When you think of Turkish cuisine, the odds are that visions of kebabs and sticky desserts come to mind. However, over the last few years, a breath of fresh air has swept through the nation’s kitchens where the same traditional ingredients are now being used in exciting new ways. Refika Birgül has been an early pioneer of this movement and her energy and personal charm have made her a household name in Turkey.
She is especially remarkable as originally she came from a background of hospital administration so it took a real leap of faith to become a successful and well-loved cook. But self-confidence she has: I should know as I know her personally. What makes her different is that she has a vision. She is first and foremost a cook and not a chef: unlike other celebrities, she doesn’t have her own restaurant and she doesn’t plan to open one either. She made her name through a popular newspaper column followed by successful TV shows. Now she is expanding into the world of YouTube.
Refika’s vision is as much about community and culture as it is about cooking. She lives and works in Kuzguncuk, a charming traditional neighbourhood on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. The Simotas Binası is a landmark building on several floors just off the main street. It was unoccupied for a long time and consequently falling into disrepair until Refika acquired it. She now centres all her work there as well as having made it a haven for young creative start-ups. The building hums with life and energy. Thanks to Refika, I was fortunate enough to be able to offer my cooking classes in her colourful spacious kitchen there. People came just as much for the experience as for the lesson!
Refika firmly believes that the time-honoured local speciality shops such as the yufkacı, the local fırın (bakery), the manav (greengrocer) which still line the little cobbled streets, deserve encouragement rather than be swept away in the face of modernisation. Her support is invaluable and she is a well-loved personality in the neighbourhood.
This book launched Refika’s career. It was written both in Turkish and English in 2010. It was rejected by several publishing houses who did not share her inspired vision and reinterpretation of Turkish food: then Boyut publishing company discovered it. The rest is history: the first print run sold out in three weeks and the book went on to be featured at MOMA in New York.
My own copy of this cookbook was a present from Refika and is personally dedicated to me. It’s one of my culinary treasures. I had a cookery blog, A Seasonal Cook in Turkey, for more than five years and ‘Cooking New Istanbul Style’ was a book I turned to time and time again. I love her style: it’s an all-embracing book filled with vibrant photographs, many of which she took herself. The reader gets a strong flavour of Refika, the cook, and her environment.
The book is a gift for the first-time Turkish cook or newcomer to Turkey.
The first 140 pages or so are a treasure trove of information ranging from amongst other subjects, how to choose the best olive oil, how to buy bread, and the truth about Turkish organic farming. Refika delivers this information in a warm colloquial style and you come away feeling that you have had the good fortune to spend quality time with a knowledgeable friend.
After that, it’s on to the recipes. Each is prefaced with a beautiful photo and hands-on instructions in both English and Turkish, often enlivened by a short personal anecdote or two. Her English is sometimes endearingly quaint, e.g. a ‘bundle’ of mint, or a ‘bundle’ of parsley, but it doesn’t detract.
Don’t forget: don’t expect to find, say, typical Turkish meze recipes. These are not what this book is about. Instead, what you will find are recipes using classic Turkish ingredients in a bright new way. One of my favourites is a twist on zeytinyağlı kereviz: celeriac in olive oil. Refika’s recipe is called Kereviz Karpaçyo or Celeriac Carpaccio. I featured it in my blog and one of my friends in the UK loved it so much, she made it her signature dish!
For the longtime Turkey resident, the recipes are stimulating, and for the creative cook, they are a breath of fresh air. Some ingredients are quite esoteric e.g. pişmaniye which she translates as ‘floss helva’ and I doubt you could find easily outside Turkey. Similarly kadayıf, the ‘shredded wheat’ look-alike so easily available in Turkey, but problematic to track down elsewhere.
But not to worry, there are plenty of other recipes to browse through and choose from. At this time of year, my thoughts start to turn towards Özlenmiş Incirli Et or Juicy Meat with Figs, my recipe of choice for the first dinner party of the season: an easy one ingredients-wise as all you need is a succulent beef fillet and fifteen dried figs. I serve it with Refika’s Bulgur Pilavı, a pilaf fit for a sultan lavished with chickpeas, garlic, fresh thyme, mint, sumac, red flaked pepper, tomato and sweet pepper pastes..
How does that sound?
No Turkish cook book would be complete without a section devoted to drinks including the time-honoured tea/çay making process and iconic coffee. Cooking New Istanbul Style is no exception. Refika uses this section to gently bring her book to an end .. or at least, you think it’s ending but instead, not leaving anything to chance, she concludes with some inspired ideas on how to present your dishes based on the five senses.
If the book hasn’t captured your heart by this point, the beautiful photography of Turkish place settings will surely exert its own appeal and using this cookbook will be the natural next step towards creating your very own Turkish sofra, or spread.
-Review by Claudia Turget
Publisher: Boyut Publishing
Publication Date: Third edition, 2012
Refika Birgül graduated from Robert College. She studied psychology at Koç University in Istanbul. After her undergraduate degree, she studied leadership education at London Business School.
Refika is a Turkish cookbook and newspaper writer and television presenter. She is also co-founder of Refika’dan web site to increase awareness of artisanship and its value in Turkish culture. She writes a food column called “Refika’s Kitchen” for the weekend supplement of Turkey’s top-selling Hurriyet newspaper. She also creates and hosts the TV food show “Mucize Lezzetler” and “Refika’dan Hızlı Tarifler” which broadcasts on channel Star, NTv, Cnbc-e and E2.
Refika has been published three more books named as Refika’dan Hızlı Tarifler, Düdüklünün Sihirleri and Narlı Tarifler. She also coordinates people to publish their books under “Refika’dan Pişen Kitaplar Serisi”. Bulgurun Halleri is one of them which written by Nursen Doğan with Refika Birgül’s touch.
Prior to switching to all things culinary, Refika Birgül was a hospital administrator.
Claudia Turgut is the creator of the successful Turkish cooking blog ‘A Seasonal Cook in Turkey,’ based on seasonal produce and how to use it. The blog was initially aimed at foreigners living in Turkey who wanted to learn some local dishes and its readership soon spread worldwide. She no longer writes the blog herself but a friend living outside Fethiye took over earlier this year.
She was a professional culinary tour leader for Istanbul Eats, Istanbul Food Walks and Unison Travel, as well as freelance. She also held regular cookery classes.
Claudia took up photography initially to support her blog writing. However it soon became a passion in its own right and these days she is more likely to be found with a camera in her hand, than in the kitchen. See @claudiaturgut on Instagram.