Found in Translation: The Food of Turkey's 'Master Chef'


Aglaia Kremezi

To try Turkish recipes adapted from Musa Dağdeviren, click here for cartlak kebap (liver kebabs with onion salad); here for zahter salad (fresh thyme, parsley, and onions with pomegranate molasses dressing); and here for biber cacigi (red pepper and yogurt spread).

Musa Dağdeviren made me seriously consider learning Turkish. Ever since I met him, six years ago in Napa at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, I was dying to be able to converse with him in his language, the only one he speaks. Like me he was part of the multi-national group of guest chefs and food writers taking part in several Worlds of Flavor Conferences. From the first time I saw him mix herbs and spices to season his kebabs, vegetable stews, and salads, I was bowled over by the unbelievably enticing and complex flavors he created in dishes that looked simple and straightforward, like the liver kebap (the Turkish spelling of the word) smothered in a blend of dried mint, cumin, and Urfa pepper; or his refreshing zahter salad—a fragrant, tangy mixture of minced fresh thyme shoots, parsley, onion, and scallions dressed in olive oil with lemon and pomegranate molasses.


Aglaia Kremezi

I wanted to ask him how he came up with these amazing dishes, so different from the Turkish food I had known all my life. Unfortunately we had to communicate in English through an interpreter who knew little about cooking and ingredients, and this proved quite a challenge. I guess, during these first meetings, the only thing I could surely convey to Musa (pronounced Moo-SAH, stressing the last syllable) was how much I loved his food, and he probably liked mine, because he asked me to write for his magazine. Besides being an incredibly talented chef, Musa is also a passionate scholar, and this is obvious if you leaf through Yemek ve Kűltűr (Food and Culture), his wonderfully produced monthly publication that explores the history and roots of various dishes, ingredients, and cooking techniques. Unfortunately the texts are in Turkish and have not yet been translated.

"Marianna can translate whatever you want to write for the magazine," he told me through the interpreter. He was referring to the Greek-Turkish author and researcher Marianna Yerasimos, whose book 500 Years of Ottoman Cuisine, is one of my favorites, a book that I consult often. Marianna lives in Istanbul, and seldom comes to Greece, let alone the island of Kea, where I live, so for years we were exchanging e-mails and phone calls. She is as passionate about food as Musa, and she often writes for Yemek ve Kűltűr. Meeting her in person and going with her to Ciya, Musa's restaurant, was a dream of mine that I finally realized last month.

The 45-year-old chef has been all over the U.S. and English press: three years ago Paula Wolfert called him "Master Chef" and "culinary anthropologist" in her Food & Wine column, numerous U.K. publications raved about his food, and last April Elif Batuman did a wonderful piece about him for the New Yorker. Don't think, though, that Musa is the Mario Batali of Turkey. Far from it! His is the kind of food that connects with many of the new working-class residents of Istanbul because it reminds them of their mothers' village cooking. It also appeals to sophisticated traditionalists, probably not a large category of Turkish foodies. In his country—much as in mine—chefs that are praised abroad tend to be smirked at by the local bloggers and food writers. If his restaurant was a very expensive venture in a glitzy part of Istanbul, these same foodies—who blog in detail about Dan Barber and Jean-Georges—would probably look at him differently; strange as it may sound, though, Musa does not wish to be famous. He just wants to continue his incessant research, reviving yet more almost-forgotten dishes and adding them to the vast repertoire of his restaurants, the menus of which follow the seasons strictly.

The first Ciya Kebap opened in 1987 and later Ciya Kebap ΙΙ followed. In 1998 Musa and his wife launched Ciya Sofrasi. This last one is the chef's pride, the place where he serves stews, pilafs, and salads—dishes that women in the poor villages of Anatolia cook at home, foods of the poor that very rarely appear on restaurant menus. All three Ciyas are near one another in Kadiköy on the Asian side of Istanbul, a 20-minute ferry ride from the buzzing Taksim, far from the flamboyant Sultanahmet. In this spectacular, traffic-plagued city on the Bosporus, ferries often replace the subway, and we reached the pier and swiped a metro-like card to pass through the automatic gates and board.

Once we were on shore, Marianna guided me through the busy roads of this old neighborhood, bypassing imposing construction sites to reach the relative calm of the pedestrian streets of Kadiköy. Before going to Ciya Sofrasi we wandered through the vibrant market that surrounds the restaurants. I marveled at the variety of fruits and vegetables still on the stands in September: plump sour cherries and green unripe grapes that in Greece are available only early in the summer. But Turkey is a vast country with varied landscape and diverse climates, hence this enviable abundance. I couldn't stop photographing the display of silvery palamut (small bonito), their bright red gills exposed to assure customers of their freshness. Stopping at Marianna's favorite spice shop—although she lives on the European side she likes to shop here—I got the most wonderful Urfa pepper; semi-dried sumac berries, not just the usual powder; and incredibly fragrant turmeric.

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Aglaia Kremezi writes about food in Greek, European, and American magazines, publishes books about Mediterranean cooking in the U.S. and Greece, and teaches cooking classes. More

Aglaia Kremezi has changed her life and her profession many times over. She currently writes about food in Greek, European and American magazines, publishes books about Greek and Mediterranean cooking in the US and in Greece, and teaches cooking to small groups of travelers who visit Kea. Before that she was a journalist and editor, writing about everything, except politics. She has been the editor in chief and the creator of news, women's, and life-style magazines, her last disastrous venture being a "TV guide for thinking people," a contradiction in terms, at least in her country. She studied art, graphic design, and photography at the Polytechnic of Central London. For five years she taught photography to graphic designers while freelancing as a news and fashion photographer for Athenian magazines and newspapers. Editors liked her extended captions more than the pieces the journalists submitted for the events she took pictures for, so she was encouraged to do her own stories, gradually becoming a full time journalist and editor. You can visit her website at

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