I like Turkish food because it's fresh, simple, and a bit plain. Okay, sometimes I like it for the first two despite the third—some grilled chicken or lamb, a little rice or bulgur, hummus or yogurt with some fresh-baked bread... all satisfying without the need for artificial seasonings and spices and Cajun-Bacon-Blue-Cheese-Ranch-Jalapeño-Salsaghetti Sauce.
There's one dish, though, that I especially like because it blows the doors off that stereotype. It's the deep dish sausage pizza of Turkey, a robust dish with strips of meaty lamb doner, brightly acidic warm tomato sauce, and tart cool yogurt, all tossed with bread cubes—a riot of bright contrasts amid the general subtlety of wholesomeness. It's called Iskender Kebab, and since Iskender is Alexander, I long figured it was an ancient dish named for the Greek hero (the western part of Turkey, despite its political antipathy to modern Greece, having remnants of Greek and Roman invasion all over).
Turns out it's not ancient at all—it was invented in Bursa, a city across the Marmara sea from Istanbul, in 1867 by a chef named Iskender Efendi, and as with deep dish pizza, several modern restaurants in Bursa claim direct descent from the original. You don't have to go to Bursa for it; most Turkish restaurants in Chicago offer their version, and my favorite, and not coincidentally the closest one to me, is at a ramshackle place called Cafe Orchid.
With a covered-over dining room that makes a patio in the summer months, Cafe Orchid looks like a seaside Turkish restaurant; all it lacks is drunken Australians.
Your meal is always going to end here with grilled meat (unless you're vegetarian), so I like to start with imam bayildi, a cold but lively eggplant salad whose name means "the imam loved it." (It's seen here with a soft drink the waitress called "Turkish Sprite.")
Also a good start: lahmacun, one of several things you could call Turkey's answer to pizza, a paper-thin crust with ground spiced meat on top.
Then on to Iskender Kebab (which incidentally is not on the lunch menu, but available for the asking). And ordering it the most recent time, I had something I'd never been offered before: choices. The waitress asked me if I wanted doner, lamb, chicken, or beef for the meat. Then she asked me if I wanted tomato sauce or spicy butter. I'd never heard of anything but tomato sauce and doner, so I ordered it the classic way, but asked for a side of the spicy butter as well.
It is apparently traditional, but it added a garlic bread flavor (plus a few thousand calories, I'm sure) that already-rich doner didn't need; yogurt is just the right tangy note of dairy for this classic dish.
All the same, I'm intrigued by other meats being added to the combination. If classic Iskender Kebab is the sausage deep dish of Turkey, perhaps chicken would make it the BBQ pizza. Maybe this tradition is about to change with the times for me.
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