The restoration and refurbishment of the house was supposed to be done by the time I came to Istanbul last summer. Not so. As is often the case with projects of this size, things took longer than anticipated. Much longer than anticipated. So my first couple of months in the city were spent commuting across the Bosporus and variously spending time at the site, specialty shops or workshops. And lots of waiting – with (very) limited Turkish and having only gotten in towards the very end, there wasn’t much I could do.
A trip to Eyüp to inspect the work of the carpenters delivering the front door was one of those occations. I say inspect but the real reason was to try and push them along – they were significantly delayed and holding everyone else back. We were meeting at one in the afternoon, but, alas, when we arrived the workshop was empty. After a few attempts, my partner finally got hold of the head carpenter, the usta. He promised to be there within half an hour – Turkish for an hour or so. So we decided to have a bite. There was only a small catch to this plan: we were in the middle of a huge industrial area, with apparently very few alternatives, none of them attractive.
So we decided to take a walk around the area to see if we could find something better. After a little while, we sat down at what appeared to be a fairly run-of-the-mill place called Ali Haydar Usta. It was to turn out to be a stroke of luck: it’s one of the best places I’ve eaten in Istanbul.
It was also my first proper introduction to Gavurdağ salatası, a delicious salad made from finely chopped tomato, walnuts, onion and pomegranate syrup. It was not to be the last time I had it.
This tomato and walnut salad is named after the Gavur mountain in Gaziantep in Southern Turkey, where the dish supposedly originated. While the main ingredients are the four I just mentioned, the preparation can vary quite substantially – just try a quick Google Image search. Some like it chunky while others, like Ali Haydar Usta, so finely chopped the salad is virtually swimming in its own juices. And that’s how I make mine.
Because even though the salad is so finely chopped it may look more like a dip at first sight, all the distinct flavours of its key elements are retained. And since the main fresh ingredient is tomatoes, it goes without saying that the salad is best made when tomatoes are plump and full of flavour. It’s also an occasion to use the best pomegranate syrup you can afford and get hold of. Check the labelling to ensure it’s got nothing except pomegranate in it. Many brands sell what is essentially artificially flavoured glucose syrup, and while if you’re on a budget that may have its uses too, this is not one of them. I find the thickest ones give the best flavour – unsurprisingly since they are also the most concentrated. It is worth trying different brands if you have options as they may vary quite substantially. And if you live in Istanbul, go to the spice market in Eminönü and ask for the home-made ones. They only display the cheaper commercial ones, but behind the counter they have the real, home-made thing. It’s more expensive, quite a bit so in fact, but worth it if you can afford it. I get mine from the Hatay shop with all kinds of pul biber on display at the entrance of the market.
Gavurdağ salatası is typically served as a starter before meat and is perfect alongside the barbecue. Serves 3-4 as a side.
- 3 tomatoes, finely chopped (c. 375 g)
- 1/2 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 spring onion, finely chopped
- 1/2 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped
- 2 tbsp finely chopped flat leaf parsley
- 10 walnut halves, finely chopped + 6 walnut halves, roughly chopped, to garnish
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
- 1.5-2 tbsp pomegranate syrup
- 1/2 tsp sumac
- 1/2 tsp pul biber or a pinch of chili flakes
- salt and pepper
- Using your best knife, chop the vegetables as finely as you can.
- Mix together all the ingredients, save the 6 roughly chopped walnut halves. Season and taste, adding more olive oil, lemon juice, pomegranate syrup or spices to taste, if necessary.
- Serve garnished with the roughly chopped walnut halves sprinkled on top, and perhaps some fresh herbs if you like.
- Prepare the salad at least 30 minutes ahead if you can; it allows the flavours to mingle and the juices to become really tasty. In that case, don’t but the garnish until just before serving. The salad is supposed to be runny, almost half-way between salad and sauce.