We found ourselves on Kadife Sokak (nicknamed Barlar Sokak or “bar street”) in the Caferağa Mahallesi neighborhood of Kadıköy in Asia. At some point in life you should too. Restaurants, bars and clubs with plenty of character line both sides of the bustling street. Nightlife rages until Istanbul’s bedtime. There’s retro and there’s rock. There are Ottoman mansions converted into lounges and despicable dives, afterhours dumping grounds for the sleepless and the wretched. And there’s plenty of hawks to feed them. Midye carts await waves of the desperate, hungry young. Islaks grin gruesomely from their sweaty, steamy bath. They wink. “You know you want meeeeee,” they whine. They’re come-hither vixens in wet burger guise.
I came for one thing though, a dish I knew I’d find under these circumstances and perhaps only under these circumstance. Only late-night, only in Turkey. I came for kokoreç.
In most places kokoreç is prepared by wrapping lamb intestines over skewered sweetbreads and other innards and rotating the log of offal over screaming hot charcoal. It’s believed to be of Albanian origin, first invented by the Albanian Turks who worked in large numbers at slaughterhouses of Istanbul in the 60’s and 70’s. It was traditionally prepared in May, when lambs were slaughtered and fresh offal was readily available as a cast-away by-product. The snack was sold in whole rolls from carts outside slaughterhouses with slices of bread on the side. Back then the process of cleaning and wrapping the intestines was a respected art form. The man who did it well was the highly praised usta. Folks only brought from the most trusted of usta’s; after all, a carelessly cleaned lamb intestine can be dangerous to eat. Since then the dish has become industrialized and very few usta’s wrap their own.
The guy making ours didn’t really seem ripe with experience about anything; I highly doubt he was a master kokoreç usta. But he slapped me together a pretty tasty sandwich and did so with careful attention to his chop. When kokoreç is on a spit, it’s pulled off when ready and chopped into bits, intestines and all. It’s spread into a quarter (ceyrek) or half (yarim) loaf of ekmek, the everyday sandwich bread also used for balik, and topped with red pepper flakes, oregano and hot paprika.
In other places kokoreç appears as a mound of offal, including intestines already chopped in. It sizzles and spits on a griddle and is kept warm until someone orders it. In this case it’s also piled into a soft loaf of bread and topped with salt and seasonings to balance the musk. Sometimes chopped tomatoes and peppers are added. I saw both types of kokoreç on both Asian and European sides and they were almost exclusively hawked on the street rather than being sold at restaurants during the day. At night fast food joints specializing in the stuff seemed to appear out of thin air. My companion and I got ours at Reks Büfe & Kokoreç on Kadife Sokak. We got it after quite a few glasses of rakı and beer and gin, after sharing quite a few stories of our battered pasts.
Each bite is a sinful melange of textures: crispy grilled intestines, butter-soft sweetbreads, silken smooth fat melting against chewy toasted bread. The rough dice leaves the offal the perfect shape and size, small enough to melt into one consistent filling but large enough to require the eater to chew. Doing so reveals the mild mineral flavors hidden in the meat and these balance perfectly with the bright, herby seasoning. I tasted plenty of thyme and oregano, felt the heat of pepper flakes and even detected a dose of mint. My companion wasn’t too thrilled when I told him what kokoreç was made of, but when he saw the rainbow of herbs mixed in he emboldened himself to try a bite and wasn’t in the least turned off by any offal quality. Indeed, very little remained.
He himself tipsily pointed at a picture of an elaborately built hotdog christened Artist Sandviç. This contained the sosis dog, it’s bun, turşu (which is pickle sliced lengthwise, not relish) and something that looked like mayonnaise and was cleverly called Amerikan salatası (“American salad”). The latter is actually a mayonnaise based potato salad with peas, diced carrots and diced pickles. It looked more like a Russian olivier to me. Actually it just looked like a flubby pile of mayonnaise. Either way it looked pretty repulsive, but for a late night snack it seemed exactly what my companion had hoped to find.
As we sat tearing away at our latenight snacks, we noticed that one table over a group of friends were downing copper mugs of white foam. I stared quite hard, visibly intrigued and neglecting all tableside etiquette. “Is it yogurt?” I asked my companion. “Must be,” he nodded, withdrawn and with his mouth full of sosis and mayonnaise. At one point one of our neighbors got up and came over to explain. It’s called Susurluk ayran and is made from fresh yogurt, water and salt. The chilled yogurt is pumped over itself, creating a wonderfully frothy and delicate foam that is levelled over the top of the cup. It’s a wonderfully creamy, smooth and savory drink to clean the liver after a long night out.