Istanbul's Breakfast Heaven Is a Kurdish Feast

At Istanbul's Van Kahvalti Evi, customers line up for its Kurdish breakfast of salty white cheeses, fried eggs, pepper paste, honey, clotted cream, tahini and molasses, and even a small dish of Nutella. It's basically heaven.

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Nov 13 2015, 5:00pm

On Saturdays and Sundays in Istanbul, it's not unusual to find a queue forming outside Van Kahvalti Evi. Customers line up for its Kurdish kahvalti—a set menu of tiny breakfast plates laden with salty white cheeses, fried eggs, fresh bread, tomatoes, cucumbers, pepper paste, honey, clotted cream, tahini and molasses, black olives, a dollop of cherry jam, two hard boiled eggs, and even a small dish of Nutella.

As a resident of Cihangir, a "hip" (i.e., gentrified) neighborhood near Istanbul's Taksim Square, I've been to Van Kahvalti Evi around 20 times now. Its breakfast saved me from a three-day hangover during my 30th birthday celebrations, and I always bring new visitors to Istanbul here. It's basically heaven.

Van Kahvalti Evi's set menu is inspired by the Kurdish "breakfast salons" of Van, a pretty, easterly city near the Turkish-Iranian border, from which the restaurant takes its name. The city is known for its ancient lake, its white cats with mismatched eyes, hearty all-day breakfasts, and a Kurdish-speaking majority.

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Assorted cheeses, including otlu peyniri.

"When Kurdish people walk past and they see the name 'Van,' they come inside. Often in huge groups, actually," says Çiğdem Şimşek. A student of ancient Greek language and literature, Çiğdem is a proud citizen of Van and mans the floor of Van Kahvalti Evi alongside her six brothers. The siblings look after the family-run restaurant while their parents spend time at their grandmother's house near Van.

"The herbs are collected after the first snow melts from the mountains of Van," says Çiğdem, describing otlu peyniri, a salty and crumbly white cheese mixed with the sought-after herbs. Otlu peyniri is one of the many Kurdish specialties on Van Kahvalti Evi's menu, and it's this Slow Food-esque attention to detail that has kept its tables so busy since first opening in Istanbul ten years ago.

The name "Van" isn't always appealing in Turkey's current political climate however. "It's an extreme example but some people will see Van and they won't want to come in. It's because of the political situation and mentality," Çiğdem sighs, attributing their reactions to the ongoing tension between the Turkish authorities and the country's Kurdish population, which only worsened this summer in the run-up to the recent re-election of the ruling Justice and Development Party, keeping President Erdoğan in power.

A photo of one of Van's famous cats.

A photo of one of Van's famous cats.

Last weekend, one of Van Kahvalti Evi's customers included José "Pepe" Mujica, the former president of Uruguay who famously lived on a small farm and donated a large percentage of his salary during his presidency, earning him the unofficial title of "the world's humblest president."

His ten-day visit to Turkey, hosted by an opposition party, overlapped with the country's election, and drew contrasts between his lifestyle and the current Turkish administration's often-opulent "Ottomania."

"Mujica came here with his bodyguards and they all ordered our breakfast," smiles Çiğdem. "He's a very respectable man and he liked the breakfast a lot—you could see it in his face."

Van Kahvalti Evi lists Turkish politicians, soap star actors, and football players among its regulars, who take their breakfast amid the neighborhood's hungover journalists seeking solace with its cheeses and curious tourists.

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A dish of eggs and red pepper.

The service is fast. "We're efficient because we're a family. We want to keep the queue as small as possible, so we help each other," says Çiğdem. Weekends are by far its busiest, as 30 members of staff make sure its customers are served a speedy delivery of hundreds of dishes and multiple rounds of strong Turkish tea. Photos of the family and postcards from Van are stuck behind the counter, along with a photo of one Van's famous white cats.

Van Kahvalti Evi's success has inspired a cluster of other Kurdish-style breakfast clubs to open nearby, too—a boom that's been associated with Istanbul's expanding Kurdish demographic, as well as Cihangir residents' and visitors' desire to try something Kurdish.

Other than its herby cheese, Kurdish specialties on the menu include kavut—"a type of fried wheat—we make it with honey and walnut"—and murtuga, eggs scrambled with butter and flour. "It's not a breakfast without eggs!" laughs Çiğdem as she orders us her favourite dish: a copper pan of fried eggs and tender roast beef. "We roast the beef ourselves," she winks.

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Kaymak on bread.

Van Kahvalti Evi's strangest and most popular item at breakfast is a small dish of clotted cream, known as kaymak. "It's a very special dish in Van. In the villages, it takes nearly four hours to make it—you have to stir it very closely and very fast. So people don't eat it all the time."

The dish has a confusing appearance—easily mistaken for cream cheese or the inside of a Palestinian knafeh—and a silky, soft, and airy texture. The ideal accompaniment is Van Kahvalti Evi's slightly sweet Kurdish bread and a neighboring plate of honey that glitters with honeycomb. "Sometimes we watch the customers who haven't tried it before. They don't know how to eat it. With bread? With eggs? But then you see them take their first bite and their face is full of happiness," Çiğdem laughs. "That makes us really happy."