Monthly Archives: December 2011

Yashim’s Kitchen III

I don’t know if you’re having turkey this year? Or a goose? We are going for guinea fowl because they are so tasty, with a duck for the crisp skin. I quite like turkey but it makes a greasy stock, and a good stock is what you want for this pilaf.

Mehmet the Conqueror’s Grand Vizier used to serve this as a working lunch in divan, the council meeting held on a Friday. Into it he tossed a gold chickpea for some lucky pasha to discover (or break a tooth on): the Ottoman version of putting a sixpence in the Christmas pudding, perhaps.



Basmati rice

Chickpeas, soaked overnight and boiled for an hour (but tinned chickpeas are pretty handy, too)

An onion

butter, salt, festive stock


Rinse the rice in cold water until the water is clear – this is to remove the starch, which would make the rice too sticky. Leave it to soak while you melt the onions in butter. When they are soft, add the chickpeas.

Drain the rice, stir it into the pan and add enough stock to cover the rice and a little more.

When the stock has all been absorbed, check the rice; it should be a little nutty, but almost edible. If necessary add a little more stock until the rice is almost done.

Now comes the strange pilaf magic: cover the pan with a cloth and a lid. Over a whisper of heat, or none, let the rice steam for fifteen minutes.

Turn the rice out into a dish, helping to fluff it out with a fork.

This rice method sounds like complicated alchemy, but it’s simple really – and it works.


Yashim’s Kitchen II – lamb kebab

Effortless and classic, these kebabs are best gently grilled over a throbbing mass of hot charcoal.


2 lbs boned shoulder of lamb, cut into inch cubes

2 onions

some garlic cloves, crushed

A small handful of cumin seeds


Pitta bread

Red onion, sliced

Chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Lemon wedges


Grate the onions into a colander set on a plate, sprinkle with salt, and leave to sweat for twenty minutes. Press the onions down with a spoon to extract all the juice, chuck the pulp and mix the juice with the garlic and the cumin seeds, roasted and crushed.

Stir in the lamb and marinade at room temperature for a few hours, then thread the meat onto skewers.

Sprinkle the pitta breads with water, and grill them on both sides for a minute.

Grill the meat for 2-3 minutes on each side.

Pop meat, onion and parsley into the bread, with a squeeze of lemon, and eat with both hands.



Yashim’s Kitchen – stuffed mackerel

With some trepidation I prepared this rather spectacular dish in front of sixty people at a literary festival one Summer. It was a complete triumph, as you can see from my expression in the photo.

 Yashim cooks this, too, in An Evil Eye.


A large fresh mackerel, not gutted

Olive oil

For the stuffing: A few shallots, scoop of pine nuts, scoop of chopped blanched almonds, scoop of chopped walnuts, a handful of currants soaked in warm water, a few dried apricots finely chopped, and some herbs and spices – generous pinches of cinnamon, allspice, ground cloves, kirmiz biber or chilli powder, sugar and dill and parsley, finely chopped.

Cooking is easy – it’s getting there that’s the challenge. You have to make a small incision beneath the gills, and then draw out the guts, and chuck them away. Lay the mackerel on a board and beat it with a rolling pin, or an empty bottle, making sure you’ve snapped the backbone. Massage the skin gently, to loosen it from the flesh and finally – this is the bit that makes your audience, if you have one, groan out loud – squeeze the whole thing out through the incision below the gills!

It is not easy. Go gently, trying not to tear the skin, as if you were squeezing a tube of toothpaste. You are left with an empty skin, still attached to the head. Rinse it out, making sure to remove any little bones, and set it aside.

Now make the stuffing: sweat the chopped shallots in oil, add all the nuts, and let them colour. Add all the other ingredients except the herbs, and stir them around.

Pick out as much of the flesh as you can from the bones, and mix it into the stuffing, with herbs, a squeeze of lemon, and salt and pepper to taste.

Cook it through for another couple of minutes. Let it cool a bit, and stuff that mackerel! Use a teaspoon, and gradually fill the skin, squeezing the stuffing right down to the end. It looks like a mackerel again.

You can roll the fish in flour and fry it, or better still brush with oil and set it under the grill, hot, until the skin begins to blister.

Finally, with a very sharp knife, slice the mackerel thickly, lay it on a plate like a fish, and serve with lemon wedges.

Yashim’s kitchen I

Yashim, the protagonist of four novels in the award winning detective series set in 1830s Istanbul, is more than a sleuth – he’s also a great cook. In his apartment in Balat he prepares some of the dishes for which the Turks, with their long Ottoman heritage, are justly famous: not for nothing is Turkish cookery described as one of the three great cuisines of the world, along with French and Chinese.

Yashim loves cooking, which gives him time and space to think, and readers seem to love his recipes just as much. Like a turban glimpsed on the street, a draft of sweet coffee or the slender shadow of a minaret, Yashim’s dishes help to recreate the flavours of Istanbul – its abundance of seasonal vegetables, fresh fish drawn from the waters of the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmora, the ubiquitous soups and grilled lamb, the yoghurt and the spices that scent the air of the Egyptian Bazaar.

Each of the novels, beginning with The Janissary Tree, has figured several recipes perfected in the sultan’s kitchens – although the fish stew which appears in An Evil Eye, the latest in the series, is really a Greek fisherman’s feast, and the recipe for that – kakavia – can be found here on my blog.

Over the next few days I’ll be posting some new recipes for readers to try – maybe for some people they’ll suggest a break from turkey leftovers (I mean the bird, not the country)!

The quantities are not precise. As I wrote in Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire: ‘The French emperor Napoleon III and his empress, Eugenie, spent a week in Istanbul as the Sultan’s guests in 1862. The Empress was so taken with a concoction of aubergine puree and lamb that she asked for permission to send her own chef to the kitchens to study the recipe. The request was graciously granted by their host, and the chef duly set off with his scales and notebook. The Sultan’s cook slung him out, roaring, ‘An imperial chef cooks with his feelings, his eyes, and his nose!’

Be warned.