Savouring Turkish delights one evening at Café Uno’s Turkish food festival evoked a familiar feeling.
At times chance meetings lead to a lasting impression. That is exactly how it worked out for me when a few years ago I happened to stop by at Pehelwan little eatery near Taksim Square in Istanbul. Pehelwan sells kofta, kabab and a variety of breads. The tea is complimentary. However, so soft and tangy are his koftas I got them packed along with breads, hoping to have them all over again once I reach New Delhi. I was not exactly in luck. The breads stayed fresh and warm, not so the koftas. And I ended up having breads with home-made tea. I enjoyed the breads but longed for the koftas which are quite different from the Indian version. The Turkish koftas are meatballs served without gravy, in many ways a cross between our seekh and shami kababs. So, the other day when I got an invitation from Shangri-La’s Eros calling me over to taste Turkish delights at Café Uno, I wasted not a second in accepting it.
That the festival was designed by Chef Gazi Cifcti who has specially flown down from Shangri-La, Bosphorus, made the offer even more tempting. So, one fine evening when the doctors advised me a layer of woollens and maybe hot soup, I headed straight to Café Uno. But food is best enjoyed in company. Solitude is for saints. So, I convinced my friend, Aslam Khan, to join me for an evening of food and nostalgia.
True to my expectations, the soup was warm, the little pieces of chicken soft and tender. The spice did not overwhelm the taste of coriander. That I sat by the glass and could hear faint sounds of Turkish instrumental music made the experience even better. Of course, my eye did not miss the ubiquitous ‘evil eye’ hung across the restaurant. The Turks believe this circular blue creation wards off evil eye. Here, it took me back for a few seconds to the Istanbul airport where this belief reigns supreme.
Well stocked with ‘evil eye’, the restaurant was in no danger of failing a victim. The soup, meanwhile, was followed, to my obvious disappointment by chicken tikka and panner tikka. Now, I could have enjoyed them at another place, but you don’t expect to be served paneer tikkas when Turkish food stays in wait. Soon came lamb and fish tikkas. I asked for koftas instead. I was not in luck. The day I went there were no koftas as the chef changes the menu every day. And there were no Turkish bread too. I asked the chef on a note of half a lament. The chef rose to the occasion promptly. Off went naans and paranthas, in came Turkish bread. The chef was not exactly in crackling form with the dough, but the breads at least made the experience authentic for me. And my mind went back to Pehelwan and all those sundry bread-sellers near the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.
After a little helping of barbunya pilka, a kidney bean, it was time for trying out Circassian chicken and Imam bayaldi , stuffed eggplant. I liked the chicken, tangy with a cooling aftertaste; I tried to like the eggplant. They offered me mushrooms too. Only my friend Aslam tried them and nodded his approval. My eyes were set on another round of lamb skewer. The chef understood my silent request. I put my head down, polished it off at one go, then sneaked in a glance hoping nobody noticed. This time I was in luck.
I had not had a helping of the much talked abut salad, beautiful as the array looked. And politely though reluctantly declined the request to try out the dessert section where, I was told by Aslam later, Kazandibi, a caramelized milk pudding was worth a shot. Never mind. The festival got over this Sunday and the chef is heading home to Turkey. But the dishes, including kazandibi, shall be available on request. Keep a benign eye on it.