New Turkish Cuisine in Australia had been intriguing me for some time and then I spotted the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival event called ‘Mehmet Gürs and The Young Turks at Lezzet – an Anatolian Discovery’. We signed up immediately.
Sampling New Turkish Cuisine in Australia was high on my to-do list when planning our trip home to attend the 2017 Worlds 50 Best Restaurants awards and Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. While researching new restaurants to try before our trip, I discovered a handful of establishments that to me seemed to represent a new movement of Turkish-Australian cooking down under, Tulum restaurant in Melbourne being the latest.
The fact that Turkish-Scandi Mehmet Gürs, owner-chef of our favourite Istanbul restaurant, Mikla, who we’d met and interviewed back in 2008, was involved in a festival event with Australia’s new generation of Turkish chefs that they’d called ‘Mehmet Gürs and The Young Turks at Lezzet – an Anatolian Discovery’ made it impossible to resist. We booked tickets immediately.
Scroll through the image gallery above to get a taste of what it was like behind-the-scenes and at the pass as well as drool over the deliciousness that was delivered to our table.
New Turkish Cuisine in Australia – Mehmet Gürs and The Young Turks at Lezzet
The ‘Young Turks’ was a reference to a group of early 20th century rebels – students, civil servants and soldiers – who helped replace the Ottoman Empire’s absolute monarchy with a constitutional government, introducing multi-party democracy to Turkey for the first time in its history.
Australia had a long history of Turkish immigration and the Turkish, like so many immigrants and refugees had contributed to making multicultural Australia a country with a rich culinary diversity. We had no idea what kind of gastronomic upheaval Gürs and his Turkish-Australian chef mates had planned, but whatever it was we wanted to experience it.
Traditional Turkish Food in Australia
As a child growing up in Lidcombe in Sydney’s Western suburbs I’d often walk home from school with a little Turkish friend whose parents owned a modest bakery. Interestingly, locals referred to it as ‘the Lebanese bakery’, despite Mohammed and his family hailing from Turkey. I recall thinking that was weird as I also had Lebanese friends and despite my young age I knew they spoke a different language even though their lunch boxes contained similar food.
Every Friday afternoon as Mohammed and I parted outside the bakery, his dad would give me a plastic bag full of large discs of warm flat bread – which Australians called by the Greek name ‘pita’ – to take home to my family. I did what any good Aussie kid of Russian heritage did for an afternoon snack and as soon as I got home I smothered a piece with thick layers of strawberry jam and sour cream.
Although my mum cooked everything from Italian to French and we went out for Chinese food (or Pizza Hut) most Thursdays after late-night shopping, it wasn’t until I was a uni student in the late 1980s that I’d try Turkish food. My teacher-uncle Sandy, who I lived with in the inner city Sydney suburb of Glebe for a while, introduced Terence and I to Indian, Malaysian and Thai food. Soon after, Terence and I moved in together in Balmain and our culinary adventures got more serious as we began exploring Spanish, Japanese, Vietnamese, Greek, and Turkish.
Our Turkey food forays were limited to a few types of food, however. The first was Turkish fast food, over-sized doner kebabs, packed with salad, lamb sliced off the vertical spit, a garlicky sauce, and soft fries, or piping hot pide stuffed with spinach and cheese or minced lamb and spices, which we bought from flouro-lit takeaway joints – generally after a big night out.
The second was the traditional style of Turkish cooking found in the first generation of family-owned Turkish eateries. Generally set over two floors, with a take-away occupying the ground floor, these popular establishments usually secreted away a few rooms on the first floor kitschily decorated to resemble an Ottoman-era harem.
In Sydney these eateries were peppered around the inner city, especially along Cleveland Street, Redfern and Surry Hills and on Oxford Street, Darlinghurst. By day they’d be frequented by an older generation of Turkish men, who got together to gossip and talk politics over plates of meze and grilled meats, while after dark large groups of both Turkish- and non Turkish-Australians, plopped onto the fringed cushions and slid around the low tables to gorge on generous serves of tasty Turkish food.
We’d mop up creamy hummus with torn pieces of pita and tuck into plates piled high with stuffed vine lines, mixed grilled meats, yoghurty chicken shish, and succulent lamb cutlets. Dessert was baklava, Turkish delight, a bellydancer and a puff on a sheesha pipe.
