say, half-arsed efforts lead to half-arsed results. And for whatever reason, the protein bulked up meat head carnivore bully within feels some unfounded need to growl unnecessarily at my vegetarian counterparts. That victim is usually my dear vegetarian friend, Katie.
Katie is the most laid back vegetarian a carnivore could ever hope to meet. She chooses her vegetarian path for ethical reasons, yet I have never heard her preach or even frown at the carnivore’s way of life. If we dine out together, she’s very understanding and if stray morsels of meat find their way into her food, she patiently picks them out and proceeds unfussed. Her passiveness and minority status amongst a group of assertive meat eater friends does mean her choices often come second to those of carnivores. For instance often fish sauce get renamed “tofu sauce” for the sake of tasty meals that satisfy both carnivores and vegetarians. Yes, I do acknowledge our actions are nothing short of evil.
There’s a strange logic that picking on your own siblings is totally sanctioned, but others doing it can kickstart a transformation into a primitive bloodthirsty warrior. I was so very offended – incensed – when Katie had a terrible experience at Musa Dagdeviren’s Turkish showcase dinner at Efendy during SIFF 2010, so offended that I was compelled to write about it. When it was published I was contacted by Somer Sivrioglu, head chef and owner of Efendy who expressed his extreme disappointment at his staff for having treated us so, as bewilderingly, there was both a vegetarian and a vegan menu that night. Somer apologised profusely to Katie and extended an olive branch – an offer to dine at Efendy once again, but this time with a promise to showcase how accommodating Turkish food can be for vegetarians. After some consultation, Katie agreed and a date was set.
On a sunny Autumn day Katie and I find ourselves seated in Efendy’s alfresco courtyard. We’re shown the specially designed vegetarian degustation menu prepared for us, as well as the usual a la carte menu. We note that there was particular emphasis on the existence of a specific vegetarian menu and we’re told that the vegetarian degustation prepared for us are samples of dishes in the vegetarian menu and differ only in size and presentation.
Whilst studying the vegetarian degustation menus placed before us with interest we’re greeted by Somer himself, a jolly, friendly man who again humbly apologises to Katie profusely. He explains that his wife is a very fussy eater so he is more than accommodating to the dietary requirements of his diners which angers him that Katie was treated so unacceptably, especially since authentic Turkish food is naturally accommodating for vegetarians. On that note, he instructs us to relax and enjoy the Turkish vegetarian experience to come.
We start with some freshly baked Turkish bread rolls served with fruity olive oil from Ayvalik, a town on the west coast of Turkey, pink salt and za’atar mix. Freshly baked bread is so appealing and this version is warm, yeasty and so hard to resist that we ate much of it even before the three accompanying cold meze tasters arrived. The first was a humus which was creamy, nutty and the crispy roasted almond provided a satisfying crunch and contrasting texture – an idea I am sure to steal for the next time I make humus. The antep ezme was billed as a spicy kumato dip but we found both the kumato flavour and the spiciness to be subtle and overpowered by the flavour of onion but a tasty, flavourful dip nonetheless. Our favourite was the patlican salata, a Turkish eggplant salad, and not unlike babaganoush, this has a lovely smoky char but the occasional bursting pomegranate seed intermingling with fresh tomato and parsley make it refreshingly complex. The lunch happened to fall on a date close to Katie’s birthday, so the occasion called for a cheeky glass of wine.
Noticing how long we dwelled on the dips and bread, our waiter thoughtfully downsized our zeytinyagli tasters – vegetable dishes that are cooked in olive oil. The kereviz, a dish of celeriac, carrot and potato is subtly sweet with notes of herby freshness; the fasulye, green beans in olive oil is a little too salty for Katie, but being a halophile of sorts, I greedily lapped up her share. Despite our initial reservations, the olive oil drenched dishes weren’t too rich and heavy but surprisingly light. We are told that olive oil is very popular on the west coast of Turkey and in fact that olives grown in Turkey are exported to Spain to convert to olive oil. The waiter’s unbridled gushing pride for his country is disconcertingly familiar – is it just a coincidence that I’ve seen it in every other Turkish national that I’ve met?
Next comes the pastries course and thanks to their growing ubiquity in markets, street fairs and kebab stores, pide and gozleme are probably the most familiar Turkish dishes to the Australian public. An infinite variation of ingredients is available for these dishes but for the purposes of the vegetarian theme, we’re served a mushroom and kashar cheese pide, delightful with a generous squeeze on tart lemon and sumac; and a spicy potato gozleme drizzled with a homemade iskender sauce and an aromatic and refreshing garlic yoghurt.
The main event is the one I’ve been looking forward to having previously tried it at other Turkish establishments. Imam bayildi translates to “the prophet Imam fainted”, and explained in a previous post, there are several theories as to how this name came to be – one being that Imam was so overwhelmed by the flavour of the dish, he swooned; the other is a more humorous take and suggests he fainted after seeing the bill for the ingredients. To support the first theory, the dish consists of a stuffed and panfried eggplant, the cacophony of flavours range from mellow capsicum and eggplant, spiked with aromatic onion and garlic and lifted with refreshing mint and oregano. But it is the luxuriously velvety smooth texture of the molten eggplant which gets me. We’re told that this is the most popular vegetarian dish and it’s not hard to see why.
