The last time I visited my family in Turkey, my grandmother made me hünkar begendi. The name means “Sultan’s delight.” You can tell it will be good because an all-powerful dictator gets exactly what he wants.
What is hünkar begendi (pronounced, roughly, HOON-care BAY-and-ih, with a silent g)? First my grandmother roasted an eggplant until it was charred and smoky; then she puréed it with milk and creamy local cheeses. This formed a bed for super-moist slow-cooked lamb, simmered all afternoon long with bay leaves, cumin, garlic and every trick in the Turkish cookbook. You know how the Irish might put a meat stew on potatoes? Imagine that, but with more smoke, more creaminess, more spice and lamb.
My grandmother’s hünkar begendi is one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. As I put the first bite in my mouth, a dozen flavors merged into a symphony of taste: the melting, decadent lamb; the savory, peppery sauce of tomatoes and Turkish spices; the smokey, nearly sweet richness of the eggplant. I turned to my aunt, who acted as interpreter since I don’t speak Turkish, and said, “Tell your mother this is one of the best things I’ve ever tasted.” She chuckled and translated only that I liked it. I resorted to frantic hand gestures to express my joy.
Then I had a full dinner plate of seconds. Then, bravely, I had a full dinner plate of thirds.
If you’re feeling hungry by now, fear not! Dallas has some damn good hünkar begendi. It’s at Café Istanbul, at Inwood Road and Lovers Lane, next to soufflé mecca Rise. (Pera Turkish Kitchen makes the dish too, but I don’t like their interpretation: the tomato sauce is too sweet, like Chef Boyardee.) Café Istanbul grills their lamb, rather than leaving it to simmer all afternoon, but what you lose in tenderness you gain in the crisp grilled edges. Café Istanbul leaves their eggplant a little chunky, like mashed potatoes you’ve made from scratch, and mixes in mozzarella, a perfectly fine stopgap since kasar cheese, a.k.a. kasseri, costs a fortune here in the U.S. Maybe don’t ask for kasar; it’s also Turkish slang for “slut”. (Really. My mom says it is “listed in the Turkish Urban Dictionary.”)
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I recommend complementing your lamb with a glass of Kavaklidere Yakut, a perfectly agreeable Turkish red table wine with its own tiny hint of spice. Plus, your meal comes with a really huge piece of bread, enough to sop up any leftovers. Grilled meat, bread, smoky flavors, things blended with cheese: What meal could be more Texan?
By the way, right after that third full plate of food at my grandmother’s house, she walked back into the kitchen and returned with a platter of vegetables. No, not a platter. It was metal, like an old-school Oscar the Grouch garbage can lid, except larger. Probably 2 feet across. Filled with freshly cooked vegetables.
“She made two main courses in case you didn’t like one,” my aunt explained. So I started eating again. It’s a miracle I’m still alive.
Café Istanbul, Dallas, 5450 W. Lovers Lane, (214) 902-0919. Hünkar begendi, $18.95; glass of Yakut wine, $10.