Settled firmly in Central Anatolia, surrounded by harsh mountains, stands the capital of Turkey – Ankara. Far less known than Istanbul, and rarely visited by foreign tourists, Ankara is the true political and administrative heart of Turkey, but not its cultural and trading heart. The town is vast: Ankara numbers more than 5 million inhabitants. Yet, all the necessary sights are within walking distance scattered around the city centre.
The winter in Ankara is cold. The steppe wind (ayaz) blows over the capital, bringing low temperatures, rain and snow, as the author experienced during his stay in Ankara. It is the only thing that firmly stays in Ankara, which was previously a small provincial town in Anatolia, known mostly for its production of angora, soft goat’s wool. In 1923 it suddenly became the capital of the new Turkish Republic, as a decision by the founder of modern Turkey Kemal Pasha Atatürk. Everything in Ankara is either partially or totally dedicated to this leader of the nation.
Now, don’t get me wrong. By today’s standards, Atatürk would be an authoritarian ruler, a romantic and dangerous dreamer who wanted to transform old Ottoman society into a new Turkish one. In his time, Atatürk was a hero, a revolutionary statesman who was daring and cunning and politically brave. There is no black-and-white description of him and this article is not about his political personality. Yet, it seems Ankara is so devoted to him that we decided to revisit some of his personal life. You guess right, we explored what Atatürk liked to eat! Let us explore Ankara’s and Turkey’s cuisine through the likes of Atatürk!
As any capital, Ankara is boasting with fine dining and cheap döner, but there are hidden gems that tell a lot about Turkish love for vegetables as well as for meat. Atatürk was similar. He little for breakfast: tea/coffee, a slice of toast, yoghurt, followed by coffee with milk. Dairy was his favourite, like for so many Turks today! He used to drink ayran, a yoghurt drink that is available everywhere. This ubiquitous drink is very typical of central Turkey, known for pastures where cows, sheep and goats graze from time immemorial. Ayran is a cold savoury yoghurt-based beverage of Turkic origin that spread all around the former Ottoman Empire and is equally enjoyed in Pakistan and Iran. It is quite simple, as it consists of yoghurt, water, and salt. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, contemporary Turkish president, has promoted ayran as a national drink. Today, ayran is omnipresent across Turkey, offered almost everywhere that serves drinks, including foreign fast-food chains such as McDonald's and Burger King. The small town of Susurluk in Balıkesir Province in northwestern Turkey is well known for its ayran, which characteristically has a foamy head and creamy taste. We tried such a traditional ayran in several places in Ankara.
Ayran was also a favourite part of lunch for Atatürk and he loved to eat beans and pilav at midday. Pilav is another all-Turkic meal, but in Ankara, it may be compared best with the Ankara Pan (Ankara Tava). There are two basic ways how to prepare it. While pilav should have rice as its base, Ankara Pan is sometimes made with noodles. Other distinguishing features of Ankara Tava are that it adds grated tomatoes and tomato paste to boiled red meat and broth. You can even add finely chopped green pepper and garlic. It is a special dish that is frequently prepared during holidays in the Central Anatolia Region. One of the places where one can get a really good Ankara Tava is the Boğaziçi Restaurant, a chain of very traditional Anatolian establishments throughout the capital.
We visited the original restaurant. Located on Ulus Denizciler Street, opened in 1956, Boğaziçi Lokantası is known as a classic in Ankara with its unchanged Turkish and Ottoman cuisine since its late founder Mehmet Recai Boyacıoğlu. Many people, who have breakfast with hot soup cooked in the first light of the morning, meet with more than 60 different types of food and desserts unique to Ottoman cuisine at noon and return from Boğaziçi Restaurant with satisfaction.
Over time, the flavour spreads rapidly, and they manage to become a family restaurant rather than just a shopkeeper's restaurant. Mehmet Recai Boyacıoğlu transfered taste, smiling face, quality and most importantly love to his son Halil İbrahim Boyacıoğlu and grandson Sefa Boyacıoğlu. Time flies. Tables, chairs, faces change, but Boğaziçi Restaurant reopens its doors every morning. It hosts hundreds of people for lunch, with the same value for every guest, the same smiling face and the same taste in every flavour never change. The menu is set in front of every guest. You just need to look through the glass wall into the kitchen and decide which meal is your choice of the day!
