I met Melek under the saddest but also most meaningful circumstances – almost a year ago, at a funeral of a mutual friend, Mehmet Aksoy. For a really long time, Mehmet has been trying to put us in touch as he knew that we’d get along really well, for various reasons, not least because of our shared love of food. And so we have; in loosing a friend, I gained a new one. It’s been beyond special to work with Melek on a charity edition of KinoVino x Cook for Syria hosted in memory of Mehmet. While Melek has already occupied a special place in my heart thanks to her warm personality, her incredible food, which I got to taste on the night, made me fall in love with this lady even more!
So I am really excited to share Melek’s interview here, not only because she is a very talented chef and writer, but also because her story, as well as the story of Kurdish (food) culture, needs to be told.
What inspired you to start cooking?
I don’t remember this being a decision. It was such an ingrained part of who we are and how we express ourselves. All of my earliest memories are to do with food – I remember very little about life in Istanbul but the pockets of moments in time I do remember all involve food.
I remember the bread and yoghurt I was fed at my grandads funeral to comfort me. I remember the olive tapenade mum gave me when she would take me to a cleaning job at a wealthy family’s home…I remember the homemade candy she would make me out of sugar, rosewater and lemon. I remember the first time we moved to London and I was curious to open the jar of English mustard…only to be traumatized by the pain in my nostrils…I detested mustard for a very long time…until I loved it.
Cooking was the way I got to spend time with my mum, it was the reason we would gather with family and friends, it was what dad did for work. It defined us in so many ways.
It quickly became my way of connecting and making friends. After school my friends would come over on the way home to have one of my sandwiches…they were a bit mega. When I got older my place was always the place to come and eat.
It was not you see, a conscious decision for a career…I studied history at university and was set to be a lawyer…but the opportunity came to have a space…to make a place where the community could come and eat…so I finished university and found myself with a café.
I went the reverse way…when I looked up and saw I had a café…I realized that this would be what I would do…and everything else would spring from this.
How/where did you learn to cook?
Self taught; from mums, aunties, grandmothers…and from dad. From practice…from tasting…from exploring. If you want to cook …everything is your learning ground. Not one chef or school can be the master of all cuisine or cooking…so make friends, speak to strangers, travel…be a humble student and be inquisitive.
Describe a typical meal in a Kurdish household
A typical meal involves bread, butter, yoghurt, and grains…everything else is built around this…and a shepherd salad! – tomato, onions, peppers, parsley, cucumber…olive oil and lemon juice very liberally!
What is the role of food in the Kurdish culture?
Food is everything, Alissa. (heart emoji / world emoji / baguette emoji)
For a people who are the largest ethnic minority without a country of their own…dispersed across the middle east and Europe…a nomadic rural people who were thrust into the urban cities…no ingrained written culture…no official records…how have we survived? How have we thrived with such a strong sense of our identity?
We have embraced oral storytelling…through songs, through mythologizing our recent past, through poignant celebration, through dance, through our limerick, ….and our food.
With the absence of official records and script…we use all other senses for testimony. Some foods have myths and stories around them…others or done for feeling or occasions. Your versions of recipes change with region and dialect…but there is joy in this contention…a battleground of connection and laughs.
Food is survival. Our ceremonies and rituals that are brought to life with food, form the fabric our communities and are a way for us to stay connected with each other. It is also the way we have introduced ourselves and been initiated into the communities we have entered. Finally, the food industry has been our way to survive first moving to cities. Most Kurds know how to cook…and so it was the only thing we knew to do in new cities where other opportunities were not afforded to us. So next time you go and get a kebab…ask said kebab man what he did before…you might find an interesting story.
What is the quintessential Kurdish flavour?
Flat bread (‘Lavash’) – bread must come with everything – otherwise how you will you know you’ve eaten?
Sun-dried tomato paste goes in to the base of a lot of foods.
Yoghurt, yoghurt yoghurt! – it is an accompaniment to most dishes
Garlic, burnt butter, lemon and grains…things that are hearty and rustic…things that can sustain you for hard labour!
