In Istanbul, Groceries for the Homesick

This piece, co-authored with Ansel Mullins, originally appeared on Culinary Backstreets.

ISTANBUL – On a recent sunny afternoon at the tiny Al Ahdab market, a wedge of light slashed through the front windows illuminating posters for condensed milk in Arabic script and one of an energy drink called Hell. The shop is easy to miss, tucked under the slope of Sarı Musa Sokak, which dips quickly from Millet Caddesi – the arterial avenue home to Istanbul’s Little Syria. By the front door was a rack of Cow Brand ghee, in large tin cans stacked like motor oil at a gas station.

Entering the shop we were met with a complex layer of scents. By the drawers along the wall a fragrant cloud of spice hung – cumin, coriander, cinnamon. Open tubs of pepper paste gave off their signature acrid smell, trumped only by the bright scent of square chunks of olive soap. The shop, the size of a large bedroom, is divided by two aisles down the middle and every upright surface is fixed with shelves sagging with goods – most of them brought into Turkey from Syria “duty free.”

View full recipe: Maqlubeh – Upside-down eggplants, chicken and rice
Maqlubeh – Upside-down eggplants, chicken and rice
The layers of vegetables, meat and rice neatly stacked, topped with raw almonds and pine nuts toasted in browned butter looks complicated, but looks can be deceiving. Maqlubeh is very simple to make and can be defined as a one-pot meal. This hearty combination of eggplants, chicken and rice cooked in broth is a perfect main dish and is often topped with a yogurt-cucumber sauce.

Serves 8

2 chicken breasts and 2 chicken thighs, or one whole chicken if you’re making the broth from scratch
3 tsp seven-spice
5 pods cardamom
5 whole cloves
5 whole peppercorns
1 cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
2 cloves garlic, minced or mashed
1 onion, quartered
4 cups broth
3 medium eggplants, or 2 large ones (See note)
2 cups medium-grain rice (“Egyptian” or basmati rice are used most often)
1 cup cucumber, small dice
2 cups yogurt
1 tsp dried crushed mint
½ cup raw pine nuts and almonds
2 tbsp butter

If you’re making your own broth with a whole chicken, follow the instructions below to include the onion, garlic and spices and cover the chicken with water. Bring to a boil and then simmer for one hour. To make a more concentrated stock, remove the chicken from the bones (it’ll come off easily) and return the bones to the liquid and continue to simmer one more hour.

If you have ready-made broth, you can poach two boneless, skinless chicken breasts and thighs. Sprinkle salt, pepper and 1 tsp all spice on the front and back of each chicken piece. Drizzle a little olive oil at the bottom of a pot and saute quartered onion on medium-high heat. Once it starts going translucent, add chicken and briefly sear each side. Add the cardamom, cloves, peppercorn, cinnamon stick, bay leaf and garlic. Cover with water so that there’s about an inch of water above the chickens. Bring to a boil, and then turn the heat down and cover. Let it simmer for 10 to 12 minutes.

While the chicken is simmering, soak two cups of rice in room temperature water and set aside. Slice the eggplants into rounds at least 1 cm thick. Lay them out on paper towels in a single layer and sprinkle a light layer of salt on each side. Set aside to let them sweat a little.

The chicken is done when a meat thermometer reads 165 F (74 C) in the thickest part and the meat inside is totally opaque.

When done, move the chicken pieces into a bowl. Remove and discard the spices and reserve the liquid by pouring it through a fine mesh-sieve into a bowl or container. Discard anything left in the sieve.

To shred the chicken, use a cake mixer on medium to medium-high speed until it’s shredded to your liking. You can also pull the chicken apart using two forks. (Or your hands!) Set aside.

Heat ¼ cup olive oil in a pan. Add the eggplants in a single layer and lightly brown on either side. The eggplants shouldn’t cook all the way through – that’ll happen in the pot with the rice and chicken. They should just get a little color. Remove to a plate or tray covered in paper towels to soak up the oil.

In a large pot, coat the bottom with a little olive oil. Place eggplant pieces side by side to cover the bottom of the pot. If you have more to make more than one layer, add a second layer of eggplants and focus on filling in any gaps that exist in the bottom layer. (When cauliflower is available, a lot of Syrian families use alternating layers of cauliflower and eggplants.)

Next, add the shredded chicken, spreading it out in an even layer.