Finally we come to dessert and we’re promised a rather special treat. We’re told that kunefe is a much loved Turkish dessert that is often served in stores in Turkey that only specialise in making kunefe. It is made with layers of warm shredded pastry mixed with buffalo mozzarella and topped with a mound of crushed pistachios – and it is rare if not impossible to find in Australia. Efendy’s pastry chef who hails from Antep, a Turkish region famed for its baklava and pastries, makes the special pastry in house and sources a specific unsalted buffalo mozzarella to make it and the dish takes 20 minutes as it is cooked to order. The final result is a curious contrast of textures – the delicate crispy pastry crust and the yielding pastry below; the soft and slightly stringy cheese and the crunchy nuts. The overwhelming flavour is creamy, milky and sweet from the heavy syrup drizzled on top. Accompanying it is a dollop of salep, a Turkish ice cream made from pounded orchid bulbs and drizzled with pistachio paste. The flavour is initially clean and nutty with a pungent herbaceous aftertaste. I’m not a fan, but Katie, a horticulturalist by trade, is quite taken by the flavour.
After dessert, Somer joins us again bringing a few props with him. The comment he left on my eggplant and lentil stew with pomegranate molasses post included a pomegranate molasses recipe and he now sets up a pomegranate molasses tasting to demonstrate his point. Before us he sets up a tasting gallery of three samples as shown in the photos below, including a bottle of commercial pomegranate molasses; a homemade version consisting of slowly reduced pomegranate juice; and finally a jar of aged pomegranate molasses that Somer brought back from Turkey on his last visit.
We pour out samples of each and study them closely. We’re instructed to start with the commercial version first, which is in Somer’s opinion, one of the best available on the market, but compared to the other two is noticeably lighter in colour and lacks the deep red-black hue the others have. The texture is sticky and syrupy and after a few minutes of air contact has already developed a skin. We taste it and find it to be deliciously tangy and sweet – much better than the version of commercial pomegranate molasses that Katie and I both have. Next we move onto the homemade version – this can be made by slowly reducing freshly squeezed pomegranate juice with added sugar and a squeeze of lemon, or the cheat’s version is to use commercially available pre-sweetened pomegranate juice. We taste this version and immediately notice the difference – the texture is less viscous but the flavours are at once tart, bright, sweet and fruity – an epsom salt designed for the mouth and we can’t stop tasting it. Finally we come to the aged sample and Somer explains that an old Turkish man makes the molasses but has mistakenly put it into mislabelled jars – this one featuring pears, but he assures us it is indeed pomegranate molasses. The texture is more viscous than the homemade version and coats my mouth with a complex flavour packed punch of concentrated fructose. The tartness is slightly subdued and gives way to a strong mellow fruity sweetness that reminds us slightly of dates. For reference, we taste the original commercial sample again and though we initially found the flavour appealing – it now tastes artificial and chemical compared to the other two. We are forever spoiled for quality pomegranate molasses.
To end our lunch we can’t go past the Turkish apple tea and Turkish coffee. The apple tea comes with a cinnamon scroll swizzle stick that perfumes the air with a heady aroma of sweet spice – a brilliant idea that livens up the flavours in the tea. Somer provides an interesting anecdote that despite our association of apple tea with Turkey – it is actually relatively unknown and not custom outside of Istanbul.
I’d had preconceptions that the Turkish coffee was strong enough to sprout hairs on my chest and ordered it with trepidation – but we’re told that it is actually relatively weak compared to an espresso – about the caffeine strength of a ristretto perhaps, but it just happens to be thick. That it is, and it is served in the most beautiful and elaborately patterned colourful cups and saucers that we can’t stop admiring.
With Somer sitting with us happily chatting away and peppering the conversation with interesting anecdotes about the origins of the dishes and ingredients, it was easy to forgive and forget the reason we’d actually come back for this make-up meal. Overall we both felt that the vegetarian degustation we had effectively showcased the subtle and delicate flavours of Turkish cuisine. That is not to say the flavours were at all weak, but if some cuisines throw flavours at you like drunken haymakers, then this degustation showed the flavours of Turkish cuisine were more modest, delicate and required a more patient palette. Importantly, both Katie and I agreed that this vegetarian degustation combined with the reconciliatory intent of the Efendy crew made up for Katie’s bad experience. We also unanimously agreed that this degustation was far more impressive and tasty than Musa Dagdeviren’s SIFF showcase dinner. This comment from us didn’t quite agree with Somer, and he modestly protested and assured us that Musa’s cooking was considered a quality standard in Turkish cuisine circles. Without an opportunity to test out Musa’s cuisine here, the next assessment might have to wait till an jaunt to Istanbul can be arranged – all in the name of objective appraisal of course.
It’s not often that I see Katie get her way, but to see her content, smiling and satiated I was more than happy to retract my carnivore incisors and claws blood-thirsty for vengeance, and put my under-utilised grazing molars to good use.
The Gourmet Forager and friend dined as guests of Efendy.
79 Eliot Street, Balmain, Sydney.
Open for breakfast Sat – Sun 9am – 2pm; lunch Fri – Sun noon – 4pm; dinner Tues – Sun 6pm – midnight.
Tel: +612 9810 5466
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