I think that any city you travel to, one of the most distinct memories you bring home with you, is of the food. That was the case for me when I visited Istanbul the first time ... how fresh the food was, how everything tasted, how it looked and smelled. I remember having a hard time when I got back home, finding food that was not bland and chemical-laced, and how I spent two weeks finding resources to replicate the Turkish breakfast that remains part of my diet to this day.
I spent the rest of that summer collecting Turkish and Middle Eastern cookbooks, and taught myself how to cook. My chorba was a far cry from what I was served in Istanbul, but my Chicken with Dates made up for it. My chermoula (a cilantro-based sauce) became my favorite condiment, which I ate on everything. Making my own ras el hanout (the Middle Eastern version of Chinese Five Spice) to rub on chicken, brought back happy aromatic memories of the Spice Market.
So, I've decided to present a meze this Saturday -- a selection of small plates that give my guests a taste of one of my favorite cities. Olives and pistachios, peynir cheese and goats milk feta, baklava and lokum from my local Turkish grocer. Dolmah with fish, and dolmah with rice. Apricots, figs and dates. Homemade hummus in sweet and savory styles. Ayran, the fermented milk drink that Istanbuli's live on during the summer. Cherry juice, and mint tea in the tulip shaped glasses I brought home with me from the Grand Bazaar.
I may try my hand at kefta kebab ... ground lamb flavored with coriander, mint, cinnamon and ginger. And Slada Bata Halwa, a sweet potato salad from Morocco, that I did not eat in Istanbul, but which seems like a good balance to my menu.
Did I mention Italian sodas? ;-)
An acquaintance mentioned that their favorite Turkish dish was Zerde -- a rice pudding. I don't remember eating it in Istanbul, perhaps because it's most often served at weddings. I don't feel competent enough to make it, but if you would like to give it a shot, here's a recipe dating back to 1539 and the court of Suleyman the Magnificent.
125 g. rice
5 cups water
150 g. honey
1 g. saffron
10 g. unsalted butter
50 g. almonds (blanched and coarsely chopped)
Place the rice and water in a covered pan and simmer over very low heat for an hour and a quarter, stirring frequently to prevent the rice grains from congealing into lumps. Add the honey and simmer for a further 5 minutes. Remove from the heat. Add the butter and saffron and stir gently for 5 minutes until the butter is absorbed. Stir occasionally until the zerde is lukewarm. Pour into small bowls and allow to cool.
Toast the almonds in a heavy pan over medium heat, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon until the almonds color (about 10 minutes). Sprinkle over the zerde as a garnish.
(from Sherbet and Spice, the Complete Story of Turkish Sweets and Deserts by Mari Isin)