Kurds also love a breakfast spread any time of day for any meal- the kurds are famous for their breakfast spreads…we usually eat on the floor with a colourful water resistant cloth. We jewel with small dishes of fresh things. And cracked egg of some sort and fresh bread as the main feature. Always served with a concentrated potent tea.
Your favourite place to eat
I have so many – but my second home is Song Que on Kingsland Road.
Hands down the best Vietnamese in London.
Its family run. The family are the sweetest, most joyous and hard working. The parents practice ballroom dance in the stock room downstairs in their spare time.
Their daughter Sharlene practically runs the place and her fiancé and brother are also part of the team. Staf bring their babies and families and they all eat together.
The Rare beef pho is my favourite. So fragrant and delicate in flavor. Not oily…a warm hug in a bowl.
I love that it has a canteen feel… I love informal dining…it reminds me of my travels in Vietnam and has practically been a second home to me the past few years.
Your three key ingredients
Lemons Parsley and Mint : ) and everyone knows it.
I was in Nepal staying with my dear friend Bishal who owns a lovely Café – Café Soma in Kathmandu – Bishal made the kids call me Aunty Lemon. Because apparently I always say “d’you know what this needs…some lemon!”
Describe your typical cooking ritual (when you are alone in your kitchen cooking for pleasure)
I love making a one pot dish. It would usually involve me braising some chicken or fish, adding a grain, some veg (whatever I have) and stock. And eating this in a bowl topped with some pickled beetroot and fresh mint yoghurt.
Who is your culinary inspiration?
I loved Anthony Bourdain and was so devastated when he passed. He understood that connection with food and the people who make it. He knew how to get into the fabric of a community.
I love Jamie Oliver because he made food accessible and his passion was infectious…he made great food and made us believe we could make it too.
My mum and dad…dad would come home late from work and would wake me up so we could eat together. Some boiled eggs with Aleppo chilli, tomatoes, peppers and bread and yoghurt. He didn’t like eating alone…This stayed with me…along with his ability to connect with people and never make language a barrier.
Tell us a bit about the recipe you are going to share.
I am going to share a filo recipe that is both humble and grand…what food should be. Its simple but a bit mesmerizing. I love when simple ingredients can make a magic dish.
You can use shredded and off cuts of filo pastry that you have set aside.
My Orange Filo Syrup Cake with Cardamom Cream & Toasted Pistachios
- 400g caster sugar
- 350ml water
- 1 orange, juiced
- 1 tspn ground cinnamon
- 500g filo pastry
- 3 oranges
- 5 eggs
- 200g Greek yoghurt
- 180ml olive oil
- 100g granulated sugar
- 1 tbspn baking powder
- 1 tsp ground cardamom
- 1 tsp vanilla pod or paste
- 2 tsp soft dark brown sugar (1 tsp if using vanilla paste)
- 1 500ml tub double cream
- Toasted and crushed pistachios
- First make the syrup to set aside to cool. Combine all syrup ingredients, including the two orange halves, in a small saucepan. Bring to the boil and boil for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool whilst you make the cake.
- Whisk all the ingredients of the cream together until thickened in texture and refridgerate.
- Preheat the oven to 180 C / Gas 4. Lightly rub a baking tin with olive oil.
- Roughly tear into filo into shreds, into the baking tin, and leave to dry a little while you prepare the remaining ingredients.
- Cut one orange in half, and slice that half into thin half-moons to place ontop of the cake mix the cake. Zest and juice the remaining oranges.
- Combine the rest of the cake ingredients including orange juice and zest intoa blender or food processor. Blend together for a few minutes until the mixture is frothy.
- Pour the mixture over the filo. Stir together gently and make sure it is thoroughly mized. Arrange the sliced oranges on top of the cake.
- Bake for 45 minutes, or until the top is golden and the filling set. Once out of the oven, immediately pour the cooled syrup over the hot cake. Set aside for at least 1 hour, till most of the syrup has soaked in.
- You can then place in the fridge to cool even more or serve warm.
- Serve a slice with a scoop of the cream and top with the pistachios and an extra drizzle of the syrup from the base of the tin.
When pouring the syrup over the cake, ensure you pour cool syrup over the hot cake (not hot syrup over hot cake). This will ensure it is fully absorbed. Use a ladle and pour over slowly to ensure absorbtion.