Anytime I travel I like to do some homework on the particular destination and the research becomes feverish when I look into food options. Last year I went to Istanbul for the second time and regardless of if you’re been to Istanbul or not – its reputation as a “food lover’s city” is justified. I read books, Google alerts for Istanbul food, asked friends and relatives for “good eats” tips and even asked some Turkish friends for their Istanbul recommendations.
It was pleasing to see some of same restaurants mentioned by my Turkish friends and one standout was Haci Abdullah, in the Beyoglu/Perama district of Istanbul, on a small street around the corner from the Greek Consulate. This restaurant is very old school (original operating licence gratned by Sultan Abduhamid II) and it boasts being in business for over 100 years!
Walking into Abdullah takes you back in time with the ornate wallpaper and traditional Ottoman decor. Westerners should note that no alcohol is served here but that shouldn’t deter you from tasting an array of Turkish dishes for an affordable price. The other tradition kept here is the presentation of the food in an “open kitchen” format – a way of displaying food that is still prevalent in Greece as well.
The first thing I did was pre-order my dessert of Kunefe…a prerequisite since it’s made to-order and requires about 20 minutes. With dessert already out-of-the-way, I scanned over the day’s offerings on display and opted for the classic – Hunkar Begendi. The dish’s name focuses on the smoked eggplant purée that acts as a bedding for whatever protein is placed on top. I’ve made it with beef, served it with octopus but traditionally stewed lamb in a reddened sauce is the accompaniment.
The taste of this smoked eggplant purée is creamy, it’s thick, it’s cheesy and it’s wonderful when paired with a mouthful of this stewed lamb. Hunkar Begendi’s flavour is so delicious that it’s even evoked a few stories surrounding it’s origins: one story is that the famed kitchens of Ottoman Sultan Murad IV created this dish and that it easily became his favourite, “Sultan’s Favourite”. Another story surrounded around famous Ottoman concubine Hunkar, a notoriously hard-to-please gourmand who loved this combo (perhaps the Sultan loved the dish as much as the concubine?)
The thid “Hunkar” story goes like this: the dish was served to Empress Eugenie, wife of Napolean II, on a visit to Istanbul in the 1860’s. Sultan Abdul Aziz I was eager to please and he ordered the kitchen staff to prepare the best of Ottoman cuisine to the Empress. Eugenie was delighted! She sent one of her own French chefs into the kitchen to retrieve the recipe. The Sultan’s chef through out the Frenchman with the words, “an imperial chef cooks with his feelings, his eyes and his nose. Somebody must have “sung” as the recipe is now a Turkish fave found in restaurants throughout Turkey!
Key points to remember for this dish is to char/blacken your eggplants on a gas or charcoal grill or open flame on a gas stove. It’s imperative to get that smoky flavour in the eggplant. Second, in-season ripe tomatoes work best but canned or jarred tomatoes will work well. Finally
For this recipe and more, please purchase my Everything Mediterranean cookbook.
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