We sat at the table on a lovely July evening in a restaurant called Set Balik.
The food Celil Germeyan had ordered was arriving in waves. Dishes landed on the table and we filled our plates and then our bellies.
The chef Muzaffer had come to greet his friend Celil and his American guests.
Celil looked at me and asked, “What do you think, Marshall?”
“I’m happy,” I replied.
We were in Istanbul eating with friends. We’d just met Celil (pronounced jah-lil). I’d just met Jennifer earlier that day, though my wife, Bethany, had taught with her at Bethany Christian Schools a number of years ago.
Celil is Turkish. His spouse Jennifer Lucas-Germeyan is from Elkhart. They live in Istanbul most of theyear. And on a trip to Japan on the other side of the globe, we stopped to see the historic city on the eastern edge of Europe and western edge of Asia.
She offered to give us the “Jennifer tour.” She’s done this often with other visitors and we were thrilled to have a local show us the historic sites.
At Hagia Sophia, the ancient basilica that had been turned into a mosque and then a museum, we met the cross-eyed cat that lives there. (Yes, Catstantinople is a thing.)
We were tourists, visiting mosques, the spice market and Galata tower. We touched stones that had been put in place when this was Constantinople the capital of the Roman Empire. We watched men catching small fish like sardines on lines tossed into the water from a bridge.
We didn’t board the tourist boat up the Bosphorus, a strait that separates the European side of the city from the Asian side. We got on a commuter ferry and rode it for miles on the glorious, sunny day.
When we got off the boat, Celil picked us up and took us to the highly rated restaurant, Set Balik. It was during Ramadan, the holy month when Muslims don’t eat between sunrise and sundown. The restaurant’s staff was preparing a large meal for the crowd that would come as darkness came.
We were greeted politely at the door. And then the host saw Celil and suddenly we were rock stars. He’s known and loved there, just as he knows and loves the restaurant.
“I’ve been coming here more than 15 years,” he said.
Jennifer calls her husband the second-best cook in Turkey, behind only his mother. They don’t eat out often, he said. He’d often prefer to cook himself. “When I go to a restaurant, I don’t like a manufacturing plant,” he said, later adding, “I’m not picky about food, but I like to eat good food.”
But at Set, they cook as he likes. We didn’t taste the 19 dishes I counted on the table set out for the Ramadan crowd. Instead, the plates he’d ordered started arriving.
I don’t know the Turkish names of most of the dishes. What I know is that the ingredients were fresh, they were handled well and the flavors were amazing.
Long before pomegranates were hip in the United States, they were part of cuisines in other parts of the world. And in the Middle East, the fruit is turned into a molasses that is tart and sweet.
That lovely syrup was used as a dressing on a perfectly balanced salad of parsley and mint. And with eggplant served over thick yogurt.
Spices matter a lot in the cuisine. Ground meat — beef, lamb or both — is formed into oblong patties and grilled. The kofte, as they are called, are hearty and often have a peppery bite, but spices aren’t overused here either.
Fresh vegetables go along with grilled meats. If I accomplish one thing in my life as a cook, I want it to be learning how to grill a lamb chop as they did that night at Set. They were oh so tender.
As we ate, Jennifer talked about Celil’s baklava, the well-known dessert made with honey, pastry and nuts. Celil talked of his mother’s cooking and how she doesn’t measure, but cares for taste and presentation. “She’s awesome,” he said.
He instructed me how to pair food with raki, a Turkish spirit mixed with water that tastes of anise. He had me take a bite of the amazing salty white cheese and a bite of melon and all the flavors of all three settled in together in my mouth.
I was told that I had my happy food face during this meal, which was cut short because we had a flight to catch. And by cut short, I mean that it was a two-hour meal instead of three or more. “Eating is a social event for us,” Celil said.
What is Turkish food like? It draws from the region it’s in. It has aspects of Greek food with a dash of Europe and the Middle East thrown in. That’s a broad generalization and it’s impossible to fully understand a cuisine or the culture from which it originates in a few bites. But it’s a start and one I didn’t have until a few weeks ago.
But more than the food was the graciousness with which it was served, the hospitality shown by the staff and the Germeyans. We were honored guests and friends.
I’d met Jennifer that morning for the first time. I’d met Celil just before dinner. We had some things in common, including a love of good food, but to share a meal, to be shown such graciousness, is a gift.
Many people in our community host foreign exchange students and then go to visit them. I hear the tales of new foods and of hospitality and am reminded of what a gift it is to receive that.
The Germeyans kept talking about what we’ll do when we come back to visit the next time as if it’s an hour drive and not a 12-hour flight.
We spent an evening together at one of their favorite restaurants. We spent a day touring their city. I’m still awed by what they shared with us and gave us.
I’m hungry. Let’s eat.
Marshall V. King is managing editor and food columnist for The Elkhart Truth. You can reach him at 574-296-5805, firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.