The Best of All Worlds

Turkish Breakfast

Straddling Asia and Europe, and gateway to the Middle East, it comes as no surprise that Turkey combines the best of all worlds, past and present. Part of the late 13th century Ottoman Empire which spanned much of Southeastern Europe, Western Asia and North Africa, modern day Turkey shares a border with no less than eight countries. It borrows culinary influences from Greece to the west with its mint, olives and olive oil, from the spices of the Middle East and rich dairy products (think: yogurt, butter and cheeses) of the northern grassy highlands near the Black Sea towards Georgia and Armenia.

Jodi Ettenberg, author of The Food Traveler’s Handbook, says “breakfast in Turkish is called ‘kahvaltı’ which means ‘under coffee’ or ‘before coffee’ because Turkish coffee is usually served later in the day”. Recalling the month she spent in Turkey, Jodi observes: “The Turks are obsessed with their food. As with Vietnam, food is the focal point of the community. Breakfast is an incredible affair. It’s meant to be spent sitting at a table loaded with cold meats, tomatoes, cucumbers, bread and cheese, and lasts hours talking to family.”

Possibly nowhere in Turkey is the breakfast culture as strong as in the Kurdish-majority city of Van, in eastern Turkey, where Kahvaltı Sokak, or “Breakfast Street,” is just that ― an entire street dedicated to specialty restaurants serving breakfast foods all day. It’s not unusual for a breakfast spread to have flatbreads and crusty loaves to mop up the rich kaymak (Turkish-style clotted cream), honey dripping from the comb, homemade jams, tahini (sesame seed paste) or cacik (seasoned, strained yogurt with parsley, herbs and garlic). Hearty eaters may order a side of eggs, either hard-boiled or in the form of menemen, a mix between an omelet and scrambled eggs with the addition of tomatoes, green peppers and onions. A bowl of black and green olives might provide the salty, balanced with a plate of fresh fruit for its sweetness, along with more cheeses, like Van’s own otlu peyniri, a semi-hard salty cheese flavored with wild mountain herbs, and slices of cucumbers and tomatoes to claim whatever space is left on the table. A pot of black tea presented in tulip-shaped glasses washes everything down.

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Cindy Kawak, the French-Lebanese manager of Au Parc, says that her earliest memories of a Middle Eastern style breakfast was “just many things on the table”.

“In the West, we start off with something to drink and then have snacks and then proceed to the food. But in the Middle East, we like to eat and eat and eat. It’s any time we can sit down with friends and family. On the weekends, brunch lasts from 11-4.”

Au Parc’s Turkish Breakfast (VND195,000) comes with a basket of homemade breads including a lovely sour dough typically found in Egypt, brioche and baguette, on which to slather a selection of honey and jams including mulberry and orange/kumquat along with a heavenly Marou chocolate spread. A separate basket of freshly baked pita, bread sticks and cucumber and carrot sticks is to scoop up the creamy hummus. A plate of local fruit balances out the saltiness of the feta and olives for good measure. Sensing the lavishness of the spread (weekend brunch also includes menemen or a spinach and feta omelet at VND260,000). Cindy is quick to add that “the base is healthy”.

“If you take the ingredients ― tomatoes, feta, olives and yogurt ― it’s healthy. But it’s true that people spend their time to eat so that leads to quantity. Even if you just have breakfast, every five minutes your grandmother will tell you to eat something. It’s just in the culture.”

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Au Parc: 23 Han Thuyen, D1

Images by Ngoc Tran and Adam Robert Young

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