In an age where social media platforms have enabled the instant sharing of recipes and photos of food, traditional cookbooks have become less relevant. Poland's Adam Mickiewicz Institute decided to test that theory. Ahead of the Istanbul Design Biennale, they brought together one Polish and three Turkish chefs to create a Polish-Turkish cookbook. This was my chance to see first hand if you had to be a cook to write a cookbook.
Greater Poland/Anatolia. On a mini-bus that departed from Warsaw airport with three well-known Turkish chefs, I wondered about the journey. We were heading somewhere in the direction of Poznań. Googling the name of the village, Ustronie, that I found in the study trip programme didn't help. There are many such places in Poland. "If I don't know where we're going exactly, what must the Turks be thinking...".
One of them had already been to Poland. At the age of 25, Semi Hakim (pictured above), a modest, kind and charming man who looks a bit like Jonah Hill, is an innovator and a leader who is changing the role of food in society. As part of the international movement Kitchen Guerilla, he gets strangers to cook and eat together. Their aim is to detach from excessive supply and use local produce. At our first pit-stop, out of curiosity for the kebab flavour, he bought a pack of chips and passed it around. Not something you would expect from someone who makes haute cuisine. They tasted no different than barbecue chips. Semi and other "guerilleros" aren't location-based. They hijack kitchens, sailing ships, country guesthouses, construction sites, or cabooses to cook, serve food, and party. Was he using the word "hi-jack" right? It turned out he was. "But we only hijack places that we really like," he explained later, "lots of restaurants want us to take over their kitchen but we only go for the ones we like". For their next event, they will hijack an entire building, where they will cook, eat and drink. "I always drink beer when I'm cooking", Semi said, convincing me that opening a bottle of wine while cooking is a sign of professionalism.
Semi Hakim, Maksut Aşkar and Didem Şenol Tiryakioğlu are three celebrity chefs from Istanbul. They are part of the booming Istanbul restaurant scene serving inventive contemporary Turkish cooking to sophisticated younger Istanbulers who want food that’s local but light and healthy. They were invited to Poland as part of a project initiated by the Warsaw-based Adam Mickiewicz Institute, which this year is organising a series of cultural events to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Poland and Turkey. For a couple of months, with the aim of releasing a collection of fused Polish and Turkish recipes in the form of a cookbook titled Cook for Book, the chefs travel between the two countries to get to know each other's national products, dishes, cooking techniques and taste combinations. In the village of Perzów (Kępno County, west-central region of Greater Poland) the Turks experienced Poland, its food and traditions and cooked with Polish chefs - Tomasz Trąbski, Leszek Jozefowski from Concordia Taste and Aleksander Baron from the trendy Warsaw restaurant Solec 44. The collaborative book Cook for Book will be co-created by the three Turkish chefs and Tomasz Trąbski.
Historically, the Ottoman Empire and Poland were direct neighbours from the late middle ages until the end of the 18th century. But comparing their cuisines is comparing apples and oranges, or rather: apples and figs. Non-processed Polish and Turkish foods (fruits, nuts, pulses, seeds, wheats, meats) differ in sizes, colours and varieties. Once they are cut, cooked or baked, seasoned and served, Turkish and Polish meals look even more different. No wonder the Turkish cooks were taking pictures of everything. It was all new and interesting. But how would they find common ground to write recipes together?
Over a plate of bison roulade under chanterelles in cream, Didem Şenol says "In Turkey were are not into cream sauces. I personally don't make them in the restaurant. But this is very delicious". Traditional Polish sauces are creamy thanks to sour cream, yoghurt, vegetable purée, flour with butter, whole-wheat bread crumbs or egg yolks. Velvety sauces and soups are better suited to cold climates. The 783,562 square kilometres of Turkey contains more than one climate. Its regional differences in climate and soil type provide an environment for the cultivation of many varieties of fruit and vegetables : olives, figs, grapes, apricots, quinces, cherries, oranges, lemons, grapefruits, cucumbers, tomatoes, melons, eggplants, green beans and squashes. To name but these.
But in Poland, Didem, Maksut and Semi discovered products they had never seen before: gooseberries and yellow vegetables (peppers and yellow beans). They were thrilled by the abundance of forest berries, the fact that you can buy carrots with their leavy green tops (which it turns out are edible), fermented sour rye flour used for soups, horseradish sold in jars and how much bigger and fuller Polish root vegetables look.
Herbs on Fish
Dipping her fork back in the chanterelle cream, Didem continued "I don't usually use dill with mushrooms. I prefer things like rosemary, thyme. Those kind of herbs. But I think this works well too." When spices were used to preserve meat, old Polish cuisine resembled Indian cuisine more than its current form. Today, the most popular herbs in Poland are parsley, chives and dill. Fresh and finely cut, dill is used as a topping on soups, cucumber and tomato salads, and for marinating pickles. In Poland, Didem tried dill on a fava bean salad with barley and red currants (pictured).
