My least favorite culinary comeback is the "at my house" which always, always follows any "Where do I find the best...?" query. That may very well be true, but it doesn't help me if I'm hungry. And, OK, maybe I'm slightly envious, since I don't come from a long line of home cooks. The dish which earned my maternal grandmother "best cook in the family" honors was scrambled eggs.
But there was one kitchen tradition on my father's side: When my grandmother came to visit, she made spinach-stuffed phyllo pies. Although she used frozen dough and frozen spinach, the recipe reflected her Turkish heritage. But -- as I learned when I talked to the owner of the wonderfully endearing Cafe Turko, one of three restaurants featured in this week's breakfast round-up - the word she used to describe them didn't.
My grandmothers called her pies "bourekas," which was the word I used when chatting with Gencer Gokeri about his wife's fabulous pastries. Over the phone, I could hear him stiffen. "We say borek," he told me. "Boureki is Greek."
If you stopped somebody on the street and forced him to tell you two things about Turkey, he would probably mention rugs and animosity toward Greece. The enmity between the countries is legendary, and at the root of why of I grew up eating bourekas instead of boreks.
My great-grandfather, Morris Benjoya, was born in Izmir, same as Goreki. But unlike Goreki, he was a Sephardic Jew. Although the Ottoman Empire was generally tolerant of Jews, Antisemitism was widespread in the region by the early 20th century: As I understand it, my great-grandfather wasn't too broken up about leaving Turkey for the United States. And when he got here, he decided to avenge Turkey's treatment of his people by doing what most Turks would consider unthinkable: He declared himself Greek.
Confusing bourekas with boreks may not seem like a very serious mistake, but the bitterness between Greeks and Turks is apparently still flaring in immigrant-run restaurants. According to Goreki, because large numbers of Greeks settled in the U.S. before many Turks arrived, eaters began to associate dishes of Turkish origin with Greek cuisine. (Remember, this is Gokeri's version.) Greek restaurateurs served gyros, so Americans assumed gyros were Greek. Gokeri's goal at Cafe Turko is to "reclaim" such foods for his homeland, introducing customers to subtler, spicier versions of preparations they might recognize from greasy spoons.
Gokeri and his wife, Sureyya Gokeri, aren't the only restaurant owners dedicated to elevating Turkish cookery. Maria Hines culled Turkish traditions for her menu at the still-newish Golden Beetle, and Gencay Tunc recently expanded his popular Turkish restaurant in Burien, Captain G's Ottoman Kitchen. Turkish food could be on the cusp of a moment, a development I'd thoroughly support based on the boreks at Cafe Turko; I just need to remember to read the menu before I order.
For more on the breakfasts at Cafe Turko, A & B Cafe and Sushi Kappo Tamura, check out my review here.