Atatürk travelled around the country a lot and he was happy to partake of local specialities. Wherever he went, however, he was inclined to eat vegetables. He liked insanely eggplant, asparagus, okra, beans in olive oil and lemon and from time to time artichoke. He doesn’t seem to have favoured any fruits other than melon. Vegetables abound in Turkey and Turkish cuisine. There are many vegetarian dishes as the cuisine have traditionally separated the meat from veggies. Even today, a minimal amount of vegetables can be seen eaten together with rich kebabs. There is no particular secret in it. In past times, people included meat rarely in their diet and when they did, it was in minimal amounts.
For Atatürk, okra seems to be number one. Officials close to him perpetually bought okra. According to some commentators, Atatürk’s doctors told him that okra was good for the liver. And he needed it. Namely, it is no big secret that Atatürk loved to drink. His favourite drinks were rakı and beer. Thirsty Turks sip 60 million litres of rakı each year, mostly with meals. Rakı is clear brandy made from grapes and raisins, flavoured with pungent anise. Most are quite potent (80- to 100-proof/40% to 50% alcohol) and thus usually diluted with water and sipped with snacks or meals. When mixed with ice and/or water for drinking, it turns milky white. Because of its colour and hefty alcoholic punch, Turks call it lion’s milk (aslan sütü). If you like liquorice and anise, you may like rakı. If you don’t, for sure you won’t. The major rakı-producing companies now include Burgaz, Tarış and Mey as well as Elda. The former Tekel brands of Yeni Rakı, Kulüp Rakı, Tekirdağ and Altınbaş are now produced by Mey.
It is excellent to sip it while watching the panorama of Ankara from the terrace of Hatipoğlu Konağı restaurant, just beneath the Ankara Castle. The mansion, one of the most beautiful architectural examples of Ankara, was built in the 1920s. The historical house was used as the Hungarian Embassy between 1920-1947 and Demirfırka Police Station between 1947-1957. In 1998, after a year of intensive and meticulous work, it was restored and organized as a restaurant. It started to serve under the supervision of the Ministry of Tourism and it retains its old atmosphere and classy dining.
When seen from today’s perspective, Atatürk was somewhat a foodie, but he knew how to throw a good party. He was very far-sighted in terms of culinary diplomacy. His ceremonies at the Çankaya Köşkü between 1931 and his death in 1938 were legendary. During the early days of the Republic, Ankara was a sleepy, dusty little town. There were no dining places, and Atatürk initiated the culinary scene in Ankara. Even the cutlery was brought for president from Izmir! Visitors to the museum in Çankaya Köşkü, can see the table set as if guests are about to arrive, and some of the glasses have the initial GMK for Gazi Mustafa Kemal and the other KA for Kemal Atatürk, before and after he got the surname Atatürk.
When foreign visitors came, Atatürk was totally in control of everything to be served. For instance, in 1934, when Prince Karl Gustave of Sweden came to Turkey, he was offered a well thought-over menu. While the menu had Turkish specialities, it also had specialities like asparagus soup to satisfy a western palate. Atatürk had promoted the cultivation of asparagus on a farm near Yalova, as it was a highly regarded product, being a vegetable of kings and the nobility. The menu had certain kinds of messages to the guest. The desert in honour of the guest was called Parfait Glacé Stockholm; of course, it was not Swedish ice cream, but he was making a gesture to his guest.
The white wine served was called the Perle d’Ankara, and the red was Rubis de Çankaya. That is “Yakut” in Turkish, probably the same one still in the market. It seems there was an occasion every night. The table was always with close friends of Atatürk, and they also kept working. It is famously true that his long hours with friends and rakı ended his marriage to Latife. Reportedly it was after a quarrel at the table that Latife had to leave. But Latife was also concerned with Atatürk’s health. These dinners went on and on until late at night; drinking and smoking went on and on. It deteriorated Atatürk’s health and led to his death.
Let us not end this story on a sober note! Looking back at Atatürk’s love for food and drink, one can indeed say he started a tradition of so many culinary establishments in Ankara today. While the town is not a place to spend more than two or three days of the touristic visit, the gastronomy of the capital will certainly surprise many!