Van, in eastern Turkey, is known for its lake (the country’s biggest), its ancient citadel (popularly known as the Rock of Van), and the Van cat, a rare water-loving breed with long white fur and one green and one blue eye. The city’s other claim to fame: its breakfast club, possibly the world’s largest. Every one of Van’s more than 1,000,000 mostly Kurdish residents is a card-carrying member.
As Philadelphia is to cheesesteak so Van is to kahvalti, or breakfast. The city is dotted with single-purpose kahvalti salonu (breakfast “salons”), and its downtown boasts a “Kahvalti Caddesi” (Breakfast Street) where, in accommodating weather, patrons hover over impressive spreads at outdoor tables. Eaten in, taken out or delivered to one’s door, Van kahvalti is an anytime-of-day meal. The only rule is that it be hearty.
“We do like our breakfast,” acknowledged 19-year-old Vanli (Van native, as they are known) Erhan Caliskan, preparing to tuck in one morning at Sura Kahvalti Salonu, a neat and tidy working man’s breakfast salon several blocks from Breakfast Street.
Like most kahvalti salonu, Sura beckons with its window display: bins of glistening olives, slabs of honeycomb half submerged in amber stickiness, blocks of cheese, bowls filled with clouds of airy churned butter and plates stacked with delicate sheets of fresh kaymak, Turkish-style clotted cream made by skimming the fat that rises to the top of vats of boiling milk (sheep’s milk is used in Van). Sura’s owner Erdem Solbas takes orders and assembles the kahvalti’s cold portion up front. Hot dishes are prepared in a kitchen at the back, and pide (flatbreads) and ekmek (crusty loaves) are brought in from a nearby bakery to order, so they always arrive at the table warm.
Caliskan shared a table with four friends, including this writer and her husband. The kahvalti laid before us was breathtaking in its hugeness. There were plates of sliced cucumber and tomato, green and black olives, hard-boiled eggs, butter, cheeses, honey still on the comb, cacik (thick yogurt mixed with parsley), kaymak sprinkled with pulverized walnuts, kavut (nutty porridge made with toasted ground wheat, butter, milk and sugar), and pide. Solbas offered hot tea and Caliskan poured peach juice from a carton purchased at a nearby store.
While demonstrating the correct way to “season” one’s cacik (by mashing it with plenty of butter), Caliskan’s friend Muhammad Behesti observed that, were we hungrier, we might bulk up our Van kahvalti with a spread made of tahini mixed with pekmez (grape “molasses”) and perhaps an egg dish such as murtuga (eggs scrambled with butter and flour) or menemen (tomatoes cooked with peppers and eggs).
Assemble Your Own Van Kahvalti
To drink: Plenty of red tea (Sri Lankan tea is often the tea of choice in Turkey) and, if you like, fruit juice.
Bread: A crusty white loaf or fresh pide (not "pita") or flatbread. Hot naan works well too.
Cheese: Otlu peyniri (or any fresh Turkish cheeses, for that matter) is unavailable in the U.S. But a selection of cheeses along these lines -- a creamy not-too-salty feta, goat's milk curds, a dry salty string-type cheese, a young gruyere, a soft mild and very rich cheese such as teleme would suffice.
Kaymak: This is spread on bread, sometimes with honey. In her book "The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean," Paula Wolfert suggests a kaymak substitute: equal measures mascarpone cheese and heavy cream. The result is authentically over the top. Sprinkle with pulverized walnuts if you wish.
Honey: The best you can find, preferably on the comb.
Cacik: Drain a cup of full-fat yogurt in a cheesecloth-lined sieve placed over a bowl overnight in the fridge. Roughly chop 2 tablespoons of parsley and stir into the cacik with a half garlic clove smashed with coarse salt before serving.
Butter: To spread on bread or mash into cacik. Consider making your own
Olives: Oil-cured black olives are the most common, sometimes big fruity green olives are served as well. No "flavored" olives.