I’m told that of those older-style Turkish restaurants that we used to frequent only a few exist, such as Erciyes on Cleveland. Reassuringly, it’s still owned by the same Saracoglu family. Once little more than a take-away pide joint it’s now a full-blown diner with a never-ending menu, 150-seats and weekend bellydancers.
The third type of Turkish food we were exposed to was an ever so slightly elevated style of home cooking that we used to enjoy at a stylish light-filled café in Darlinghurst called Fez. We’d drop in for brunch or lunch on a sunny Saturday or for dinner with friends. While Fez labelled itself a Moroccan/Middle Eastern eatery there was the occasional lesser-known Turkish dish and a wonderful Middle Eastern breakfast plate similar to those we’d come to love years later in Istanbul.
On a trip to Sydney a few years ago we stumbled upon a narrow Surry Hills café called Mint (sadly it closed in 2018) that we recognised as the one-time location of Bar Giorgio, our old friend John’s Italian trattoria where Terence learned to cook while I was studying in South America. Scanning the menu, we recognised some familiar dishes. For nostalgic reasons, we sat down and ordered a couple of old favourites only to start chatting to the proprietor and realise it was the owner of Fez. It was comforting that little had changed apart from the location.
Turkish Food in Turkey
It wasn’t until we finally travelled to Turkey after moving to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 1998 that we really discovered the depth, breadth and richness of Turkish cuisine.
While we were relieved to find that the Turkish food we’d been eating in Australia had been the real deal (unlike, say, the Turkish food we’d sampled in the USA), we realised that it was largely the kind of hearty drinking food that was typical of a meyhane (a sort of Turkish tavern) and were pleased that like the locals in Turkey we had always enjoyed it in the company of dear friends.
Being based in the UAE, first Abu Dhabi and then Dubai, our departure point for travels through the Arabian Peninsula, the Middle East and Europe, we began to appreciate how much Turkish cuisine had influenced the other cuisines of the Mediterranean and Middle East, and vice versa.
Over 500 years Turkey’s Byzantine Empire and then Ottoman Empire conquered some of Eastern Europe, most of the Balkan States, Mediterranean islands such as Malta and Cyprus, and parts of Greece, Macedonia, Ukraine, Russia, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Yemen. Qatar and Bahrain were vassal states, paying tributes to the Ottomans.
While there are rich, local, and old culinary traditions in all of these places, traces of Ottoman cuisine, which was concocted in the imperial palace kitchens in Istanbul, travelled right across the empires with the Ottoman sultans and armies. It should be noted, however, that the novelty-loving sultans also brought back cooks from the colonies, with their recipes, techniques and ingredients to experiment and create new dishes, so, as always, the gastronomic influence was two-way.
Eating out in Istanbul we quickly learnt that Turkish food, like most cuisines, is regional with different geographical areas, climates, terroir, and cultural traditions combining to give rise to regional and local specialties.
The specificities of place aside, there were ingredients and produce that we saw in markets and on tables time and time again: lamb, olives and olive oil, eggplant, capsicums, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and cucumber, yoghurts and white cheeses, fruits such as figs, pomegranates, and watermelon.
Ubiquitous herbs and spices included thyme, oregano, cumin, cinnamon, sumac, and saffron. Sesame was another favourite and seemed pistachios were everywhere. While dishes had spice, they weren’t spicy, but rather exhibited a balance of savoury, salty and sweet. And the Turkish loved their sweets.
Breakfast was Turkey on a plate, with a spread of eggs, sujuk (sausage), tomatoes, olives, white cheeses, jams, preserves, honey, yoghurt, and breads, and one of our favourite breakfast dishes, menemen, which consisted of eggs, tomatoes, capsicum, onion, and olive oil was Turkey in a pan.
Over those years being based in the Middle East and Europe, we just worked out that we’d spent over a year in Turkey during this period, from hotels to apartment rentals where we spent months cooking and eating like locals.
Almost a decade ago, in Istanbul, we discovered that young Turkish chefs were digging deep and travelling wide to explore the many different cuisines of Anatolia, once known as Asia Minor, which now comprises most of modern Turkey.
In cosy basement eateries and sleek rooftop restaurants in Istanbul, chefs were drawing inspiration from recipes from as far as the South-eastern Hatay region near the Syrian border and the Black Sea in the north.