Another typical usage of the herb lay right in front of our eyes on one of the dinner plates: dill on boiled young potatoes. Yet no one wanted to photograph it. The Turks quickly noticed that apart from the dill the potatoes were not seasoned with butter or olive oil. Neither were the Silesian dumplings. "In Turkey we would add some olive oil on top," said Maksut, "and my mother would probably roast some pine nuts and sprinkle them on top".
Although Poland produces uncommon oils from camelina or poppy seeds and they could be used as dressing, they aren't popular. Turkish cuisine on the other hand uses a lot of olive oil and spices. Turks have a few things to teach the world about spices. Chefs at the sultan's palace used the finest seasonings that money could buy: black pepper from South-East Asia, musk from Siberia and the Himalayas, saffron from the Middle East, mastic from Cyprus. Modern Turkish cooks use more locally grown seasonings: oregano, red pepper flakes, mint, cumin, sumac, cinnamon, a lot of parsley and, of course, dill. Asked how she would serve the chanterelle sauce with dill in one of her high-end Istanbul restaurants, Didem says "I would serve it in a similar way, as a sauce, but for fish not meat."
Fish vs. meat
Fish and seafood are a very important part of Turkish cuisine. In Turkey there is a summer ban on fishing from the end of May to September but winter menus feature it heavily. The most popular fish types are bluefish, mackerel, sardines, bonito, flounder, red muller, and sea bass. Poland's Baltic seacoast is 770 kilometres long, and the sea's water is brackish and briny. As a result, only a limited number of species live there. These include cod, herring, plaice, flounder, turbot, and freshwater species such as pike-perch.
Fish didn't turn out to be a topic of common interest and the plate of perch in jelly remains barely touched and unphotographed. Meanwhile, meat stirs up conversations. Polish cuisine is rich in meat, especially pork, chicken, beef and game (depending on the region). From breakfast, through lunch to dinner, the generous Polish hosts were rearranging, cutting and presenting with pride their rich selections of sausages, hams, brawns, cured, smoked and preserved meats and a bowl of lard. The Turks embraced the home made charcuterie.
Pork, and its subsidiary - lard is hard to get in Turkey. The Turkish equivalent of lard is lamb tail fat, sometimes "cooked in more fat" they explained. But after finding a tub of lard every time the group had food, the Turkish guests discreetly asked "Do you eat lard every day in Poland?" Happy that instead of thinking that Poles feed on lard they asked about it, I said "No, but read A Foreigner's Guide to Polish Weddings which should be subtitled "and hosting Turkish chefs" and you'll understand".
Meat and offal
Like many other nations, Poles and Turks have an offal kitchen. They cook with the organs and entrails of butchered animals: brain, liver, intestines, heart, testicles, tripe, trotter… A well-known Polish soup is flaki - tripe soup. It contains thick noodles and strips of beef tripe in a rich marjoram-flavoured broth. In Greater Poland and Kashubia czarnina - a soup made of duck blood is a local speciality. It's made from clear poultry broth with spices, dried fruits, fine noodles or little dumplings.
Offal meals on Maksut's menu in Istanbul include lamb brain salad with olive oil, lemon and parsley, pan-grilled ram’s testicles and lamb's head on a bed of charcoal-grilled eggplants. The first time I had tongue was in Bulgaria in the village of Tryavna some years ago, where it was on every menu in every restaurant. It was so chewy that I hoped I would never have to try it again. "I really love the horseradish on the deer tongue, have you tried it?", Didem asked, "In Turkey we also eat tongue," Maksut joined in, "but more lamb and cow, not deer." But what interested them more than the severed organ of taste on their plate and whether it was chewy or not (it wasn't) was the horseradish that it's paired with. "Because in Turkey we can't find grated horseradish. Only fresh. And this one is not as strong as the one we have at home. So it goes really well together. Normally if I use horseradish I add it to seafood. Or underneath some smoked fish. I find that they go well together. Maybe I'll take some of this horseradish with me."
Horseradish in a jar is one thing they'll be taking back home. Another is the memory of seeing the skinning of an animal at a butchery for the first time. Poland is a popular hunting destination. I found a travel hunting agency online that writes: "Poland has passionate hunters and offers plenty of possibilities at affordable prices." What they mean by "possibilities" are the animals: roe deer, red deer, fallow deer, mouflons, wild boars, the extremely rare European bison, wild ducks, wild geese, pheasants, and partridges.
The local butcher, Mr. Marian, a man of 40 years of experience, gave the chefs a sneak preview of the work that goes into preparing meat. Technology crept into life like it does nowadays and everyone took pictures of the scene and posted them. The online community was outraged. It turned out some meat-eaters didn't know that in order to end up on their plate an animal had to be killed and butchered. Didem, on the other hand, concluded that as cooks "we shouldn't waste any of the parts of the animal, we should use everything: spleen, head, tripe, balls".