Cucumbers and tomato: sliced and arranged on a plate.
Hard-boiled eggs: warm or room temperature.
Tahini and pekmez: This is dipped up with bread. Start with ½ cup tahini and add pekmez ½ tablespoon at a time to taste. The result should be nutty sweetness balanced by a not-too-sharp tartness.
Kavut: This should be served hot. It can be eaten as a porridge or dipped up with bread. Toast ½ cup stoneground wheat flour (the more coarse the better) over medium-low heat in a pan, stirring constantly, until it begins to darken and smell nutty (about 5 to 7 minutes). Remove the pan from the heat and stir in 2 cups milk and several pinches of salt. You should end up with a thin paste; add more milk or water to achieve the proper texture. Stir in honey (off the comb) to sweeten to taste, or just pour the honey over the top.
A few blocks from Sura Kahvalti Salonu is Nar Besin Pazari, a covered market whose main entrance is lined with shops selling cheeses, butter, yogurt, kaymak and honey brought in daily from villages outside the city. The air is damp and not unpleasantly tangy from the vapors rising from buckets of cokelik peyniri (curd cheese) and orgu peyniri (braided cheese) clustered around store entrances. Customers mill about sniffing and pinching tastes in front of display windows advertising “products from high pastures,” a reference to the vast stretches of rolling green that surround Van and its lake and are grazed by roaming herds of sheep.
Van’s most iconic cheese is otlu peyniri, a firm and somewhat spongy off-white salty cheese that is extravagantly flavored with otlar (wild herbs) gathered in the spring from the slopes of nearby mountains. Before being added to the cheese, the herbs, which include the familiar (wild fennel, garlic shoots, thyme and mint) and the esoteric (“Mustafa’s flower”), are soaked for at least a week in a salt brine. Alongside their cheeses, butter and tins of honeycomb Nar Besin’s shops display huge tubs of various preserved and chopped herbs, ready to be made into this key component of the Van kahvalti.
Otlu peyniri has also become big business. Van province (the city is the provincial capital) produces more than 5,000 tons a year, exporting a hefty percentage to other parts of Turkey.
Recent inductees to the Van Breakfast Club include residents of Istanbul. A few years ago Van kahvalti salonu ranging from the humble to the cool (Van Kahvalti, in Beyoglu’s upscale Cihangir neighborhood, attracts a mix of ex-pats and local hipsters with its extensive but not inexpensive breakfast) began popping up all over the city.
Yigal Schleifer, an American journalist based in Istanbul for more than eight years, links the Van kahvalti craze to the city’s influx of Kurdish migrants and the Turkish government’s Kurdish liberalization policy. In 2009, the current administration announced the partial restoration of cultural and political rights for Turkey’s Kurdish population.
“The common refrain is ‘Istanbul is now the largest Kurdish city in the world,’ so you have a growing built-in audience,” says Schleifer who is co-author of the dining guide “Istanbul Eats: Exploring the Culinary Backstreets.”
“But on a political level, it’s probably more ‘safe’ now for a Kurd to open a place called ‘Van Kahvalti Salonu’. Van is synonymous with the East, Kurds, and Kurdishness. And [non-Kurdish] Turks are feeling a bit more comfortable exploring that.”
At the bottom of it though, Van kahvalti is a matter of the stomach. Schleifer points to a general trend in Istanbul towards acik bufe, or large breakfast buffets.
“Turkey is a country that loves breakfast, and Turks are looking for ways to make breakfast bigger than it already is,” he says. “Van kahvalti is a no-brainer.”
Zester Daily contributor David Hagerman shoots for the New York Times, Travel+Leisure and Saveur, among other publications. To view more of his slide shows, go to davidhagerman.photoshelter.com. Robyn Eckhardt is a food and travel journalist based in Penang, Malaysia. She also is a contributor to Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia and has been published in Saveur, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal Asia. Her last article for Zester was a double book review, Veggies and Grains Deluxe.