One of those chefs was Mehmet Gürs. An Istanbul resident, Finnish born Mehmet was the son of a Swedish mother and Turkish father and his restaurant Mikla, currently at #51 on the 2017 World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, remains Istanbul’s finest and most inventive. Few have elevated Turkish cuisine to such lofty heights.
Mikla’s Mehmet Gürs and The Young Turks at Lezzet Restaurant
When we sat down with well over a hundred other curious Melbourne Food and Wine festival-goers in the big bustling dining rooms of Turkish-Aussie chef Kemal Barut’s Lezzet restaurant in Melbourne’s seaside suburb of Elwood, we didn’t know what to expect.
We’ve lived away from Australia for so long that we had no idea what our country’s next generation of Turkish-Australian chefs had done to their cuisine, but we knew if Mehmet was involved the meal was going to be interesting.
The ‘Young Turks’ included Kemal Barut of Lezzet, Coskun Uysal of Melbourne restaurant Tulum, and Somer Sivrioglu and Bektas Ozcan of Efendy and Anason restaurants in Sydney.
The chefs collaborated with Mehmet to develop a four-course meal that paid homage to their centuries-old culinary traditions, and influences from across the region, from Greece to Persia and from the Roman to the Ottoman empires, all washed down with Turkish sommelier Tan Sumer’s Turkish wine pairings.
1st course by Kemal Barut of Lezzet
Pancar – beetroot, watermelon shisha-smoked goats cheese, fig and pomegranate
2nd course by Coskun Uysal of Tulum
Cilbir – organic egg, smoked yoghurt, brown butter crumble, and sumac butter
3rd course by Somer Sivrioglu and Bektas Ozcan of Efendy and Anason
Lamb tandir – lamb shoulder, sweet peppers, eggplant, and kashar begendi
4th course by Mehmet Gürs of Mikla
Kitir Kabak – candied pumpkin, saffron yoghurt ice-cream, sesame, pistachio, hemp
New Turkish Cuisine in Australia
New Turkish Cuisine in Australia doesn’t so much as represent a break from the past and the Turkish food we came to know through modest neighbourhood restaurants, take-away joints and food courts. Rather it builds upon that, elevating those traditional staples and showing us that there is so much more to Turkish food than kebabs, tabbouleh, and baklava.
New Turkish Cuisine embraces everything from traditional regional specialties, made in house from scratch, with the finest quality produce – you won’t see big buckets of bought-in hummous at any of the restaurants below – to modern and contemporary experiments that deconstruct and reinterpret traditional dishes in a style that was pioneered at Istanbul restaurants such as Mikla.
At Somer Sivrioglu’s Efendy restaurant, for instance, you’ll taste traditional delights like barrel-aged feta and house cured beef pastirma and regional specialties such as Black Sea style sardines, rice pilav, chestnut, and sweet corn, and Adana style lamb kebap with strained yogurt and pepper butter. But you’ll also find on the same menu a reinvention of the Turkish Mess, modelled on the Eton Mess, made with merengue, Turkish delight cream, berries, rose, and pistachio.
Where to Try New Turkish Cuisine in Australia
Turkish-born chef Somer Sivrioglu, owner of decade-old Efendy restaurant in the Sydney harbourside suburb of Balmain (our home for seven years), is considered the godfather of New Turkish Cuisine in Australia. Somer grew up in the 1970s in Istanbul’s multicultural neighbourhood of Kadıköy to a father who owned a hotel and hammam in the countryside and a mother who had restaurants in Istanbul and Bodrum, which is where he learnt to cook. After arriving in Sydney in 1995 with a hospitality degree, Somer enrolled in an MBA, working nights as a dishwasher until his culinary hero Musa Dağdeviren, from Kadıköy’s Çiya restaurant, visited and reintroduced Somer to Turkish food made with Australian ingredients that he found foraging in Sydney’s Chinatown. When you dine at chef Somer’s Efendy restaurant in Balmain you’re not only guaranteed authentic Turkish cuisine, you’re in for specialties from across the country and dishes that you may never have heard of, let alone tried before. Efendy’s chefs are all Turkish, with a cook from every culinary region. The chef’s wife Asli and brother-in-law Fatih ensure you’ll also experience genuine Turkish hospitality in the dining room.
