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1650 W. Belmont
Ahmet Aksoy has had his hands deep in a pile of raw beef, bulgur, and spices for nearly 30 minutes when his wife, Zeliha, removes his glasses and wipes his brow. The air in the small hallway off the kitchen where he’s kneading the mixture is sharp with the smell of garlic, sumac, and red pepper paste and the metallic tang of fresh, lean meat. The Aksoys, owners of the Lakeview Turkish restaurant Nazarlik, are making cig kofte, or raw meatballs–a specialty of their ancestral home, Gaziantep, in southeastern Anatolia.
The Aksoys, who opened their little mom-and-pop in late June, only make cig kofte by special order, partly because it’s so much work to prepare, but also because it has a short shelf life.
Depending on the amount he’s making, Aksoy might knead the mixture for one to two hours, which “cooks” it. “The spices have to become one with the meat,” explains the Aksoys’ 20-year-old daughter, Secil. “The spices all have a part of some kind of cure. It protects the meat from being dangerous.” The finished mixture is molded into small torpedoes eaten wrapped in cool lettuce, with a squirt of lemon juice.
The Aksoys came to Chicago about eight years ago from Istanbul, where Ahmet was a fashion designer. He’d worked in restaurants before, but he and Zeliha learned to prepare the food they serve now by growing up with it and cooking for friends and family at gatherings. Once he arrived in Chicago, Ahmet worked as a tailor until encouragement from friends convinced him to open his own place.
Gaziantep is known for a great variety of kebabs and pastries, and also for the spiciness of its cuisine, fueled by the sun-dried isot red pepper. Secil says many of the regional specialties are notoriously labor-intensive, mentioning a yogurt soup called yuvarlama, which requires the work of three to roll the tiny meatballs that go into it. That’s not on the menu at Nazarlik, but lahmacun–a flatbread topped with minced lamb and vegetables–is. Zeliha spends an entire day mincing a week’s worth of the topping with huge scimitarlike blades. Her arms ache when she’s finished.
Though it may be related to the Arabic dish kibbeh nayyeh, also made with bulgur and raw meat, Turks claim cig kofte as their own and say it’s been around for thousands of years. The town of Urfa is said to be the home of both cig kofte and the prophet Ibrahim (the biblical Abraham), and the two are connected by stories that vary depending who’s doing the telling. Ahmet tells a tale of Ibrahim and a group of his followers taking refuge from their enemies in a cave. Short on rations (except for some bulgur) and unable to build a fire, they hunted a doe and pounded its meat on a rock with the grain. Alternatively, Hulya Unsal Sakiroglu, who writes the blog Turkish Cooking Class (turkishcookingclass.blogspot.com/), says that a hunter’s wife created the dish after the despot Nemrud (aka Nimrod) banned the use of fire so that he could collect enough wood to throw Abraham on the largest pyre ever built.
Whoever came up with it, the dish evolved, incorporating a variety of different spices. Instead of the traditional mutton, Ahmet uses lean beef he cuts, trims, and grinds himself. He prefers to keep his exact recipe a secret, but I saw him add sumac, fresh garlic and onions, chopped green garlic tops, ginger, and four different red pepper pastes, including a dark, fiery isot paste imported from Turkey.
He likes it spicy. Secil samples a bit and mimics a teakettle. “It’s coming out of my ears,” she cries running for water. “Ooooh!” Normally Ahmet makes a milder version for the kids. Because of its slow burn, cig kofte is commonly enjoyed with alcohol, preferably a tall glass of “lion’s milk”–the anise-flavored Turkish liqueur raki mixed with water.
Secil says time-consuming preparations like cig kofte aren’t practical for such a small operation. If her father had his way the restaurant would have opened with additional waitresses and more kitchen staff so they could make things like yuvarlama. For now, eating at Nazarlik is a lot like eating in someone’s home. Zeliha rolls out the dough for each lahmacun and slides it into the giant oven in full view of the dining room. Secil waits tables, serving dishes like mujver, fried zucchini fritters; antep, a salad of chopped tomatoes and onion; and ali nazik, lamb kebabs served over baba ghanoush and fresh yogurt. As she works, she occasionally scolds her five-year-old brother, Volkan, for chattering too much.
When the Aksoys make an order of cig kofte, it’s usually for a Turkish customer who’s called at least a couple hours in advance (on weekdays a day’s notice is required). It’s ridiculously inexpensive for the amount of work that goes into it–$9.25 a pound. Secil says it’s priced to entice eaters who’ve never had it before. Besides, their Turkish customers wouldn’t pay any more for it. “Lots of people don’t know it’s this much work,” she says. “Even right now, our prices are low and they still sometimes complain.” –Mike Sula
For more on restaurants, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.