(first written July 2006)
It seems that we were waiting for a nondescript white van.
This act of waiting was performed in the “Söz Kitap Evi” or in English, ‘The Word Book Store’ – a Christian book store in the city of Adana, in South East Turkey.
Decades earlier we had lived in Adana in this city which is not far from the Mediterranean Sea and sprawling in the shadow of the mighty Toros (Taurus) mountain range. Long has there been a city perched on the banks of the Seyhan River, in the midst of the amazingly rich and fertile Çukurova plain.
The story of Adana stretches from a mound or tell in the centre of the city, the Tepebağ tumulus which dates from 6,000 BC and flows from thence through Hittite times, is mentioned in Egyptian texts and was incorporated into the Greek, Roman, Armenian, Byzantine empires, it was subject to an Arab invasion, was part of a Crusader kingdom, became part of the Ottoman Empire and finally, now is a vibrant part of the Republic of Turkey.
Back in the early 1980s there was no church in the city, just a few young men who gathered together in a home to hear the Word of God shared, study the Bible, sing a few hymns and pray. There was certainly no Christian Book Store. From a Christian perspective, there actually was nothing in the city. The population of the city then was approximately one million souls.
Now, for balance, there was a small, hidden away, tiny Jewish Synagogue and a largish Roman Catholic Church building which hosted a profoundly minuscule number of congregants.
But, now in 2006, we were standing in a Christian Book Store speaking with the leaders of two different Turkish Churches in this city which now boasts a population of approximately two million. Things have changed just a wee bit.
On the arrival of the said, nondescript white van, we departed the bookstore and piled in – we were off to break bread together.
T and I had arrived by aeroplane just an hour earlier. T was at the home of one of the elders of the church and I had absconded to this impromptu meeting.
It was good that we were going for a meal as my diabetes means I need little fill-ups throughout the day. The good old days of going about ones business and grabbing a bite to eat whenever it was convenient has well and truly faded into the distant past.
As a family we had lived in Adana over twenty years previously and my, oh my, how things have changed. Many landmarks, boulevards and buildings I recognised but many, many things were new.
Well, when I say ‘new’, I mean these high-rise buildings were not there twenty odd years ago. Once they were brand-spanking new but now they have become old looking, a bit tired and worn. But, at the same time, there were the new, ‘new buildings’ adorning the city like a lavish, stunning garland.
So, as we drove off, before my eyes passed a delightfully variegated smorgasbord of the old still familiar buildings and landmarks, ‘old new’ buildings that were still ‘new’ to me and the spectacularly new buildings exhibiting the latest in architectural design with their own unique flourishes often with a liberal splash of flamboyance.
The driver of the van aggressively weaved in and out of traffic, following roads I had traveled in the past and then he turned abruptly and crossed the Seyhan River on an ‘old’ new bridge. There was no ‘bridge’ there in my time… now there was, and it looked like it had been there forever.
Once across the bridge we were in a simpler part of town. No high-rises, no spectacular architecture nor splendid marvels of engineering or construction. This was more like the ‘old’ Adana that we had once lived in and knew so well. There was a profusion of dumpy looking two storey structures, each slap-bang up against their neighbour. Dusty, dirty, unkempt, paint pealing – where there had once been paint – and I would have said, ‘run down’ but I’m not 100% certain that even when they were first built that they looked significantly different from what they do now. Often, buildings of this, er, style, are never actually ‘finished’.
I overheard that we were going to a ‘good’ restaurant – but the area of town we are now slowly making our way through being – er, well, more simple, basic, even rustic – it didn’t naturally bode well for finding a ‘good’ restaurant – let the reader understand, by ‘good’ I mean, ‘safe’ as well as ‘tasting good’ and ‘reasonably priced’.
Without warning, the van unexpectedly slowed and then jerked over and unceremoniously came to a halt. Everyone started tumbling out. Evidently, it seemed, we had arrived … but where exactly?
As I scanned up and down the rather dowdy, grubby street, dust hanging limply in the air and litter scattered on the floor blown hither and thither by the occasional breathe of wind or the currents caused by passing vehicles, I could discern nothing likening unto a ‘good’ restaurant. Gazing up the road, with its myriads of vehicles, people, bicycles, motorcycles, horse carts, I was confronted with a forlorn sense of general neglect combined with a suspicion that no one really cares or ever really had. This impression seemed to permeate the air, hanging as an oppressive blanket over the area in the sweltering heat and humidity.
My eyes continued darting left and right, searching diligently, but, for the life of me I couldn’t uncover a ‘good’ restaurant anywhere. We walked down the broken and uneven footpath and turned into an, um, rather ‘simple’ establishment.
The ‘dining area’ was not of generous proportions, but we were able to quickly cobble together a collection of tables to accommodate eight, which was required, for we were a large group.
I’m not sure that we had the benefit of a ‘menu’, it was more ‘What do you have?’ and then responding to that. It was decided rather quickly that one of us would have lamb chops with the rest of us choosing ‘Adana Kebab’ as our main course.
Adana Kebab is the hallmark of the city – it is a special kebab claimed by and named after the city of Adana. It is made of minced lamb and spices, kneaded by hand and then formed on to a flat skewer and slow cooked over a charcoal fired brazier. It comes in two varieties, ‘normal’ and ‘spicy’. The spicy variety is rather hot to the tongue… lips… eyes… ears… throat… let’s just say, it is for those who love to burn… and perspire… and cry…
Once the order was given there was a flurry of activity, and then the meze, or appetisers, began to come in rapid succession.
