Experiencing the Meaning of Sofra: A Turkish Table in the Heart of Boston

16 Dec

Tuesday was precisely the kind of day that reaffirmed my decision to redirect my career course and cater to my culinary instincts (as if I ever had any serious doubts). I had registered for “The Flavors of Anatolia,” my second tasting/demonstration event at Boston University’s School of Gastronomy.

I came alone with only the vaguest ideas of what would transpire as part of the night’s event. I knew only that Turkish food and wine, as well as two luminaries in the Cambridge-Boston food scene, were involved, both of which were sufficient incentives to sign up. Whereas the Judith Jones event I previously attended was predominantly a speaking engagement, with a casual smattering of food and wine, Tuesday’s event was a feast. We arrived to white tablecloths with introductory mezes and wine on the table, with more to follow as the evening progressed. (I have to admit that I felt a little under-dressed!)

Shepherd’s Salad (Image: Johnisha M. Levi)

“The Flavors of Anatolia” was part of Boston’s month-and-a-half long celebration of Turkish culture. The annual Turkish festival, now in its sixteenth year, encompassed art exhibits, concerts, lectures, and of course, gastronomic presentations. This year’s theme was “Colors of Anatolia,” a tribute to the “diversity and richness of Turkish culture.” It was clear in catching snippets of conversation that the evening attendees included first timers like me, as well as both perennial attendees, those who have traveled to Turkey for either business or pleasure as well as Turkish-Americans.

James Beard award-winning chef Ana Sortun (Oleana and Sofra) and Formaggio Kitchen proprietor Ihsan Gurdal opened the evening with brief  introductory remarks about Turkey and the assortment of dishes that we would be consuming. Sortun related how her awakening to Turkish cuisine came when she was working at the Cambridge restaurant, Casablanca. She was invited to travel to Turkey to learn how to prepare the native cuisine, and from there, it became both “a passion and a study” for her.

While Gurdal (whose grandmother grew up in and out of the kitchen of the Sultan–her father was an adviser) modestly disclaimed credit for the greater part of the meal, he did note that he and his daughter contributed both a shepherd’s salad (tomatoes, cucumbers, parsley and lemon), and (perfectly) roasted mixed vegetables (including tender eggplant, with a hint of heat that made it easily one of my favorite dishes of the evening).

Red lentil kofte with pomegranate (Image: Johnisha M. Levi)

My first taste of the evening was of Efe Raki, an anise-flavored Turkish aperetif made from grapes. My Turkish dining companions encouraged me to cut the raki with some water, which, once added, transformed the beverage from clear to a milky white–a characteristic that explains why it is popularly referred to as “aslan sutu” or “lion’s milk.” In addition to the raki, we enjoyed two Turkish whites and two Turkish reds from Kavaklidere Winery with our meal. The standout white for me was the 2010 “Cankaya”, described in our tasting notes as “lively and crisp . . with intense fruit.” The wine, produced from Emir, Narince and Sultana grapes, reminded me a bit in spirit of a headily perfumed Virginia viognier. Later in the course of our repast, we also appreciatively sipped a full-bodied red, the 2007 “Selection Kirmizi,” an award-winning wine evocative of plums and figs.

The students at Boston University labored to prepare the following mezes conceived by Sortun for our dining enjoyment:

Mezes, from bottom center clockwise: Cacik, celery root, roasted vegetable salad, buttered hummus, and cabbage with bulgur (Image: Johnisha M. Levi)

  • Red lentil kofte with pomegranate (the lentils molded into oval shaped dumplings, atop leaves of romaine with plentiful pomegranate seeds glistening like jewels)
  • Warm buttered humus with pastirma, tomato and black olive (my other favorite of the evening; the fattiness of  the hummus enhanced with butter rather than simply olive oil and tahini, and then wrapped in a dry cured beef)
  • Two yogurt based mezes: a celery root with yogurt, walnuts, and dill; and cacik, a combination of cucumber, yogurt, and herbs
  • A cabbage and bulgur salad

For our entrée, we were served  lamb kofte with rice cakes (the latter admittedly a bit on the too-crisp side, which made my Turkish dining companions pine for a gentler and more traditional pilaf accompaniment). They had smartly urged the table to save our shepherd’s salad as refreshing and crisp accompaniment to this final course.

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Close up of the buttered humus with pastirma, tomato and olive (Image: Johnisha M. Levi)

The evening concluded with a seductive cup of muhallebi, a milk pudding, adorned with pumpkin jam and fairy floss. The muhallebi had a resinous or pine-like flavor and odor, which my dining companions explained was attributable to gum mastic, a traditional ingredient in Turkish desserts. The garnish of white fairy floss is the most finely textured of cotton candies.

As with every memorable meal, as I continued to eat, I stopped concentrating on parsing the elements of the dinner, and instead on its attendant fellowship. We started off as five strangers somewhat awkwardly interacting, but by the end of the meal, we had swapped family stories, shared recipes and cooking tips, and traded contact information.  I even got a recommendation for a good cookbook on Turkish home cooking and an invitation to tea and desserts. One of my companions, whose father is Turkish, began seriously contemplating taking her first trip to visit her ancestral land. What happened that evening is what Gurdal had earlier referred to as sofra–a Turkish word meaning the coming together at the dining table, where everything (both stresses and celebrations) gets worked out through the food that we prepare and consume together. That is the power of a meal–partaking, sharing, exchanging, and understanding.

Stay tuned for next week’s Food in Films. I’ll be reviewing Gereon Wetzel’s El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, which has been reprised as part of the Film Program at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

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