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Asitane: A very special restaurant

Istanbul, Turkey
April 2010

Feast like a Sultan for a night
Photo credit: gsz

Asitane. If I went back to Istanbul I would be there like a shot. It is a seriously wonderful place. We had dinner there twice on our trip. I was almost slightly glad that we were trapped by the volcanic ash cloud so that we could eat there again.

Spend the day drifting around the Topkapi palace, strolling where delicate, slippered feet trod hundreds of years earlier. History is so close you can almost smell the scent of heady spice wafting through the confines of the harem. You can almost taste it, like roasted almonds plucked between dainty fingers from platters weighed down with exotic sweets.

The dreamy corridors of the Harem

Then visit Asitane where you really can taste history. Asitane is a restaurant that specialises in recreating Ottoman cuisine. The chefs scoured the archives of the Topkapi and Dolmabahche Palaces and Istanbul’s libraries to find record of recipes served at feasts for the Sultan’s festival. They have managed to recreate many of these magnificent dishes originally served in the 14th to 18th centuries. This is no mean feat since the secrets to many of these recipes were fiercely guarded by the original chefs.

As you can imagine these forgotten flavours are somewhat surprising to our modern-day palette. But this is definitely not a bad thing. The unexpected combinations of ingredients lend an exotic feel to the meals and if you close your eyes and try hard enough you can begin to imagine you are jostling elbows with a richly turbaned Ottoman and not merely a long-suffering dinner partner.

For a moment you can almost imagine you are here

The menu displays the earliest known date which each of the recipes appears in the archives. We shared a number of entrees in order to taste as many dishes as possible, and the staff helpfully divide them up on your behalf into single person portions. I was particularly intrigued by the humus Lokmasi from 1469, a hummus blended with currants and cinnamon powder. The usual hummus is a much more savoury flavour and the addition of these spices gave it an almost Christmasey flavour, a hint of mince pies. The almond soup was all contrast, the base creamy and mellow with the tangy and delightfully jarring addition of pomegranate to liven it up.

Imperial Yahni

The main courses were even better and for most of us consisted of stews baked slowly in small earthenware dishes. The Ottoman dishes seem to favour a mix of sweet and savoury flavours so meat and fruits are often muddled together. On my first visit I tried the “Imperial Yahni” from 1469, a heavy lamb and chicken stew with soft chickpeas, currants, cinnamon and cumin. It was of course, extremely good but I was jealous of the dish that sat beside me in front of my mother and sister. Thus, it was a very good thing we visited again and I got to have the Mutancana lamb all to myself. Another beautiful stew, this was composed of chunks of achingly tender lamb in a perfect juxtaposition with dried apricots, raisins, honey and sliced figs. It was transcendent. In fact I am starting to feel a little sad about the miserable frozen lasagne I just consumed. Oh the melt in your mouth lamb. Oh the sweet chewy apricots and figs. Oh the gentle crunch of slowly cooked almonds. Perhaps I should be writing a poem instead. If you do get to go there and they still have it on the menu you should eat this.

Mutancana lamb stew with almonds, figs, honey and dried apricots
Photo credit: gsz

I managed to fit in a dessert, the Zerde, a dish of milk saffron and rice. I must admit that while I am completely sold on ancient savoury recipes I tend to have a little trouble with the desserts. Perhaps I have been trained to like sweeter things, but every time I sample desserts in medieval or historical restaurants it doesn’t quite strike my fancy. Maybe the flavours are too subtle for my sugar saturated tastebuds. Perhaps I am not really a dessert person. I also tend to be quite picky about textures and this was a little wobbly for my liking. But if you like wobbly food (think Creme Caramel) then this might be your thing. If I go back again though I’ll be ordering even more entrees!

Colours of the Topkapi Harem

If you’re in Istanbul it is really worth a visit. You can easily combine it with a visit to the stunning Chora Church with its beautiful mosaics. It’s a little bit out of the way but you can get there by taxi from the centre. Ask them to ring one for you at your hotel so you don’t get ripped off. Mains are around 13 euros which is a pretty good deal when you consider you are sampling a little bit of history.

One Comment

  1. Sarah Wu says:

    That looks really delicious!

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