The Two Mehmets

It is a noteworthy thing when, having gone your entire life never meeting anyone named “Mehmet,” you meet two at the same time. Of course, it is less remarkable if you are in Turkey — as we were — were every third guy is named “Mehmet.” (The Turkish version of “Mohammed.”)

Cats in the Grand Bazaar

Cats in the Grand Bazaar

It was more than a decade ago, in the seaside town of Kusadasi, to be precise. Our honeymoon — a friend with a cruise line that I did a lot of work with had arranged the gift of a voyage through Italy, Croatia, the Greek Isles and Turkey. On a day in port, we had gone to see the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Ephesus, and were en route back to our ship when we stopped in a bar for a beer and a bite to eat.

It was a narrow alley of the type they only have in that part of the world, where you must navigate through stalls selling carpets, ouds and sazs, glass lanterns (with genies inside, perhaps), and the vendors who are very insistent that you need each of these things. Business was slow at the bar, and the two Mehmets were in a festive mood. They motioned us cheerfully in, and we spent the better part of the next four hours sitting there, drinking beer and eating snacks, and hearing all about their friendship and their lives, watching them play practical jokes on one another. They were very interested in California, so we shared about our lives. We left as the day faded, hugging our new friends and exchanging email addresses with promises (unkept) to keep in touch.

Foraging for wild figs at Ephesus

Foraging for wild figs at Ephesus

That was late August, 2001. Our introduction to the Islamic world — ironically, just a couple weeks before we would be stranded in Nova Scotia trying to get home from Paris on a flight through D.C. the morning of September 11 — had been wonderfully warm, enriching and exciting.

During our brief time in Turkey — the day in Kusadasi with the two Mehmets and a couple days in Istanbul — we ate many good meals, and gained an appreciation for Turkish cooking. I’ve often said that everything edible on the Mediterranean between Greece and Morocco is simply a variation on a theme — parsley salads, skewered and grilled meats, eggplant and hummus, etc. But this is an oversimplification. And there was a definite personality to the food we experienced in Turkey.

Swarthy Turk preparing our lunch

Swarthy Turk preparing our lunch

It was not in Kusadasi but elsewhere — in a quiet little alleyway eatery in the center of the famously bustling Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, in fact — that we ate what would be my favorite dish we had there. I don’t know what the dish was called — I pointed at it, and was served. It consisted of long cooked eggplant flavored with tomato and a red pepper of some kind, a more exotic eastern ratatouille of sorts. It came with slices of french baguette. While we ate, two feral kittens hopped in and out of the shadows, surprising one another.

I have made the dish several times in the intervening years — sometimes as part of a Turkish meal, sometimes just a huge batch to keep in the fridge and snack on. I’m still not sure what it’s called, although a bit of web research led me to “şakşuka”, a meze (appetizer) that seemed close to what I remember. (Say it with me: shahk-SHOO-kah) The recipe below is my version, as I remember it from the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.

Lunch in the Grand Bazaar

Lunch in the Grand Bazaar

Meanwhile, back in Kusadasi… Here’s to our friends, the two Mehmets, wherever they may be now.

*    *    *

Şakşuka
serves 4 – 8

1 large eggplant, cut into cubes
1 onion, chopped
4 large cloves garlic, crushed
2 ripe tomatoes, chopped
1 large medium hot red pepper, seeds and veins removed, cut into strips
1 cup olive oil
1/2 tsp. saffron
salt & pepper to taste

In a large pan or skillet, heat 1/2 cup olive oil over medium heat. Add eggplant, onion and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until they begin to become golden — 5 to 10 minutes. Add tomatoes and pepper, cover and cook for 30 minutes until vegetables begin to break down. Remove cover and continue cooking for 15 more minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add 1/2 cup more olive oil and saffron and stir. Adjust seasoning to taste with salt and pepper. Cook 5 more minutes and remove from heat.

Serve warm or at room temperature with a baguette or loaf of Turkish bread for dipping/scooping.

The harem room at Topkapi Palace, Istanbul (I'm just saying…)

The harem room at Topkapi Palace, Istanbul (I’m just sayin…)

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17 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. rachelocal
    Jan 17, 2014 @ 18:29:08

    What an interesting honeymoon! I love the photo of the man in the paper hat.

    Eggplant is my new thing – I love it roasted in the oven with garlic, olive oil, and red pepper flakes. I’ll definitely give this a try – eggplant cooked that long with tomatoes can’t be a bad thing.

    Reply

    • scolgin
      Jan 17, 2014 @ 18:35:46

      Yeah, that paper hat guy is the classic looking Turk.

      Make sure you’ve got a nice baguette to scoop up your sak.. whatever it’s called.

      Reply

  2. Andrea Cleall
    Jan 17, 2014 @ 18:37:58

    fun reading,, I dreamt my house was full of Colgin kids when I woke up.

    Reply

  3. M. R.
    Jan 17, 2014 @ 18:59:43

    Shakshouka exists in varying forms throughout the eastern part of Europe: I cook one version for myself quite often as it contains an egg, and that’s my (vego) protein for the meal. Your Turkish version looks utterly yummy, and I shall cook it, regardless of absence of egg! And especially as you do not insist that I use saffron threads. You cannot imagine what these cost in Oz! :-\

    Reply

    • scolgin
      Jan 17, 2014 @ 19:02:00

      The saffron threads add a luxurious yumminess. But I would never insist. 🙂 AND you can even add an egg if you want! (And then it’ll probably taste exactly like whatever version you normally make anyway!)

      Reply

      • M. R.
        Jan 17, 2014 @ 19:04:20

        You reckon? – but the way her version is cooked is quite different: much longer, to start with. Ah am gonna try! – and sans egg! I like to live differently …

      • scolgin
        Jan 17, 2014 @ 19:07:18

        See if your neighbor will loan you a few saffron threads. Or I’ll pack them in with the pumpkin.

      • M. R.
        Jan 17, 2014 @ 19:14:34

        You just keep talking about that pumpkin. I don’t think you’re going to post it at all. [sob!]

  4. Jessamine in PDX
    Jan 18, 2014 @ 08:37:30

    Love the pics — sounds like a great and delicious adventure! You know I like eating eggplant when other people cook it. Somehow I just never get the texture right — unless it’s being pureed, of course. But this is enticing me to give it another shot!

    Reply

  5. dawne3309
    Jan 18, 2014 @ 11:13:19

    That cat looks cute, i wish i had a cat like that.

    Reply

  6. linnetmoss
    Jan 18, 2014 @ 13:48:55

    Cats and meze and ancient ruins. About as good as it gets ; )

    Reply

  7. Michelle
    Jan 19, 2014 @ 02:20:33

    Great pics. I don’t know anyone who’s been to Turkey that doesn’t rave about it.

    Reply

  8. apriljulianne
    Jan 21, 2014 @ 03:14:43

    Great post Sean & love the photo of you and Leslie! That harem room looks mighty uncomfortable…

    Reply

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