Istanbul spans two continents, separated by the blustery Bosphorus. I’m sure you knew that already. Apparently tourists are often reluctant to cross over from the European to the Asian side, which is weird, because you can do it on a boat and boat rides are fun. Also, why on earth would you miss an opportunity to travel between continents in the space of half an hour-ish? I think I possibly liked the Asian side more than the European, actually. Or maybe I liked them the same. Or perhaps I liked the European more. Argh! It’s such an exciting city.
Anyway, this recipe was inspired by a restaurant on the Asian side called Çiya which, like Çukur Meyhane, had a few dishes on the menu that jumped out at me as being things I absolutely had to eat. There are three branches of Çiya, and to quote Rebecca Seal who kindly gave me lots of excellent recommendations, ‘you want the one that does more than just kebabs’. We sat outside, blinking in the high, bright sunshine on a wobbly table set on a steep cobbled street. Service is rapid and brusque; before we knew it silver dishes clattered onto the table. The mezze appears to be self-served from a buffet inside the restaurant, which I didn’t realise until we’d eaten our main courses. No booze either but it was worth the visit for this dish alone – rich, sweet meatballs, cooked with soft, gently acidic plums.
Original dish with plums at Çiya, Istanbul
I wanted to re-create the dish and rhubarb seemed like an interesting seasonal variation. The meatballs are rich with Turkish chilli paste, which turns the oil bright amber as they cook, and those Urfa Turkish chilli flakes are so small and dark they look like slate chippings. The sauce is heady, sweet and sour with pomegranate molasses and of course, the rhubarb.
This was perfect served with saffron rice and a dollop of yoghurt. The only thing missing was the sun (pissing rain outside, naturally) and the opportunity to amble over to the bar opposite for a cheeky raki and a tooth-achingly sweet noodle dish with cheese in the middle.
Turkish Lamb Meatballs with Rhubarb
(makes approx 25 meatballs)
500g minced lamb
1 smallish onion, very finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
Generous tablespoon Turkish pepper paste (biber salcasi)
1 tablespoon Urfa chilli
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 slice bread soaked with water until completely wet, then excess water squeezed out
For the sauce
2 sticks rhubarb (approx 350g), cut into evenly sized chunks
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
2 cardamom pods, crushed lightly
Generous splash white wine (in the past I’ve used water, stock and once even ginger kombucha – don’t laugh)
1 tablespoon caster sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
Greek yoghurt, to serve
Make the meatballs by combining the lamb mince, onion, garlic, Turkish pepper paste, Urfa chilli, cinnamon, bread and some salt in a bowl. Mix really well using your hands, then shape into 25 balls. Heat a large frying pan (you won’t need oil as the lamb is fatty). Fry the balls in batches, about 5 or 6 at a time, until browned, then set aside.
De-glaze the pan with a good glug of the wine. Add the rhubarb, cardamom pods (crush them a bit), pomegranate molasses, sugar, ginger and some salt. Add a generous splash of water, bring to a simmer, put the lid on and cook for 8 minutes or until the rhubarb is completely soft. Return the meatballs to the pan and cook for a further 8-10 minutes with the lid on. Serve with bread or rice and yoghurt.
Istanbul cat picture…seems to have become standard practice