79 Elliott Street, corner of Darling Street, Balmain, Sydney, (02) 9810 5466, www.efendy.com.au
Owner Kemal Barut, an Australian-born chef of Turkish heritage, may call Lezzet’s food ‘contemporary Turkish cuisine’ and on the day we dined the dishes exhibited all the hallmarks of contemporary cooking with the artfully arranged plates of premium ingredients presented in unexpected textures. However, you’ll also find elevated Turkish delights in their traditional forms made with the finest Australian produce and cooked to perfection, such as just-baked wood-fired breads, fresh homemade dips and plenty of grilled meats. There are also twists on the traditional, such as manti (dumplings) filled with crab and served with a smoky paprika butter and wine reduction. The emphasis is on sharing plates, an inherently traditional custom made modern, with several ‘platters’ to be shared between two or more. The star of the Lezzet Platter is Lamb Four Ways featuring a loin, 20-hour slow-cooked shoulder, lamb cutlets, lamb skewers and kofte, with a bulgur wheat salad, haloumi ‘fingers’, and Yulfka flat bread with tahini cream. The Sofra Breakfast (weekends only) to be shared between two, includes grilled Turkish sucuk (sausage), olives, sumak sprinkled cucumber, cured meats, pickled mushrooms, haloumi, fetta, and menemen, Lezzet’s famous wood-fired Turkish bread, and berry jam.
81 Brighton Road, Elwood, Melbourne, (03) 9531 7733, lezzet.com.au
Turkish-born owner-chef Coskun Uysal worked at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen and River Café in London and had been visiting Australia for a decade before he moved to Melbourne to open his snug (36-seat), modern Turkish bistro. Uysal is offering something different yet again at his restaurant Tulum, which opened in mid-2016. Intent on showing Australians that there’s more to Turkish food than kebabs, Uysal has introduced diners to the style of cuisine being cooked in Istanbul right now. While Uysal’s cuisine is rooted in tradition, with many dishes inspired by the recipes he learnt from his mother, the execution is contemporary, with emulsions and edible flowers, dusts and ‘dirt’. Much talked-about dishes include the Black Sea specialty, Dana Yahni, melt-in-your-mouth 12-hour beef cheek, fragrant with cinnamon, served with corn that resembles rice, walnut-filled figs and kale chips, and Çilbir (poached eggs in yoghurt), poached organic egg with smoked yoghurt, a sumac brown butter sauce, brown butter crumbs, and crispy chicken skin. Uysal hasn’t given up the traditions of his culinary heritage, however, curing, pickling and fermenting in-house. He even makes his own tahini from sesame seeds he roasts over an open fire and grounds in a stone mill.
217 Carlisle Street, Balaclava, Melbourne, (03) 9525 9127, tulumrestaurant.com.au
Somer Sivrioglu recreated the spirit of Istanbul’s meyhanes in Sydney with his second restaurant, Anason, located on the waterfront of Barangaroo – right down to the ferries, boats and ships that glide by on the harbour outside that channel Istanbul’s busy Bosphorous, and the sesame sprinkled simit bread sold from the charming Turkish-made street cart on the terrace. In true New Turkish Cuisine form, Anason continues to explore authentic Anatolian cuisine – with a twist. White cod roe tarama comes with native Australian finger limes and simit chips, while fried cauliflower and burnt mint yoghurt has chickpeas seasoned with dukkah, the Egyptian-spice mix that has become an Aussie staple. Just as you’d find at a meyhane in Turkey, there’s more of an emphasis on meze (small appetiser-size sharing plates) and seafood, including the street food favourite, stuffed mussels – here, with wild rice and sweet currants – that’s sold at Istanbul’s wharves. While most of the produce is Australian, Somer air-freights baklava in weekly from the Cagdas family in Gazientap, Turkey, who have been making it for several generations. After Somer visited their baklava bakery to learn their secrets, he felt he could never do it justice. He also stocks Turkish wine, beer and raki to really take you back to your travels through Turkey – or inspire you to book a flight.
5/23 Barangaroo Avenue, Sydney, (02) 9188 1581, www.anason.com.au
Read Anatolia, a wonderful Turkish cookbook co-authored by Istanbul-born Somer Sivrioglu, owner-chef of Efendy and Anason restaurants in Sydney, and writer David Dale, covering everything from Ottoman Empire banquet cooking to Turkish street food. Somer and Dale travelled all over Turkey to research the beautifully photographed tome.
We got a taste of New Turkish Cuisine in Australia at ‘Mehmet Gürs and The Young Turks at Lezzet – an Anatolian Discovery’ as guests of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. All memories, reflections and opinions are obviously my own.