“Istanbul was the last stop of Spice Road,” explains Somer Sivrioglu, owner and executive chef of Efendy restaurant in Sydney. The spice trade was hugely popular from the Middle Ages into modern times, and Istanbul’s position as the last stop on the route meant what commodities they didn’t collect, the citizens grew themselves.
Given it was one of the most commonly traded spices, the variety of dishes using cinnamon as a main ingredient is not suprising. “If you think about it, cinnamon as a spice, is actually quite spicy,” Sivrioglu says. This explains why the spice is used in more than just sweets and desserts. It is actually one of the main ingredients in some staple savoury dishes, such as dolma stuffing and savoury puddings. “It’s a funny spice – you can put it with all different types of ingredients and it will still complement them.”
As we begin to discuss in more detail the flavours that form the base of his cuisine, Sivrioglu recalls his first encounter with the unique pistachio nut of Turkey – another commonly used and traded ingredient. As a young boy he traveled to Gaziantep, one of the oldest regions of Turkey, to taste his first baklava. As he was handed the sticky slice, the chefs revealed that this special treat was made with what they called “bird shit” pistachios. It took a little time for young Sivrioglu to understand that this was just a cheeky reference, a joke at the expense of the tiny nuts.
The under-average size of the nuts is due to the Turks’ method of harvesting, picking the nuts before they’ve matured and had time to develop a natural saltiness. The nuts are picked at a point in their growth when they have a rich flavour, making them perfect complements to some of Turkey’s most famous desserts, including its traditional baklava, the recipe and trade of which has survived many hundreds of years. However, leave the green nuts on the tree longer, and they begin to develop their signature earthy saltiness, better for savoury dishes.
Separately, many of Turkey’s basic ingredients have their own characteristics, but mix them all together and you can make a variety of fantastic dishes. The cuisine is all about balance; salty and sweet, soft and crunchy, fresh and rich and mixing ingredients in a way that creates these delicate balances.
Historically, the mixing of pistachios and cinnamon with honey came from the oldest and still most common dessert in the region, A?ure. The sweet is made of 41 dried ingredients, held together with sticky honey and dried fruits such as dates and apricots. According to legend, the recipe originated when Noah, upon arriving on dry land for the first time, was without any fresh resources, so used these dry and preserved ingredients to make a special sweet to sustain himself.
Although Sivrioglu says many of the region’s famous recipes, such as asure, were crafted as a result of scarcity and the necessity to balance the ingredients at hand, the reality today is that, usually, resources are abundant. “If it doesn’t grow in your country, then it will arrive as a commodity,” he explains. “But historically, excellence comes from scarcity.
“There were times when the area had access to these few ingredients they could get from the ground, so they had to discover new ways to approach them.”
For Turks, agriculture is the bread and butter of their culture. Hundreds of years have been spent surviving off the land. This culture is still ingrained in what Sivrioglu does every day at his restaurant in Sydney, shying away from stereotypes, focusing rather on the blessing of abundance.
Naturally, his influences come from home, but the basics he has learned, added to the free flow of cultural influences, creates room for experimentation. “I try to stay away from classifying the cuisine to each country; Persia, Turkey, Greece,” Sivrioglu says. “It’s food of the land, of the peninsula. And different people approach it differently.”
This piece was produced in partnership with CONNOISSEUR Empire Collection, which includes the 'King Cyrus of Persia’ ice cream with pistachio, cinnamon, honey and date.