Saturday, May 2, 2015

Safranbolu Turkish Restaurant, and Shared Culture

Safranbolu Turkish Restaurant
#60 Nanjing E. Road Sec 2
(corner of Nanjing and Jilin Roads)
Zhongshan District, Taipei Taiwan

Pictures on this will come later, as I only had my phone with me and haven't uploaded the photos yet.

Anyway, I was quite excited to hear about Safranbolu, which as far as I know is the only Turkish restaurant currently operating in Taipei. Middle Eastern food exists, but until now, I couldn't find Turkish. As someone of Armenian descent - Armenian from Turkey - this is like a godsend to me.

The atmosphere is quite good - well lit (perhaps a little too brightly lit for a romantic dinner, but not overly dim as a lot of restaurants are), with the sort of lanterns one might find in the Istanbul Grand Bazaar hanging from the ceiling, Turkish coffee sets and evil eye charms for sale and Turkish music piped in.

We got hummus, ezme (a finely chopped salad of tomato, bell pepper, parsley, lemon juice, walnuts and pomegranate molasses), ayran (a savory Turkish yoghurt drink), lahmacun and Iskender kebab (my favorite kebab), Turkish coffee and two desserts (a custard and a rice pudding).

The food came quickly which we appreciated, and the ezme was perfect - exactly like I used to eat in Turkey after long days on the CELTA course - I would put it on thick slices of Turkish bread spread with soft cheese and eat it with a bowl of olives and local wine (Ancyra Okuzgozu), occasionally with some kofte. The hummus was chunkier and grainier than I prefer - I think this might be a regional difference. My ancestors' homeland is in the deep south of Turkey, near Antakya (Antioch) and the Syrian border. Around there they make their hummus silky smooth, doused in olive oil, garnished with parsley, cumin and cayenne pepper and served with bread, tomato slices and pickled vegetables (usually turnips or beets). When we had hummus in Patara, a little further west, it was chunky with nearly whole chickpeas and didn't have the same seasonings. This hummus was more like what we had in Patara. It was fine - though I still haven't found anyone in Taipei who makes hummus the way I like it - although we were a bit annoyed that the bread took awhile to arrive and was not very substantial. The bread was, however, good. I hope that they can sort out this service snafu and remember that bread comes at the same time as the hummus, and should be adequate to eat all of the hummus on the plate.

The lahmacun was excellent - the bread was not as thin as you can get it in Turkey but they got the flavors just right. My only comment here is that in Turkey lahmacun usually comes with a lightly dressed side salad of onion, tomato, possibly lettuce, cilantro or cucumber and you wrap the salad in with the lahmacun, and no salad was provided. On the other hand, I feel I should not be quite so picky: there is nowhere else in all of Taiwan to get decent lahmacun.

Iskender kebab is from the city of Iskenderiya just north of Antakya - it's the closest "regional kebab" to Musa Dagh, where my ancestors are from. While my family has apparently had a long-running feud with the Iskenderians, an Armenian family most likely from Iskenderiya (I don't really subscribe to the "old family feud" school of thought though), Iskender kebab remains my favorite. It's thin slices of grilled meat over chopped flatbread, doused in tomato sauce and served with yoghurt and rice. This Iskender kebab was pretty good, though it doesn't hold a candle to the huge heap of perfectly cooked lamb I had at a Turkish restaurant in New York not to mention the delicious Iskender kebab I had in Sanliurfa or Antakya. But, it was pretty good...I guess I just wish lamb had been an option (they only had chicken or beef).

The ayran was served in Moscow mule mugs, which I liked, and tasted basically like ayran, so yay!

All in all though I would say they hit the mark on all the flavor combinations - the tastes were all just like we had in Turkey - the other issues are just small kinks to work out.

The desserts were quite good - both fairly Turkish and tasty. We had them with Turkish coffee, which came in lovely cups with Iznik tile designs on them (not real, of course) and a pistachio Turkish delight. They don't do different sugar levels though - you can't say you want your coffee sweet or not. But, the way it's made, it's basically perfect so I'm not complaining.

Prices were not cheap, but then for good foreign food in Taipei you will usually pay a premium. The lahmacun (which is a light meal) was about 260NT, the Iskender kebab topped out in the 400s and the appetizers were about 60-90NT each. For the two of us - coffee, appetizers, ayran, meals, dessert - we paid about NT1800.

Oh, no alcohol on the menu. That's one major downside.

Before I finish this, I'd like to add something on a personal note. As an Armenian whose ancestors lived in Turkey before the genocide (the 100th anniversary of which just passed), it's kind of weird for me to eat Turkish food, because that's OUR food. The food of my family. The food of my ancestors. It's integral to our culture as Armenians...but that food is Turkish. But, it's also Armenian. I want to claim it as my cultural heritage, but I do not want to claim Turkish as my heritage, as I am not Turkish, I am Armenian by ancestry. It comes across as - this is our food! So, you're Turkish? No, we're Armenian. But this is our food too. But it's Turkish food. It's also Armenian. Armenian from Turkey? Well, yes, but food in Armenia proper isn't that different. So if they lived in Turkey, weren't they technically also Turkish? Not under the Ottoman Empire they weren't - there were Turks and then there were millets, or ethnic minorities under Ottoman control.

But a lot of the words of Western Armenian (the Armenian variant spoken by Armenians in Turkey) are Turkish borrowings, the food is the same, the culture is essentially the same, the tea and the games are the same, but we're not exactly the same. So on one hand I'm claiming my own heritage, on the other, I feel like I'm claiming one that is not entirely mine. Or, by claiming it, people make assumptions about my heritage that are not true.

All this to say, I understand how a lot of Taiwanese feel, wanting to claim aspects of Chinese culture that are also Taiwanese, that the two groups share (with the added aspect that they are ethnically the same), but wanting to remain culturally distinct. Wanting to say, yes, this is our heritage, we have this too - but we are not "Chinese", or, in the ways that we are, that is not the same as being from China. We share cultural touchstones, but we are distinct, and having that claiming of cultural heritage confused by the world at large for identifying as "Chinese".
I mean, I can never fully "get it", but I get it well enough, I think.


joanh said...

Hey Jenna, passed by this restaurant today and glad you posted a write up... And so interesting about the history of Turkey and Armenia and your personal history. I guess it is similar to the complicated relationship and identity between Taiwan and China.

Dudemaster said...

It is also similar to the relationship between Ireland and the UK. Once part of the UK, many similarities in food and language, but culturally distinct.