At the end of January, on our last day in Istanbul before flying to the USA, we lunched at Kadikoy institution Halil, producer of a quite spectacular lahmacun. Lahmacun, if you don't know it, is basically a wood oven-cooked flatbread with a thin shmear of spicy meat paste.
'Turkish pizza', some call it -- but why? Yes, lahmacun and pizza share a composition of dough with topping. They are both baked. There the similarity ends.
I understand the desire to make familiar unfamiliar foods. Really, I do. I struggle with it as I write recipes for this Turkish cookbook Dave and I are working on. While some dishes in the book (hummus, dolma, cacik or yogurt with cucumber) will no doubt be familiar even to those who've never traveled to Turkey, others -- dried corn and collard greens soup and black-peppery bulgur orbs swimming in oregano-flecked yogurt sauce, for instance -- will likely be unknown even to many of those who have.
Some cooks (and cookbook buyers) are excited by unfamiliar dishes. Others are put off. I don't want anyone to look at my book and be put off, not least because I'm convinced that this food is Really, Really Good.
So how do I convince the timid cook to go beyond his or her comfort zone? Should I resort to what I'll call the Turkish Pizza Method and call a dish what it is not in order to convince readers that they will be cooking and eating something familiar when in fact they won't?
That loose, almost soupy herb, yogurt and bulgur dish --- maybe I should call it a 'risotto' because it's a dish of grains cooked with sort-of liquids that, like a true risotto, ends up spoon-able and creamy and so delicious that you can't stop eating it. Maybe I should name it a 'risotto' because that might convince cooks for whom the combination of yogurt and bulgur would otherwise give pause.
No. I don't think so.
'Don't pander,' my editor said to me when we met a few weeks ago to swoon over Dave's photographs, talk recipes and ponder design and cover shots. (Cover shots! Yes, it's all seeming very real now.)
A chickpea durum (flatbread wrapped around chickpeas and herbs) is not a 'Gaziantep burrito'. Ayran is not a 'Turkish smoothie'. Manti is not 'Turkish ravioli'. (It is a Turkish dumpling.) Simit is not a 'Turkish bagel'. And if you follow my recipe for that bulgur, herb and yogurt dish? Well, you won't end up with a 'risotto'.
The problem with the Turkish Pizza Method of describing and naming dishes is that it often ends up distorting the final product. Set a Google alert for 'Turkish restaurant' and you'll see photographs of lahmacun -- usually described on menus as 'Turkish pizza' -- that would make a Turkish eater from the south east (where it originates) cry. Thick discs of pale dough burdened by way too much chunky meat, sometimes cheese -- this is what the non-Turkish diner expects when a menu item reads 'Turkish pizza'. And all too often, even in restaurants owned by Turks (and even in Turkey! see Sultanahmet/Istanbul Old City), this is what a lahmacun is.
This is what a lahmacun should be (with some regional variation): about 60 grams of sturdy dough rolled into a thin disc, lightly spread with two or so tablespoons (sometimes even less -- see the dough peeking crust peeking through the topping in that photo up top?) of meat minced to a true paste with chili, some onion and perhaps other seasonings, baked in a super-hot oven (wood-fired, preferably) until it's blistered on the bottom. The way Halil makes it, a lahmacun's bottom crust cracks as you fold it in thirds over stems of parsley anointed with a few drops of lemon.
Lahmacun is lahmacun. I'm convinced that anyone reading this post would adore this Turkish dish prepared as it is in its native place. It's even easy to pronounce -- LAH-mah-joon. There will be a recipe in our book. I won't call it 'Turkish Pizza'.
Halil Lahmacun, Güneşli Bahçe Sokak (in the market area across from the ferry terminal), Kadikoy, Istanbul. Silly cheap. Enjoy your lahmacun with a glass of fresh ayran.