Fires and fries: An Istanbul classic

Fires and fries: An Istanbul classic

Aylin Öney Tan-

When the heat of summer sinks in, it is the ideal season for eggplants. Istanbul has a love affair with eggplants (patlıcan in Turkish); no summer table can be without it.

Once, there was a much-repeated saying in the city: “When it is eggplant season, it is also the season of fires and mad people.” The correlation between the beloved vegetable and wandering lunatics and fearsome fires seems totally remote, but the keyword here is the summer heat. People practically go mad with the high temperature, and sometimes they do insanely dangerous things, such as frying eggplant, and that is no joke.

It is a known fact that eggplant is at its best when it is fried or char-grilled on embers. In the old times, the timber houses of Istanbul were under serious threat because of its citizens’ love for eggplants. There have been several devastating big fires in history, and some actually started by frying eggplants. One such fire broke out in the district of Fatih’s Çırçır neighborhood on Aug. 23, 1908. Rumor has it that the sole reason was a frying pan catching fire. It lasted for two days and nights, destroying around 1,500 houses and leaving several homeless. Such incidences gave the much-loved vegetable a cynical annotation -- the summer fires that swept out whole districts of the city were tagged as “patlıcan yangınları,” literally “eggplant fires.” Of course, the summer wind was also to blame for the spread of the disaster. So the ever-present strong summer wind that fueled the fires was also tagged with the nickname of the vegetable, hence the name “patlıcan meltemi,” which literally means “eggplant etesian.” The tight urban fabric and timber structures made residential quarters extremely vulnerable to such disasters but people would not hold back from frying their eggplants al fresco.

Famous Turkish writer and journalist late Refik Halit Karay once said, “Forget about a summer table without eggplant. Summer in this country, in a way, is the smell of fried eggplant that lingers around streets filling our nostrils with its inviting allure that sparks one’s appetite and intensifies an insatiable hungriness.” Today, though the ubiquitous vegetable is available year-round from greenhouses, in our minds, it is always associated with hot summer months, especially August. Many eggplant dishes in Turkish cuisine start with frying the vegetable first and then cooking, braising, or baking it. So, it is natural that the streets smell of fried eggplant.

Another very popular method to cook eggplants is to roast them whole, without peeling, over embers until the flesh becomes very tender so that it can be easily mashed with a fork. The soft pulp is scraped from the charred skin, either to end up as a tangy eggplant salad with lemon juice and olive oil, a cold meze with garlicky yogurt, or a gooey cheese-laden eggplant purée. They are all wonderful with a delightful smoky taste. Needless to say, this ember-centric method is equally dangerous, if not more, the still-hot coal pieces could easily ignite infernos. Both methods mean that you are playing with fire, whether it is the hot oil splattering around or a spark of ember dangerously flying away with the wind. Either way, cooking eggplant is definitely like playing with fire. Smokiness and eggplant, in fact, have a peculiar affinity. Being a close relative of tobacco, eggplant contains minute amounts of nicotine, which might explain why its taste improves in contact with high temperatures, and perhaps the fondness of Turks for it, who are reputed to be addictive smokers. That said throwing away cigarette butts when picnicking in the woods is not a good idea either.

There are countless recipes with eggplants in Turkish cuisine - most of which feature the vegetable as the main ingredient - from salads to mezes, from cold dishes to hot mains and sides. But of all the eggplant dishes, two stand out both with their deliciousness and their odd names: “Karnıyarık,” which literally means “split belly” and “imam bayıldı,” the translation of the latter is problematic. Usually, it is translated as the Imam or Muslim priest fainted, but the verb “bayılmak” both stands for the verb to faint or to like something immensely. Best is to interpret the name as the Imam liked the dish so much that he almost fainted with delight. My own interpretation about the naming is that it was a meatless version of karnıyarık enjoyed by the Christian communities during the Lenten period but was so tasty that even the Muslim cleric liked it despite the fact that the dish lacked the usual taste of meat.

The two dishes are quite similar, the former with mincemeat, the latter with its vegan version with lots and lots of onions. “Karnıyarık” is a typical summer lunch dish, almost always enjoyed together with “cacık,” a cold salad soup of yogurt, cucumbers and dill or mint, along with a small dome of buttery rice pilaf, plain or with tomatoes. The eggplant is longitudinally slit open, preferably fried briefly, then stuffed with sautéed mincemeat with onions, tomatoes and green peppers, then baked or stewed. The other favorite, “imam bayıldı” is its vegan equivalent, eaten either fridge cold or at room temperature and stuffed with copious amounts of sliced onions, garlic, tomatoes and green peppers, all the flavors accentuated with a teaspoon or two of sugar.

Giving a second thought on the correlation between eggplants, insanity and fires, Istanbulites might have been right. People really go crazy for eggplants, and that fondness might have had a certain effect on their mental status. After all, in Europe, the eggplant was once called a “mad apple,” or “mela insane,” due to the belief that it would cause mental illness. Belonging to the nightshade family, eggplant contains solanine, a mildly toxic glycoalkaloid. It is suggested that overconsumption of eggplants can cause the nervous system to be overstimulated, causing melancholy, depression, drowsiness, mental confusion, or anxiety. So beware, have your eggplants, but handle them with care, and eat responsibly, or else your life can turn to hell!