Food and drink writer Rebecca Seal became fascinated by Turkish cuisines after visiting the country and discovering food that is “as diverse as its architecture.” Her new book, Istanbul, is a collection of recipes and vibrant photographs inspired by her experience in the diverse city. Read on to discover her culinary inspirations, her favorite Turkish ingredients and her entertaining and cooking style.
What is your culinary background?
I’ve been a food and drink writer for a decade, on Observer Food Monthly for six years and since then I’ve been freelance for British broadsheets and magazines, plus I edit a food and a drink magazine for the Soho House group of restaurants and hotels worldwide. Before all of that I worked in restaurants before, during and after university, ultimately becoming a manager of a fun tapas place in Oxford.
What drew you to Turkey and the city of Istanbul?
Turkish food is so delicious but – here in the UK at least – it’s misunderstood. We think it’s all super-hot kebabs! But it’s incredibly varied, richly flavored and also great for vegetarians, and I wanted to bring people’s attention to that – everyone is missing out! Istanbul is a beautiful, dizzying, intoxicating place with incredible food culture, plus it is home to people from all over Turkey and the surrounding regions, which makes the food even more diverse.
How is Turkish culture expressed through food?
Food is at the heart of Turkish homes – each dish has a story, depending on where the cook’s family came from originally. A chef friend told me one of his earliest memories is of his grandmother chasing him with a plate of something to eat; I can’t speak for the whole country but my experience is that people in Turkey love to share their food – you never, ever go hungry.
Tell us about Turkish meze: what is it? What do meze usually consist of? How can home cooks recreate this approach at home for a Turkish-themed dinner party?
Meze are small dishes served together to share, much like Spanish tapas. They can be hot or cold and made with meat, fish or vegetables – the main thing is not to rush eating them, but to linger, nibbling and chatting. The whole thing is meant to be very convivial and relaxed. There’s usually a dip or two – perhaps beetroot, garlic and yoghurt, or spicy cheese – something salady, perhaps with parsley, walnuts and pomegranate, then something with meat or fish, delicate fried anchovies or slivers of liver with chilli flakes and sweet fresh onion. Two do a meze, choose five or six dishes and prepare much of it in advance so you can enjoy it with your guests, just serving one hot or warm dish.
What are some other Turkish approaches to cooking?
One Turkish technique involves slowly cooking vegetables in olive oil, which makes them silky and sweet, but much of Turkish cooking is quite simple (but still impressive to serve and full of flavour) – gentle frying or tasty charcoal grilling, with a few herbs and spices, so it is easy to recreate at home.
What are some of the key ingredients (produce, spices, etc.) in Turkish cooking?
I recommend getting hold of some sumac, a lemony red spice, and pul biber, a flaked mild chilli pepper. Turkish red pepper and tomato pastes are wonderfully rich too – but if you can’t get any of these, all the recipes contain alternatives.
Tell us about your new cookbook, Istanbul. How do you hope home cooks use it? What recipes could you eat every day?
It’s a collection of recipes inspired by my time in the city of Istanbul, with beautiful photos of both the city and the food by photographer Steven Joyce. I hope people are inspired to use it and discover how lovely Turkish food is! And maybe inspire people to travel to Istanbul itself – failing that, to discover Turkish products in their shops.
Describe your cooking and entertaining style.
My cooking style is quite eclectic – I react strongly to the weather and seasons, so I vary what I cook a lot. I hope my entertaining style is fun! I love to cook different or unusual things for people (but I only experiment on people I know really well – after all, even the best chefs get it wrong sometimes, and I’m not even a chef!) I just make lots of things for everyone to share and make sure there are plenty of cocktails and lots of good wine.
How have your travels been an influence?
I collect recipes wherever I go, and I’m a magpie for flavors so travelling is really valuable to me. I cannot resist trying every local dish available, wherever I go.
What are your biggest culinary influences?
I’ve had the immense pleasure of working with Yotam Ottolenghi and Nigel Slater and their cooking and writing is a huge influence on me. They are such great writers and communicate taste so well. And they’re both lovely people too.
You travel quite frequently for your job as a journalist—where to next?
I certainly do! I’m very lucky. So far I’ve spent time in Norway and Greece this year, both of which were amazing. The list of places I would like to go is ever expanding – I’m hoping to spend some time learning about wine in France, but I also want to get to know South American cuisines better…but then there’s also great barbecue to try in the south of the US…and I want to try my hand at Korean food some day…the list is endless!