Light a Candle!

Light a Candle!

The first candle of Hanukkah was lit yesterday evening. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. Soon, it will be New Year’s Eve to celebrate. It is time to light the candles to illuminate the dark long nights of December.

Last year, I was asked to curate a New Year-themed multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious annotated dinner last for IWSA International Wine & Spirit Academy in Istanbul. The idea was to have representative New Year’s Eve dishes of Greeks, Armenians and Jews living in Istanbul. My initial response was a stark negative, no, not possible. When asked why, I simply said, “Because there was no New Year in the past as it’s today.” Jewish people had Rosh Hashanah in September, and Hanukkah was not conceived as an ersatz Christmas, Noel was celebrated on either Dec. 24 or Jan. 6. Neither were New Year’s celebrations. But of course, with Westernization and acceptance of the Gregorian calendar with the establishment of the secular Turkish Republic, the concept of the New Year was introduced to Turkey. New Year dinners with friends and family quickly became a practice especially in bigger cities.

As always, people were quick to adopt the custom. But what would they eat if it were not in their tradition? The answer was simple: They would have the best of everything. The best mezes and drinks, especially the ones not affordable on a daily basis, would be on the table. Though not in traditional kitchen, even roast turkey found its way to the festive tables. After all, the whole thing was new; why not have that new bird from the New World on the table? I eventually created our menu around this idea and created a nostalgic İstanbul New Year’s dinner with typical flavors of the city.

To my surprise, at the Sapor İstanbul event early in December, one panel was entirely devoted to the very same topic, what different communities ate on the New Year. The panelists were three eminent food writers: Marianna Yerasimos, Takuhi Tovmasyan and Deniz Alphan, all having books on Greek, Armenian and Sephardic Jewish cookery, respectively. When Marianna started talking about their table, the others were nodding as if affirming the list of dishes. The first set of mezes was always cured fishes: lakerda from bonito, likorinos and bottarga from grey mullet, garado from mackerel and of course, tarama, which is like a fish egg mayonnaise. Then, there was a set of meat charcuterie and cold cuts, which included both traditional classics like sucuk and pastırma, but also modern ones which  came by the influence of Western cuisines such as mortadella and ham.

Cold olive oil-based mezes dominated the table, such as dolma and sarma dishes like stuffed mussels, rice stuffed wrapped cabbage and vine leaves. Albanian liver and Circassian chicken, both eaten cold at room temperature, were all-time favorites. Interestingly, another very popular cold meze was Russian salad, which is originally the Salad Olivier of Tsarist Russia, which came to Istanbul by the White Russians that fled to the city after the revolution in Russia in 1917.

These were shared tastes by all communities regardless of religious background. Minor differences existed, of course. The Greeks almost always had fava, a broad bean puree, and the Armenians had topic, a chickpea bay with an onion-tahini filling. Sometimes the differences existed in the preparation, such as in the preparation of fasulye pilaki, a cold bean meze, another all-time favorite. This was one dish the three ladies did not agree on whether to put onion or garlic in the beans. Marianna insisted that it would be only garlic. Takuhi could not give up her onion. When it came to Deniz Alphan, she was caught in the middle, she used both.

When it came to turkey, it made its appearance on the table but almost never eaten, as everybody would be full at that stage. The poor bird was always destined to make its appearance again and again, in various leftover creations.

To conclude the festive table, there was usually a big round sweet cake, normally made for Easter, but specially made for the New Year with the coming year written on it. This year, one can already see 2020 in bakery windows. Again, like the destiny of turkey, the cake would not be eaten. However, Marianna Yerasimos has a wonderful suggestion. She says the next day, it is very good with aged kashar cheese. Apparently, with all the best-of-the-best tastes parading during the course of the night, the New Year’s Eve table continued to be set at least for a few days more with all the leftovers. We can actually start celebrating Hanukkah, and Christmas and so on. Light the candle, and set your table!

Fork of the Week: If you want to set your table in a nostalgic Istanbul fashion, here are some useful addresses for the best of the best. Head for Cankurtaran Gıda, the only cheese and charcuterie shop inside the Spice Market, at No. 31 on the left side when you enter the market. They stock the best cheeses and lots more. Cured fishes are best at Balık Pazarı (Fish Market) in Beyoğlu. Head for Reşat Balık, which is right on the junction. For a phenomenal smoked salmon, look for Tunç Balık a few steps across the way. Just across from there is another good old sweet shop which makes “mandulet,” an almond nougat colorfully wrapped, pretty as an edible tree decoration. For the New Year sweet cake with mastica and mahaleb, you have to head for the Kurtuluş pastry shops and bakeries. Üstün Palmie and Arma makes the best. To shop for ready-made mezes - the Holy Trinity of delicatessen - must be Tuana, Tadal and Tuşba, also in Kurtuluş district.

But if you want to order, it can be delivered to your door directly. The homemade mezes of Arlet Tantik cannot be matched. Just call 0555 266 1266.

Cork of the Week: Antioch is one city with a considerable population of Orthodox Christians. Interestingly, until recently, there was no established winery making use of the indigenous grapes, especially the Barburi variety that is the native grape of Vakıflı village, the only Armenian village remaining in the country. Luckily, there is a new winery in Antioch, established by Abud Abdo who was originally in the textile and tourism business but then decided to make his own wine and planted Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and San Giovese grapes but also revived the Barburi variety. Their wines can be tasted at Foxy bar located at the entrance of Sub Otel in Karaköy, the newly opened wine bar which is dedicated to the lesser-known small wineries and natural wines of Turkey. The partners are wine expert/consultant Levon Bağış and chef Maksut Aşkar of Neolokal. Levon being Armenian and Maksut being from Antioch, I think that hints a lot, which makes a visit to Foxy a must-do thing in this festive period.