It was around 10:30 am when our ambassadorial white sedan entered the Turkish embassy at 22 Prithviraj Road. My partner-in-crime was Muhamed Cengic, the Bosnian and Herzegovinian ambassador to India. He was wearing a sky blue kurta and had invited me to the Turkish breakfast event.
Upon our arrival, we entered an old ultra-white colonial building. It’s insides were filled with artefacts and fineries.
I peeped inside the hall, where two large tables were spread out with delicacies straight from Turkey, but breakfast time had not officially begun. Straight away, I was led to meet the Turkish ambassador, Fırat Sunel, who had put on a crisp white jacket for the occasion.
With him was the Georgian ambassador Archil Dzuliashvili and some senior journalists like Suhasini Haider. The seniors talked and joked around, while I quietly noticed the decor – after all, this was B.R. Ambedkar’s former residence and I had not yet spotted even one Ambedkarite artefact.
The voice of Firat Sunel broke my trance, as he announced that it was time to eat. All of us – some 15-20 people – moved to the hall. It was a hearty breakfast spread with six types of Turkish cheeses – Chechil, tongue-shaped unsalted mozzarella, Dil cheese and aged Kasseri.
But its wasn’t only a cheesy affair. There were four types of olives, along with cold cuts and a few Turkish breakfast dishes like Menemen (Turkish-style scrambled eggs with tomato), chicken sausage with tomato gravy and the Turkish version of aloo paratha.
It was 11:30 am, and I was feeling hungry. But there was still more to explore – the breakfast also had variety of jams, from rose honey jam to a version of home-made condensed milk.
Finally I started on my first serving of the cheeses. I took a piece of all the offerings listed above and added Turkish feta, Circassian smoked cheese and braided cheese to my plate. These I relished with cold cuts and Menemen. It soon became clear that the Turks could give the French a run for their money in the cheese department.
For the next round, I picked up what looked like a spinach patty, and the Turkish aloo paratha, and gulped it down with some fresh pineapple juice. With this, my meal was done, but the conversations were just beginning,
I sat with radio presenter Archana, from Mewat, on my right. She was a pleasant conversationist and a Lucknow-bred soul. On my left were three diplomats reminiscing about the old days in Georgia.
I moved next to Firat for some off-the-record-talk on Russia, NATO and the Ukraine crisis, given that Turkey is projecting to be a major interlocutor between the various parties.
But the discussion soon shifted to food. “The Turkish breakfast is considered a full meal, different from other countries where people eat fruits, dal, soup or have a light meal. Breakfast is a very important part of our culture. We have cheeses, pastries, eggs of many kinds. Olives are an inseparable part of the Turkish breakfast. We we have 45 different kind of olives,” Sunel explained.
I had to know which cheese the ambassador loved. “Aged Kasseri is my favourite. It is found in the Balkans, Turkey and the Caucasian area. It reminds me of my childhood. It’s not only the taste, but the preparation – both are very sophisticated. We have to age the cheese at least for a year to get the mild flavour,” Sunel said.
It was time to meet the chef, Erdal Agat. He was wearing a red chef coat with black trousers. His team had been working for a few days to prepare this meal. But it became clear quickly that he didn’t speak English. So I enlisted Sercan Unsal, a Turkish restaurant owner, to translate.
Thus, our three-way conversation began. “A Turkish kitchen is a no-waste kitchen. What food people throw away in other countries, we make jams, pickles and desserts out of,” Agat explained. He had travelled especially from Turkey.
Agat, a middle-aged man, and an Ertugrul fan, has been cooking since 15. “Turkish cuisine is mixture of world food, as during the Ottoman Empire, Turkey was a melting pots of cultures and kitchens. Just look at chai, it is mentioned in Ottoman cooking books along with numerous other recipes. Our cultures (Turkey and India) particularly have many commonalities,” he said.
“Most of our food names come from lived experiences. For example, the dish ‘Hünkar beğendi’ literally translates to ‘Sultan likes’, and the back story is interesting. The royal chefs were trying to please the Sultan. One day, they made a dish which the Sultan liked and thus it got its name. Our recipes come down from royal kitchen and oral traditions,” he added.
Having tasted the Turkish breakfast, it was time to bid adieu, I thanked the chef and the ambassadors, and drove away wondering about whether Ambedkar would have liked a Turkish breakfast served at his former residence.
All images have been provided by the author.