Food preservation: Pickling
Thinking about not wasting any part of the animal is what distinguishes professional chefs from amateur cooks. Cooking with local and seasonal products is another. Providing such products for a restaurant requires commitment. To get the best fish at the Istanbul fish market you have to be there at 5am. Fruits and vegetables have to be bought from farmers and local producers. And in autumn vegetables, fruits and meats have to be prepared to be stocked for winter. Herbs can be dried and stored in jars all year, fruits, vegetables and meats are canned, frozen, dried, fermented, pickled, and marinated. Those are the most common methods of preserving food. Old-fashioned and ancient techniques such as pickling cucumbers and cabbage in Poland are passed on from generation to generation.
Cabbage is also pickled in Turkey. "It's pretty much the same," Didem explained after the group visited a local farmer, Mr. Henryk, who pickles a couple of dozen tons of cucumbers and cabbage grown on his own farm, "except that in Turkey, you don't cut the cabbage in the same way. You take the whole head, dice it into four and pickle it like that." In Poland, the cabbage is cut into thin Vietnamese noodle-like strips.
Fruit can be preserved in different ways but the most cheerful one is turning it into booze. Historical records of making wine and beer date back 5,000 years. The distillation of liquor began about 2,000 years ago. In the region of Greater Poland, which turned out to be where we were, the local fruit liquor expert is Hieronim Błażejak. The tradition of producing fruit liqueurs has been in his family for 100 years. He uses only natural additives, picks apples from wild trees himself, presses the juices and unlike many other producers, doesn't use sulphur. Adjectives to describe the fruity but not too sweet taste of the after-dinner sipper and his sugar-free cider wouldn't make the reader's experience any more interesting, but the man puts his heart into the beverages to say the least. Although there is a general recipe for all fruit types, the resulting beverage depends on the taste of the fruit and the quantities of alcohol, honey, sugar. No two bottles are the same. Popular fruit liqueur varieties in Poland are made of mirabelle plums, walnuts, apples, apricots with and without pits, Japanese quince, and ginger.
Traditionally, fruit liqueurs are served in Turkey with Turkish coffee. But these Turkish chefs are no traditionalists. If you're ever in Istanbul and visit Maksut's restaurant Neolokal and come across ceviche with liqueur from aronia you'll know that he got the idea in Poland. "I think this could taste good with ceviche" Maksut suggested downing the aronia liqueur from a plastic shot glass, "let's give it a try by pouring it on the herring", someone suggested, "Hieronim, look, we're trying your aronia liqueur with herring". The man looked horrified.
Can anybody be a cook?
Hieronim has been making liqueurs for 25 years. Semi, Maksut and Didem have a long track record in making food for people. "The thing about cooking is the experience" Didem told me what it means to be a professional cook, " You have to work in the evenings, 6 days a week. You have to work really hard because it's very physical. In many restaurants you have to work 12 hour days, in New York, I was working 15 hours a day, no breaks. I was eating lunch standing up." Like with any other job, the hours spent on it define how good you are at it.
Maksut made that even more clear to me. For two days I harassed him to tell me what his favourite cuisine was "no really, I don't have one" he kept on saying, making me doubt whether he was being polite towards the Poles or secretive. But as I observed how at every breakfast, lunch and dinner he kept on selecting different foods every time I understood he wasn't eating, he was at work. To create new taste combinations that could please other people, he was experimenting on every occasion, even with berries that turned out to be inedible in front of a brewery.
The Turks quickly recognised the Polish cooking techniques and adapted them to their own kitchen. Playing on the traditional Turkish lahmacun dish, Semi made it with minced deer meat instead of lamb or veal. "Cooking down the whole cut of meat with some stock, then when it's cooked, mincing it through a meat grinder then using it for the fillings was a new technique for me" Semi said, "I used it when I got back to Istanbul with chicken and chicken livers."
Apart from techniques, the Turkish and Polish chefs shared their frustration with the mis- and under-representation of their national cuisines in the world. Turkey has an unsolicited ambassador - the kebab. And Poland is internationally recognised for the pierogi, which, at least, is actually eaten in the country. They want to change that. Perhaps together, as a Polish-Turkish fusion, they stand a better chance.
The July 2014 study visit was part of a Food Design project managed by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute and Concordia Design as part of the Polish Year in Turkey.
After some changes, the chefs taking part in the project are Semi Hakim - Gastronomika, Kitchen Guerilla and Yaratıcı Fikirler Enstitüsü (Institute of Creative Minds), Didem Şenol - owner, founder and chef de cuisine of two Istanbul restaurants Maya Lokanta and Gram and author of two cookbooks (the second one is being released in December 2014), Maksut Aşkar - chef partner at Neolokal at Salt Galata and Polish chef Tomasz Trąbski from Concordia Taste in Poznan.
Author: Marta Jazowska 21/07/2014