First was a piping hot mini-Turkish pizzas-like dish fresh from the oven. These little pizza-like meze are round in shape with a leavened pizza-like crust, but the topping consists of mince in a red pepper sauce – mind you it is light on the mince, often it is more a dusting of mince – oh, and no cheese nor tomato sauce. I did say, ‘pizza-like’, meaning more shape and base than any other similarities.
These had come forth from a large oven that is part of the establishment. Although it is an ‘oven’, the use of the word oven can convey the wrong idea… In reality, it is a large brick built, Turkish baker’s oven with an actual wood fire fiercely burning inside and on one side of the oven. This provides an abundance of heat.
The door to the oven? Well, there is no door. The opening to the oven is a relatively small aperture. A whole variety of bread dough based dishes are prepared, on-site, cooked and presented fresh to the diners.
Whatever the bread-dough based product, like the mini-Turkish-pizzas, or bread which is formed into loaf-like shapes – a bloomer style loaf, no pans are used – or whatever, once prepared, the baker takes these items and puts them on a wooden paddle with a long, two½ plus metre handle.
To say it is a definite skill to be be able to man-handle such an ungainly implement within the restricted confines of the oven area, with dough based items delicately balanced on the paddle end is a gross understatement.
The baker slips the wide paddle part of the implement under the bread-dough products and deftly swings the paddle around, and then guiding it through the narrow aperture, he expertly thrusts it into the bowels of the piping hot oven to his selected location where he deposits the items to bake. He must carefully select the location, for too close to the fire and it will bake too quickly; too far away and it will not bake quickly enough and this is complicated by the fact that the oven is rarely empty… he must find an appropriate empty place to lay the new items amongst the current baking tenants.
A specialty item is ‘pide’ bread which is made from normal leavened dough, but rather than a puffy, bloomer style loaf, it is spread out relatively flat – a flattened, stretched oval-ish shape – and the dough is worked, pushed out and down with the bakers fingers making a distinctive look to the bread with a series of wee bumps and valleys – like ridges and furrows in a ploughed field. Then sesame seeds and black cumin seeds are liberally sprinkled on top before it, too, is ‘paddled’ into the oven to bake.
The baker, remains steadfastly positioned before the inferno of the oven, profusely perspiring, but keeping a sharp eye on the items in the oven and when the time is right, in flies the paddle which the baker deftly slips under the freshly cooked bread or mini-pizzas or whatever it is and draws it out.
This is truly ‘fresh from the oven’ bread and the heady, fragrant aroma of these freshly baked items precedes it and fills the restaurant with its heavenly bouquet. It is brought to the table, piping hot and accompanied by a soft cheese, fresh butter and onions.
You could be tempted to make a feast of the bread alone! It is profoundly appetising.
But, it is not that the restaurateur was content to present us with just simple, albeit heavenly breads with cheese, butter and onions accompaniments, for, following hard on the heels of the arrival of the min-pizzas and bread and pide there flowed a pageant of salads.
In the end, there were multiple instances of a total of five different types of salads crowded upon the tables.
Additionally, there were other ‘meze’ appetisers, humus drenched in lemon juice and fresh olive oil, ‘cacik’ – a yogurt and cucumber dish, a crushed walnut and pepper dish, ‘babaganuş’ an eggplant dish and a red hot-pepper dish.
I could have very, very, easily eaten my fill of these salads and mezes and been happily content even to the point of over indulging. Like the breads before them, they are all extremely appetising.
To ‘dress’ the salads, they brought several simple plastic bottles; bottles that in its original use, were common water bottles – just one of the normal, ubiquitous water bottles that are sold all over Turkey. They were the small, one person sized bottles. But now they had been given a new lease on life, a new task; they had been refilled with a dark red liquid, ‘Nar Ekşisi’, which is a speciality of this region and is a concentrated pomegranate reduction. This is created by firstly squeezing fresh, ripe, pomegranates and then the resultant mash is boiled and strained until it is reduced to a concentrated, almost syrupy viscosity. The resultant thick liquid is then poured into the former water bottles. You could liken it to pomegranate molasses, but a bit more runny.
Holes had been roughly punched in the lids of the erstwhile water bottles and now, according to your taste, you could squeeze some of the pomegranate reduction onto your salad. It was really good, adding a delicate, subtle and yet appealing flavour to the salad. The ‘Nar Ekşisi’ by being both tart and sweet at the same time, was a wonderful, complimentary accent to many of the salads.
There was an onion salad where the onions were lightly cooked and another salad consisting of raw onions and dried red pepper flakes. This latter salad tasted slightly lemon-like. Another salad was made with red cabbage, cucumber, tomatoes and onions, and there was a mixed salad. Finally, the last salad was a special one made from puréed tomatoes and, well, I don’t know what all else it consisted of… but it tasted great. All told, the salads alone presented a rich variety that tickled the taste buds and quenched that gnawing hunger – and all this well before the main course which had yet to make its appearance.
By the time the Adana kebab arrived, steaming hot from the brazier, the edge had been totally removed from our hunger, and now, we could leisurely enjoy the grilled meat, adding whatever salad we felt would compliment the flavour, a little onion, a little mixed salad, a little cabbage, every mouthful could be tailor-made to suit the moment.
In this relaxed atmosphere, and with a large group of individuals, several conversations were going on and it struck me, there was a Turk from Diyarbakır in the East, a foreigner working in Izmir in the West, a Turk living in Adana, two Mexicans living in Adana, a visiting foreigner from America and myself. Quite a mixed bag, a cosmopolitan gathering around this table laden with such a rich variety of good food and all united in our love for the Lord who has redeemed us and placed us in His Body and our love for this people.
In the end, it was indeed, a ‘good’ restaurant.