The Unsung Muse of Istanbul

What do Paula Wolfert, Anna Sortun, and Zingerman's Deli and mailorder in Ann Arbor, Michigan all have in common?  They have all been enormously influenced, guided, and trained by a diminuitive dynamo of a brunette in Istanbul.  Ayfer Unsal is difficult to categorize:  she is at once a brave and bold journalist, food historian, specialist in the history of the 'Armenian question' and the Armenian presence in Turkey, and activist in her country for the worldwide Armenian community.  And as if all that were not enough to burst any one mold, Ayfer is a traditional cook extraordinaire.  Along with her close friend Musa Dagdeviren, the (other) great Turkish food intellectual, she is the steward of a priceless body of knowledge about Turkey's traditional foods.

Unfortunately, Ayfer's knowledge is kept at arm's length from us by the barrier of language.  Although old turkish english dictionaryAyfer speaks and writes a charming and very competent English, her books are available only in Turkish, a language that has no common roots with English or Latin, and that is written with its own accented alphabet, a bit like Vietnamese.  It was my dear friend Paula Wolfert who introduced me to Ayfer (one of about a million debts I owe her). When she heard Ayfer was coming to visit me in France, she made me the most touching gift:  the old Turkish-English dictionary she had used to decipher her way through the backroads of Turkey many years ago with Ayfer, researching her landmark book The Cooking of the EasternMediterranean.  When I unwrapped it, I felt as if I were holding culinary history in my hands.

After an email introduction via Paula, I had encountered Ayfer for the first time on a long weekend visit to Istanbul 3 years ago.  We met near a market (of course).  "I'll be the one wearing the barrette in my hair," she assured me as a way to recognize her.  When she arrived at my apartment in Paris, the barrette (a different one) was still there, along with the bright lipstick, the ready smile, and the boundless energy that illuminates Ayfer at nearly any hour of the day or night.  I gathered up this ball of energy in a happy, enthusiastic hug.

feastWhen I had visited Ayfer in Istanbul, Ayfer graciously invited me to the apartment she shares with her husband (a university dean) and son.  She had prepared a monumental feast of special traditional Turkish dishes. Somehow, Ayfer knew I loved chestnuts so she had even made a rice dish with chestnuts in it.  But the dish that I could never forget was Ayfer's sarma, or stuffed vine leaves.  This is a dish that I usually find insipid and sometimes revolting.  Ayfer's quite simply blew me away.  I asked what was in them and among other things, she told me "rose petals."  Of course, that was the sublimely subtle oriental perfume that so seduced me.  But there were other flavors as well:  a touch of sweet spices, pinenuts...and totally absent was that unpleasant congealed taste of cold cooked lamb that marked all the other stuffed vine leaves I'dAyfer's sarmahad.  And no wonder!  Ayfer's were vegetarian.  She promised (and delivered) the recipe.
I was allowed to hang with her in the kitchen and, well, snoop around.  (I did ask permission before opening her cabinets!)   Plus, I immediately felt at home in Ayfer's kitchen.  It was a bit bigger than my Paris kitchen, and crammed to the gills with ingredients and equipment.  Ayfer's kitchenI wondered if she kept pots in her bedroom like I do.  There were even strings of garlic, peppers, and dried eggplant festooned through the air.  It was all feeling more familiar by the minute.

Dinner at Ayfer's was an unforgettable experience.  She had prepared at least 8 or 10 different things and as a cook, I could see how labor-intensive each one of them had been.  On that table was not several hours' but several days' worth of work.  As any committed cook knows, this sort of dinner is the highest tribute you can pay someone, and I didn't feel nearly worthy.  I actually felt rather stunned at the boundless generosity being offered me.  Ottoman hospitality doesn't begin to do it justice.
Ayfer's kitchenSo after dinner, Ayfer and I exchanged gifts.  I had brought her a vinaigrier from my website, plus a huge amount of fine cheeses (those had been her requests).  Meanwhile, I was the joyous recipient of a half kilo each of the finest Maraç and Urfa red pepper flakes in Turkey, plus an adorable and very beautiful little copper pot especially used to heat those special butter and spice sizzles that are often used to finish a Turkish dish.
This time, our ritual was repeated here in France.  I got a new stock of those precious peppers, which now that I've become used to having I could not live without.  (It felt oddly like a drug deal, with me, the desperate addict, in withdrawal for my drug of choice:  Maraç.)  And oh, Ayfer simply covered me with gifts:  a scarf hand embroidered on antique cloth, a necklace crocheted by a women's cooperative she's been helping, a bag of frikeh...I gave Ayfer my special "comma" wooden spatula that I use every single day that I cook and a green clay faisselle, designed for draining fresh cheese curds.But I wanted Ayfer to have it for draining yogurt, (a frequent task in Turkish cuisine) so that her yogurt wouldn't be polluted by contact with metal.  When we got down to the Provence house I had a special little pillow made out of old embroidered linen and filled with lavender flowers for her.  But by far her favorite gift was one she asked for quite forthrightly once she had toured the potager and cooked with some of its produce.  She wanted a piece of my tarragon plant!  She was absolutely crazy about its aroma, and said that where she lives, a few sprigs of true tarragon cost a fortune.  She still emails me almost every other day to tell me how that plant is doing!  So, now you know:  If you're ever graced with a visit from Ayfer Unsal, just give her a tarragon plant!

