I moved to Turkey in 1987, somewhat accidentally, since opening a Reuters news bureau in Istanbul was the first job I found after claustrophobia got the better of me in Beirut. But I have never left the country for more than a few months since then.
Dining alone in Ankara one evening last week, I was reminded of one of the reasons why: the ocakbaşı, pronounced odjakbashy, and meaning ‘the head of the hearth’.
Some people love Turkey’s Bosporus-side fish restaurants and their mezze appetizers, drenched in olive oil. Others like Turkish pide pizzas, calorie-packed döner kebabs or choosing from great steaming trays of ready-cooked meals. What really accelerates my appetite, however, is the ocakbaşı’s aroma of charcoal-roasted meats, watching blue smoke curling up under great brass hoods, and above all, the warm fug of jovial closeness of waiters and waited upon. This is the kind of place where men relax, ties are loosened, and hardened hearts open up.
In Ankara that night, I had stumbled on an ocakbaşı a few steps from my new hotel. I knew I was ready to fall in love when offered an opening teaser of tender sweet onions bathed in pomegranate essence and delightful newly-dried thyme. I asked its provenance from the usta, or master chef, gleaming from his exertions behind the glowing mound of charcoal. The thyme came specially from Konya, he said, three hours to the south over the high, rolling hills of the Anatolian plateau. Then he dug me out a great handful of the herb and wrapped it in a newspaper for me to take home.
Next came the salad known as gavurdağ, or ‘infidel mountain’, a potent mush of closely chopped rocket, lettuce, tomatoes, pomegranate essence and, in this case, walnuts. Turks assert the name has nothing to do with its close resemblance to carnage on a battlefield. That seems about as likely a story as that of the high official I met earlier that day. He told me that, as Turkey continues its striking political-economic comeback across the Middle East, neighbouring states need not fear neo-Ottoman hegemonic intent. “We feel the imperial reflex,” he said, and then laughed. “But we don’t tell them about it.”
Soon came my main dish of Adana kebab, gently spiced mince roasted on a flat sword of a skewer. The meats in an ocakbaşı are so irresistibly salty, seared and fresh, that I can sometimes go on to order three or four different courses. I cleared my palate with another sharp sip of rakı, the Turkish version of the aniseed spirit popular round the Mediterranean. This too is of a new generation. Only ten years ago I visited a state rakı factory where the manager complained that he was really a beer brewer and hated his job. He despised his ten-times over-manned factory, the public sector workers who slept instead of keeping watch on liquor runs from the stills, and the farmers who with impunity delivered loads of aniseed that were outweighed by earth. He even admitted that the rough “lions’ milk” that Turks were so proud of back then was one third French grape alcohol. Now, the alcohol market has been de-monopolised and Turkish rakı can be as velvety as the Lebanese arak I love so well.
Plate after plate of extras arrived, roasted eggplant, a balloon of new-baked unleavened bread sprinked with sesame seeds, strained yogurt with spices and then … mysteriously … a roast quail.
I couldn’t possibly eat any more, but the usta whispered in my ear that it was a gift from Osman Bey, over there. I followed his eyes and saw a plump, cheery figure in a red jumper enjoying his meats side-by-side with a friend as they watched the football on a flat-screen TV on the opposite wall. I nodded respectfully. The man smiled back. No choice but to eat it now, and the little bird was gamey and succulent. The dish was then whisked away to make space for a panorama of sliced fruit.
Completely overstuffed, I surrendered. I called for my bill, paid up and stopped to offer my thanks to the man with the red jersey. He was smiling serenely as he and his boon companion took another pull on the stubs of their enormous cigars. Over the past year European bans on smoking have been imposed with success in most Turkish public places, and his friend registered my look of surprise.
“This is the owner,” the man explained.
“The quail was delicious. You have a wonderful restaurant,” I said.
“We want people like you here,” said Osman the owner, by which he meant, international-looking customers, coming to the point of his generosity with exemplary Turkish frankness. He took in the conspiratorial, male-dominated clientele: “I’d like to see more women here too.”
“The restaurant is just his hobby, actually,” the boon companion said slyly. “He’s really an arms dealer, you know, guns, military equipment.”
That was more disclosure than even I expected, and thought I should stake out my position.
“That’s odd. I work for International Crisis Group, the conflict-prevention organization. I’m here as part of our work to try to help solve the problems over Cyprus and around the region!”
“Don’t end them all!” Osman Bey cheerfully retorted.
We all laughed. Yet I couldn’t feel any hostility. He hadn’t roasted a white dove of peace and sent it over. The mantra of the Middle East is that a human connection can beat an ideological contradiction. Still, I wondered if I had betrayed my calling, or whether I had been too prim.
After all, it has been my job to eat with many kinds of people – Western intelligence agents, goons from Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, Israeli settlers, and, as the title of my new book Dining with al-Qaeda records, a jihadi Saudi missionary from the Afghanistan camps where al-Qaeda’s 9/11 plot matured. I had once been in the pay of a newspaper that was high-minded and excellent, but also lost in the misguided pursuit of something quite wrong, the invasion of Iraq.
As I walked back to my hotel through the dry, cold Ankara night air, I contemplated the Middle East’s lack of moral clarity. I also thanked the stars for the culture of the ocakbaşı. Here at least there can be a temporary truce, where I need only nod in half-protesting happiness as an assiduous usta reaches over the bed of hot coals and presents yet another plate of charcoal-scorched heaven, sprinkled, if I’m lucky, with the best Konya thyme.