Drain the rice into a sieve over the sink, and rinse once or twice, until the water comes out clear through the sieve. Add the rice to the pot and spread into an even layer. Sprinkle in 1 teaspoon salt and 2 teaspoons seven-spice. Turn the stove to medium-high.

Pour 4 cups broth into the pot – it should be a little visible over the rice. If you have pre-made broth, you can use a combination of the liquid reserved from poaching the chicken and the broth you already have ready (about 2 cups each).

Bring to a boil and let the liquid evaporate off the top. You’ll see little dimples form in the top of the rice. Turn the heat to low, cover the pot with a towel or paper towels and then with the top of the pot. Allow everything to steam for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, you can make the cucumber-yogurt sauce.

In a medium-sized bowl, combine 2 cups yogurt and 1 cup small-diced cucumber. Add 1 teaspoon dried cracked mint and 1 teaspoon salt and mix thoroughly. Make sure to taste and add salt, mint or yogurt as needed.

Taste-test the rice to make sure it’s done. There shouldn’t be any remaining liquid and the rice should be fully tender, but not mushy.

Next comes the hard part: take a large serving dish and place it over the pot. Make sure you have a good grip and gently flip everything over, so that the plate is on the bottom and the pot is upside down on top. Fight the urge to remove the pot immediately. Let it sit upside down for about five minutes.

Heat 2 tbsp butter in a pan and add the nuts. Gently saute until the nuts get a rich, golden color. Remove from heat.

Slowly, gently slide the pot off the rice. Ideally, everything will come out and you’ll have a beautiful tower of layered vegetables, chicken and rice. But that doesn’t always happen, and that’s okay! If you end up with a layer of eggplants stuck to the bottom of the pot, scrape them off and spread them over the top of the chicken. Then, sprinkle toasted nuts on top.

To serve, distribute into bowls and drizzle yogurt-cucumber sauce on top.

“It’s been really tough. Our business has taken a big hit,” Jihad told us. “We haven’t been able to smuggle anything in the past six months.” Due to security concerns about the flow of foreign fighters and weapons in and out of Syria, the 500-mile border Turkey shares with its neighbor to the south has been sealed shut at every entry point, blocking people and anything they could be carrying with them. “What we have in storage is all we have left of anything that needs to be brought in from Syria,” Jihad said.

“Two and a half years ago, it was so easy,” he told us. The 33-year-old father of three – soon to be four – is about 5-feet-7-inches with wrinkles, deep rivulets, carved into his forehead. When Jihad came to Istanbul in 2013, he saw firsthand how difficult it was to find the ingredients Syrians – and Arabs more generally – needed to make the food they know, to feel at home. “Even though they are neighbors, Syrian life is different from Turkish life…our spices are different, our flavors are different, our words [for the same thing] are different,” he explained. So Jihad stepped up to the challenge.

Back then he easily found a network of people across Syria and Turkey who would bring goods through. Drivers would stop at the Syrian side of the border to hand off supplies of fragrant seven-spice mix, cardamom-laced coffee, unfiltered olive oil and sheep’s milk clarified butter to a driver on the Turkish side. The goods would take the 750-mile journey by land to Istanbul, switching hands – each time in exchange for cash – at different stops along the way.

Jihad’s employee, a young guy named Molham, was part of that network. “It wasn’t cheap,” Molham explained. “You have to pay the guy at the border, the guy at each stop along the way…it all adds up.”

Between the dangers of shuttling supplies within Syria itself, navigating through regions controlled by rival factions and Turkey’s recent crackdown on entries through its borders, Jihad and his team have had to change the way they do business. “Now, almost everything we have is brought in legally or made domestically,” Jihad said, pointing to the tins of Cow Brand ghee as an example of a Syrian staple now being produced in Turkey. He said it’s better this way anyway. “If everything is legal, our shop will survive longer.”

Molokhiyya at Al Ahdab, photo by Ansel Mullins
Molokhiyya at Al Ahdab, photo by Ansel Mullins

But for some products, there is no good alternative. He pointed to the giant white sack, nearly six feet tall, tucked behind a shelf. It was filled to the brim withmolokhiyya, a dried green herb ubiquitous in Syria and other parts of the Middle East but unknown in Turkey.

