I had been blogging for about five months. While traffic had started to increase, my blog was still small and I was quite surprised when I received an email from Andreas Viestad.
Viestad is Norway’s leading food writer and I remember reading his weekly columns in Dagbladet Magasinet, one of the major weekend magazines in Norway, when I was a teenager. He still writes it. But he’s also done a lot more: the successful TV series New Scandinavian Cooking, showcasing, well, new Scandinavian cooking to an international audience. He’s released a number of cookbooks, some of which have a natural home in my kitchen bookshelf (it can only fit a few; the ones I rarely use are in a kitchen cupboard), and he runs a city farm for children in Oslo.
And now he was asking to meet in Istanbul. Turns out he’d been following my blog for a while and thought it would be a good feature for his column.
– Sure, I said.
Before long, I welcomed Andreas and photographer Mette Randem to my home in Istanbul, having taken them to the spice market the day before. He had asked if I could cook some of the recipes from the blog. Choosing what to cook was easy: it had to be meze.
Meze embodies what I enjoy most about the food culture common to much of the Mediterranean and Middle East: food as a shared and social experience. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that most meze are absolutely delicious; little explosions of flavour leaving you not just wanting more but also wanting to try everything on the table. Admittedly, once you’ve become accustomed to this way of eating, huge plates of meat and two veg, each bite tasting more or less the same, become altogether less appealing (though everything has its time and place).
So I made a selection of mezes for Andreas and Mette. I planned on making four. Muhammara, the red pepper and walnut dip. İmam bayıldı, the famous Turkish aubergine dish. Cacik, the Turkish equivalent of the Greeks’ tzatziki. And spiced lamb with hummus, perhaps the most iconic recipe on my blog to that date. I also had some leftover runner beans in olive oil, a classic Turkish meze, in the fridge that were still looking and tasting good, so they became a fifth. And when they arrived, Andreas, having seen a picture of aubergines burning on the gas hob on my blog and wanting to replicate it, asked if I could also make baba ganoush. – Sure, I said and sent my better half shopping for more aubergine.
After the pictures were taken and the food eaten, we took Andreas and Mette for a walk around our neighbourhood. Situated inside the old city walls, Balat is full of history. Istanbul’s multicultural past is obvious, with the Greek orthodox patriarchy, a Greek high school, one of Istanbul’s oldest mosques, an Armenian church, a Bulgarian church and a synagogue all within a few minutes’ walking distance of each other.
With no high rises, a beautiful housing stock dating back more than a century (some of it restored, others not) and streets full of life, be it kids playing, men having tea or women preparing their veggies for the afternoon’s cooking, the area certainly has character.
It is also a neighbourhood where more conservative Turks, most of them having arrived from Eastern parts of Turkey decades ago, live side-by-side with newcomers such as myself, many of us not even Turkish. Small shops that have been around for decades sit next to vintage shops and fancy cafes. As Andreas later put it in his article: On the streets, hipsters and fundamentalists compete over having the most similar beards.
Needless to say, I love my neighbourhood – as does everyone who have come visit.
It was a most wonderful and inspiring couple of days for me, and I think Andreas and Mette enjoyed it too. Just over a month later, the resulting article was published, featuring a wonderful backdrop story about Balat, the Turkish kitchen and my life in Istanbul as well as three of the recipes. If you know Norwegian, you can read the article here, and if you don’t, the Google Translate version isn’t half bad.