Ink on my Apron: Turkish Delight
There’s a certain charm attached to stepping into an unassuming hole-in-the-wall shop and being confronted by glistening rows of sugary confections that you can’t put a name to and dusty wooden barrels of dried fruit and spices that you like to believe have been transported straight from labyrinthine markets and bazaars in their countries of origin.
The past few days I’ve been feeling the way one does when dealing with the aftermath of a party done right. After the last of your guests have left, you find yourself alone and elbow deep in a sink full of dirty dishes, wallowing slightly. I attribute some of this to Ramadan drawing to a grand finale and the disconcerting sense of normalcy that I can already predict will prevail. After endless nights of forgoing sleep and life, in general, being turned topsy-turvy by alarm clocks going off at unearthly hours and disrupted eating patterns, it takes most people a while to get back into the swing of things.
I am no different and I find that after a month of elaborate menus and recipe planning, my mind has been drawing a complete blank when it comes to all things in the cooking department. Specialty grocery stores have always had a way of seeking me out when I most need them and are usually my go-to stops when I find myself running low on food inspiration and unexcited by the prospect of taking to the kitchen. There’s a certain charm attached to stepping into an unassuming hole-in-the-wall shop and being confronted by glistening rows of sugary confections that you can’t put a name to and dusty wooden barrels of dried fruit and spices that you like to believe have been transported straight from labyrinthine markets and bazaars in their countries of origin. Wedges of cheese that look suspiciously ripe stare you in the face as though challenging you to assess the full extent of their potency and crates of mystery fruit and vegetables - so fresh you’d be forgiven for thinking they’d been sold straight from farm to shelf - beckon.
The universe seemed eager to get me out of my funk the other day with a rather conveniently timed advertisement on Instagram for a newly-opened Turkish deli called Karaköy Gourmet. Making a trek halfway across town to shiny “new Dubai” usually warrants a very good excuse and the old-school cynic in me, who prides herself on knowing almost every worthwhile (read authentic) inch of the city’s food scene, couldn’t help but be slightly sceptical. Was I likely to find the Ottoman edition of Ali Baba’s cave housed within a cold and impersonal glass-faced skyscraper in Dubai Marina?
As I entered the deceptively medium-sized shop, I was greeted by bright-eyed saleswomen who still displayed those skyrocketing levels of enthusiasm one associates with a newly-opened venture. A quick recce of my surroundings seemed like a tall ask. Wall-to-wall displays of bottles, tins and fresh produce greeted me. Just as I thought I’d seen everything there was to see, I squealed in excitement as I stumbled upon a rack of dry rubs with not much to go by in the way of explanation other than pictures of the famous adana kebap and köfte harci and a fridge stocking all manner of interesting looking drinks including a bottled pickle juice – one man’s meat indeed! As I navigated my way around the limited floor space, I almost tripped over a stack of what looked like extra-large pizza boxes. On asking what they contained, they were snapped open to reveal perfectly-formed gigantic wheels of syrupy Turkish baklava cut into long thin slices.
A certain degree of guesswork and taking blind stabs in the dark always seems to come with the territory of a visit to a specialty store and Karaköy Gourmet doesn’t disappoint. The sales assistants seemed as clueless as I was about some of the products seeing as they’re not Turkish, but after a lot of joint speculation and conjecturing they were able to tell me that the green ball-sized stone fruit that I thought bore an uncanny resemblance to a gooseberry was, in fact, a green plum (or erik as the Turkish refer to it). Crunchy and sour, they are apparently best eaten with a pinch of salt. The other fruit that had me slightly stumped was the yenidünya. Some on-the-spot online research revealed that this is known as the Maltese plum and tastes closest to an apricot. The fruit is also best enjoyed off a cart in Turkey when they’re slightly battered and bruised.
Olive enthusiasts will be thrilled at the sheer range of bottled varieties on offer – right from the classic salted kind to those brined with roasted garlic and pickled in a fiery red pepper paste with onions. I settled for a jar of grilled green olives fermented with garlic and onions, which, I was told, is their bestseller.
It’s a loosely concealed fact that breakfast in Turkey is never done in half measure and if there was any doubt about this, one has only to take a walk around Karaköy Gourmet to realise how much of the area has been dedicated to endless jams and preserves. Right from the regular suspects such as peach, cherry, and orange to more unusual types such as olive, tomato, rose, linden, and orange and carrot, this is Sinful Central redefined. Sticky compotes tempt and there’s also a section dedicated to another of Turkey’s famous exports – honey and honeycomb, which in accompaniment with Turkish kaymak or clotted cream, is a fixture at every self-respecting breakfast table in the country. Tiny apricots and mandarins that have been preserved in sugar syrup also winked at me suggestively, and these, I was told are a special treat to kick-start the day.
For those who can think of nothing better than a savoury morning spread, the cheese fridge seems to be a bottomless pit featuring specialities from different regions of the country such as the Izmir Tulum, Erzincan Tulum, chechil cheese and braided cheese. Sujuk sausages – every meat lover’s fantasy – are also on offer to do justice to the Turkish version of a hearty fry-up.
The store, which was, empty on my arrival mysteriously began to fill up and I immediately sensed that I was not in the company of rookies. These were well-versed regulars who needed no introduction to this mysterious world I had been granted entry into. They stared at me in amusement as I ran around like a headless chicken, clicking endless pictures and flooding the staff with an incessant barrage of questions.
Mr. Ebubekir Sari
Amidst our animated conversation, an elderly gent walked in with a certain assured air that made me immediately guess that he was the proprietor of the enterprise. He stopped to speak to some of the customers and pointed them in the direction of what looked like the plumpest and perkiest fruit on offer. I was then formally introduced to Mr. Ebubekir Sari who I was told, is indeed, the owner of Karaköy Gourmet. By him, I was informed that most of his customers are old faithfuls who have frequented other branches of the store in the city for years. With around 15,000 Turkish nationals in the United Arab Emirates, the store has no dearth of clientele but more importantly, I get the feeling that there is a sense of familiarity and community that they come here in search of. After all, where else would it be possible to not only get your hands on your weekly supply of Turkish simit but also your indulgent fix of mastic ice cream and favourite brands of condiments to give every dish that extra special lift.
All photographs courtesy of Jehan Nizar
Jehan Nizar is a lifestyle features writer and food blogger at www.inkonmyapron.com.