Sadly, the few days we had together in Provence were marred by the very worst of the horrible springAyfer in my kitchen weather we've had in that region this year.  It simply poured buckets of cold rain, 24 hours a day.  This was not the lovely, sunny Provence I'd promised Ayfer if only she'd come!  But never one to be easily discouraged, Ayfer said simply, "Then let's cook!"  I dispatched Denis to the other house (the sheep barn we're in the process of restoring), and we got down to it.  "It" being the unfettered joy of two passionate cooks doing nothing but cooking and chattering nonstop about food.  I was thrilled to have this longer opportunity to watch Ayfer in action, because so much of traditional Turkish cooking is in its manual techniques.  The cook's first tool--her hands--is used to knead, squish, shape, roll, pound...  Without these age-old movements--a skill passed down from generation to generation--Turkish cooking wouldn't be what it is.
Ayfer's leek cornbreadOne of the gifts Ayfer had brought this time was a bag of roasted corn flour.  This amazed me, because in a small part of southern Burgundy, a roasted corn flour called gaudes is still produced by a single mill.  The traditional French recipes using it had, frankly, never turned me on that much, but I had ordered 5 kilos of the stuff anyway, simply because it was a unique regional ingredient in danger of disappearing.  I was utterly amazed that the same thing exists in Turkey.  I gave her a bag of gaudes to take home.  We agreed that the Turkish and French versions seemed nearly identical.  I was eager to learn what was up Ayfer's sleeve to do with it.  Well, she took a bunch of the last leeks leftover from my winter crop and made this intriguing leek cornbread (right).  She said she learned the recipe from her "milk woman," the lady she buys milk from in Istanbul.  The cornbread was the hit of the dinner party we went to that night.  (No,  we didn't let the fact we'd been invited out to dinner  keep us from spending the day cooking.)
Then, the highlight of the day:  Ayfer taught me how to make kisir, one of the flagship dishes ofKisirTurkish cuisine.  Kisir is a salad of uncookedbulghur, some kind of tomato puree, fresh green onion, and tons of chopped fresh herbs plus spices.  (Recipe to follow in Dans la cuisine.)  Kisirjust has everything going for it:  crunch, a touch of sweetness, quite a bit of spice, a splash of tomato acid, a certain juiciness, and the green freshness of the herbs. The moment you've swallowed a mouthful you want another.  Once you've tasted kisir, you'll never again want tabouleh. The kneading together of the bulghur with the tomato, thoroughly moistening the grain and allowing it to swell, as well as literallymassaging the flavors together, is the key to makingkisir the extraordinary dish that it is.  And believe me, it is one of the world's most delicious salads.  You eat it as is, or you fold spoonfuls of it into fresh lettuce leaves or steamed  vine leaves, kind of like the Vietnamese often eat a dish by wrapping mouthfuls in lettuce.  It is, as Ayfer says, "unforgottable!"  Well, I couldn't have said it better myself.  It's unforgettably delicious, and it's unstoppable, because you can't stop eating it, and together that perfectly well can be summarized as "unforgottable."  Ayfer, I love you so much!
The way Ayfer's hands kneaded and squished together the ingredients is graven in my memory forever as a primordial culinary technique.  In fact, if you want to make a really good French meat paté, you use exactly the same motion to mix the ingredients.  For me, discovering commonalities like this between cuisines from different parts of the world is terribly exciting.  Way better than the Super Bowl.  No comparison, actually!  Plus, if entirely different cultures are using the same technique, then there's a reason:  It's because it works really, really well!  Better than any food processor ever born now or in the future!
The next day, we went "farigouling."  Regular readers will know that means gathering wild thyme  (known as farigoule in Provençal) at the full-bloom moment when it is most flavorful.  At the market in Apt I had purchased a bunch of rare "white" artichokes, a medium small green artichoke that is tulip-shaped and superbly flavorful.  That evening, in a wide clay tian, I slow-cooked a shoulder of our neighbor's lamb with the thyme flowers, artichokes, tiny new potatoes, and new garlic.  Rather late in the evening, we finally gathered around the table to eat it after it had spent nearly four hours in a very slow oven.  Savoring the dish, Ayfer explained to me that, in Turkey, to compliment the cook, one says, "God bless your hands."
I was too moved to say anything.  I thought about Ayfer's hands. I'd watched, very closely, their expert culinary techniques over the course of these rainy days together.  Those hands spoke a silent but very precise language.  "Here's how you..." they whispered ceaselessly, silently.  In my mind,I saw Anna Sortun's wildly successful Oleana restaurant in Boston, whose menu comes in direct lineage from Ayfer's hands.  As does that of Sortun's boisterous cafe Sofra.  Those are the places I want to eat when in Boston to visit my family.  I thought of the incomparable recipesthat traveled from the backroads of the Turkish countryside, through Paula Wolfert's tireless testing and tweaking to the pages of Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean, and how they had changed my way of cooking in my own kitchen, forever.  And I said to myself, "Bless your hands, Ayfer."  These are hands that have changed the culinary landscape, for the better, forever, spreading love and goodwill to everything they touch!
Ayfer's hands [ WELAJANS - V.Beyazgul ]