“That’s from Syria,” Jihad explained. “Some farmers tried to grow molokhiyya in Gaziantep,” the major Turkish border city just 75 miles from Syria’s cultural capital of Aleppo, “but Turkish soil is different from Syrian soil. What they grew looked like molokhiyya, smelled like molokhiyya, but when it was cooked it tasted terrible.” That’s a big problem for an ingredient so crucial to Syrian households, so Jihad said he brings what he can from Syria and a different version of the dried green from Egypt.

While we sat talking to Jihad, a group of young men came up to pay for a few sacks of groceries. “Here, remember this?” Jihad said with a smile, handing them a strawberry cream-filled wafer treat from a box on the counter. The men seemed overcome with nostalgia, turning over the crinkly aluminum pack, looking at the lettering sprawled across it. “You just brought me back to first grade,” said one of the men in Arabic, through a mouthful of wafer.

That’s the linchpin of Jihad’s success: by importing the foods Syrians need to feel at home, he brings Syria to them, but even more, he brings them back to Syria. In Jihad’s shop, it smells like Syria, tastes like Syria, looks like Syria. Even as Syrian products parade under a Turkish name – a mark of their local production – Jihad translates them into what’s familiar for his customers.

Which is kind of ironic, considering Jihad never lived in Syria himself. “I was born and raised in Saudi Arabia,” he admitted. “My family left [the Syrian city of] Hama around the time of the massacres,” in 1982, when the Syrian regime cracked down on a violent Islamist uprising in the northern Syrian city. Jihad’s story isn’t unique – Hama practically emptied as Syrian military tanks rolled through the city.

Jihad’s parents settled in Saudi Arabia, and soon after he was born. His dad started a family business in marble and tiling, which Jihad took over when his dad retired a few years ago. “But after the war began and Syrians started trying to settle in Saudi Arabia, the country started kicking Syrians out,” he explained. Like most countries in the world, Saudi Arabia doesn’t give citizenship as a birthright. Jihad only carries a Syrian passport. “I didn’t want to be kicked out with my wife and kids, so I closed the business and moved to Turkey on my own terms,” he said. “Turkey is the only country taking in Syrians,” Molham added. “I tried the UAE, Jordan, anywhere I had family – no one will accept us.”

“[Saudi Arabia] let us in, took all the meat off us and tossed us out as bones,” Jihad said. “But thank God, there is no door without a key. There is no puzzle that can’t be solved, and we are doing well now.”

Out in the afternoon light, there was no mistaking the impact that Syrian entrepreneurs like Jihad have had on the district. In the space of one block we spotted a Syrian barbershop, Sham Salon, an Aleppo-style kebab house and even a shop for Turkey’s leading mobile provider, Turkcell, with an LED advertisement running in Arabic. As Syrian as this area may seem at points, it is not an isolated ghetto. Trams, metros and minibuses shuttle millions of Istanbul locals through here every day. A commercial hub, home to major hospitals and state bureaucracies of all sorts, everyone in Istanbul has some business in Aksaray.

On our way out of Al Ahdab, we observed a Turkish woman doing some shopping, studying products. Molham, who also speaks some Turkish, helped her with some questions. When he opened up a box of emerald green soap she leaned in for a sniff and quickly added two to her other purchases.

Cheese at Al Ahdab, photo by Ansel Mullins
Cheese at Al Ahdab, photo by Ansel Mullins
“We have been getting more and more Turkish customers. They’re becoming interested in our food,” Jihad said. “We made maqlubeh for our landlord once.” The dish, whose name means “upside down” in Arabic, consists of fried eggplant and cauliflower, poached chicken and rice layered into the same pot and flipped over. “Now we have to make it for him every week! He loves it!” Jihad laughed. Molham’s neighbors now come for dinner a few times a week. “They love my wife’s cooking,” he said excitedly.

This is a story Istanbul knows all too well. The past century has seen wave after wave of communities seeking refuge in the city – from White Russians fleeing the 1917 revolution to Bosnians forced out by the 1991 break up of Yugoslavia and Kurds seeking shelter from the violence of 1980s and 90s in southeastern Turkey. All of these people brought to Istanbul their food, which then became part of the culinary heritage of the city. It probably won’t be immediate, but as surely as hot red pepper flakes from southeast Turkey’s Urfa are now on most restaurant tables in Istanbul, so too will Syria’s seven-spice mix be incorporated into the city’s kitchen staples. When that happens, we’ll have Jihad and his network of smugglers to thank for that.