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 even 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 or else something terrible would happen. There are three branches of Çiya, and to quote Rebecca Seal who kindly gave me lots of excellent recommendations, including this one, “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, edges glinting like knives. The mezze appear 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. It was awesome. Yes, I say so myself. The meatballs are rich with Turkish chilli paste, which turns the oil bright amber as they cook, and those Turkish chilli flakes 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 25 meatballs)
500g minced lamb (not too lean)
1 smallish onion, very finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
Generous tablespoon Turkish pepper paste, plus a bit for luck
2 teaspoons Turkish chilli (dark)
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 slice bread soaked with water until completely wet, then excess water squeezed out
Oil and butter, for frying
For the sauce
2 sticks rhubarb (approx 300g)
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
2 cardamom pods
Generous splash white wine
1 tablespoon golden caster sugar
Pistachios, to garnish (optional)
Greek yoghurt, to serve
Make the meatballs by combining the lamb mince, onion, garlic, Turkish pepper paste, Turkish chilli, cinnamon, bread and some salt and pepper in a bowl. Mix really well using your hands, then shape into 25 balls. In a frying pan, heat a splash of oil and knob of butter. Fry the balls in batches, about 5 or 6 at a time, until browned, then set aside. Drain the fat off into a bowl but keep it 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 and some salt. Add a generous splash of water, bring to a simmer, put the lid on and cook for 10 minutes. Return the meatballs to the pan with some of the drained fat, and cook for a further 10 minutes with the lid on. Serve with bread or rice and yoghurt.
Istanbul cat picture…seems to have become standard practice