Evening Standard August 2015
John Gregory-Smith was in love with Turkish food even before he met Murat, his Turkish partner, while standing at the bar of the the Rivington in Shoreditch. His affair with the country started out with holidays there with his father, and is now a long-term relationship — both with “M” and the cuisine.
Next month, he brings out a new cookbook, Turkish Delights, celebrating regional recipes from the Bosphorus to the Black Sea and, inspired by the old Meyhane culture, involving copious amounts of raki, mezze, fish and meat, he will be cooking up a Turkish banquet at Marylebone pop-up Carousel.
It is well-timed, for while Turkish-style eggs have been popping up on London brunch menus in recent years, now more food from the country has begun to hit the spotlight. Any respectable London foodie knows about Alan Yau’s plans to turn the pide — like a Turkish pizza — into the city’s new Thai green curry, after having opened his Babaji restaurant on Shaftesbury Avenue earlier this year.
Consider too the excitement currently surrounding up-and-coming chef Selin Kiazim, who will open her new Turkish-Cypriot inspired restaurant Oklava in Shoreditch next month, while earlier this month Tom Gibson of Ruby’s cocktail bar and Ben Denner of Lucky Chip burgers invited friends to their one-day kebab feast Abra Kebabra.
On a similar theme there is also Chifafa Café in Clerkenwell, recently opened by Nick Green, while Josh Katz took inspiration for his Haggerston grill house Berber & Q from the Middle East and North Africa. Finally, anyone who has tried a hearty lahmacun with mint yoghurt and tender chilli-marinated lamb made by Ryan Chong — aka The Great Stone Baker — will understand their popularity.
“Andy Harris and Rebecca Seal have done gorgeous Turkish recipe books but they are the more classic dishes,” explains Gregory-Smith, 34, who grew up in what he calls “the Kew mafia” incorporating his parents, brother, sister and endless cousins who lived in the area. “I wanted to avoid those and look at much more regional and home cookery because it’s so much softer and often easier. Food and booze — that’s what we did really well. I learned to cook because it meant that I wouldn’t be elbowed out of the way by my bigger cousins.”
Ten years ago he set up his own food company, Mighty Spice, selling Thai, Indian and Chinese sauces to Sainsbury’s, before moving to full-time food writing in 2009. While he now runs his own website, Eat Travel Live, which offers recipes, restaurant reviews and luxury travel ideas, it’s his Turkish adventures with Murat that clearly thrill him, and have provided inspiration for his book. During the interview we pore over pages of luscious peppery and ricotta-filled parcels known as borek; chicken and artichoke pide, delectable-looking cheesy beef balls or kofte, and — my two favourites — minced lamb and smoked aubergine, and black-olive-encrusted pulled lamb.
“We first visited M’s parents in Samsun on the Black Sea where this is a really strong food culture. It’s where pide is from, and where hamsi — anchovies — are a big thing. I found the people there were similar to us in the sense of there being food and family. It was bonkers. We’d have mince menemen for breakfast, with fatty lamb meat and whole eggs. And they’d eat baklava as a snack even at breakfast. There was this woman there who would make lamb stirred for four hours until it would go gloopy and sweet and we’d have it pulled with pilau. So Granny’s Pilau in the book is inspired by that.”
On another excursion he and M drove in Anatolia along the coast. “Just bouncing around. We had no plans whatsoever, and we just stopped along the way and people would tell us where to go next based on the food they thought we should try. It was amazing.”
Back in London, Gregory-Smith and M eat out at Tas Firin on Bethnal Green Road “for lahmacun and mezze. It’s easier to eat mezze out and kebab as we have no outside space. But at home it’s all rices and stews.”
Indeed, the basis of Gregory-Smith’s Turkish cooking is made up of onions, garlic, parsley, lemon, mint and dill, plus lamb and vegetables. It is relatively easy to get more specialised ingredients in east London.
“There are things in the book, such as Turkish pepper flakes, which are hard to get. They’re like mild, smokey chilli flakes. The Turkish green peppers are unpalatable here, but there they taste great. They also use a red-pepper paste, which is sold in jars like tomato purée.”
Meanwhile, friends who have been to the couple’s flat for dinner say they were “hugely impressed with John’s cooking. He made us the most amazing pulled lamb and smoked aubergine labneh. He is great.”