“I need you,” was the very blunt statement presented to Hai as we entered the door. It had come from our host in Şanlıurfa, Turkey, just minutes before we were about to leave again to watch his weekly soccer match.
“Our goal keeper has had to go back to his hometown unexpectedly for family reasons. We need you to step in.” Seeing Hai’s hesitation at being thrown into unfamiliar territory, he followed it with, “Don’t worry, we are very good. You won’t even have to touch the ball.”
So there we were 15 minutes later, Hai getting acquainted with his new team mates and me getting the camera ready on the sidelines.
“I hope they’re not expecting too much,” Hai called back to me. “I haven’t played in 20 years.”
The whistle blew and the game was away. Hai was fine, as I knew he would be. He may not have played any one particular sport in a long time but he is quite naturally athletic, and all our travels keep his general fitness level relatively high.
I was joined by some kids outside the netted field. One came and sat at the other end of the bench I was taking photos from. Curious, he edged a little closer, trying to discreetly look my screen after each shot. I held out the camera so he could see the images I had taken. He smiled and, now confident that I wouldn't bite, came to sit right next to me, inspecting each shot as it came up on the screen.
I was soon surrounded by several other inquisitive boys. It seems like everyone in Turkey knows the phrase “Where are you from?” No matter the age or further language ability. So we started there and then communicated as best we could. Interestingly, they were all named Ibrahim.
Meanwhile the game was proceeding at a fast pace. And Hai did have to touch the ball, a considerable number of times. Some balls got passed him but he saved more than a few in full outstretched fashion. In one situation, the ball ricocheted dangerously close to the goals so many times, it was kind of ridiculous. Finally, the goal was saved once and for all with a quick wrist flick, earning him some high fives and pats on the back from his fellow team mates.
In the end, the hour went by quickly and, much to Hai’s relief, victoriously. “6-5 is probably the closest match they’ve ever had,” he joked.
Famished after the game, the conversation soon turned to dinner and the guys were keen on a local South-Eastern favourite, Çiğ köfte.
Our hosts in Istanbul had told us about this dish so we knew exactly what we were in for. Çiğ köfte is a spicy dish made with durum wheat and ground beef. For most meat-eaters, this probably sounds pretty good, but the differentiating thing between this and most other Turkish dishes is that this meat we speak of is raw. No cooking takes place in the preparation of this meal, rather the ingredients are simply kneaded together.
Some of the team members went to get what was needed, including a large mixing tray, and then brought it all back to ours. Soon the place was abuzz with activity. One was chopping up a salad, another was making ayran (a typical yoghurt drink), and another was measuring out the spices.
The real action though was taking place in the living room where the kneading was taking place. I may have said that the ingredients are “simply kneaded together” but it really is no simple task, requiring muscle over a considerably long period. One of the men got a towel for the kneader and wiped his brow for him as he worked away at incorporating the mixture of herbs, spices, durum wheat and finally the finely ground raw meat, while one played songs on a traditional string instrument to give rhythm to the monotonous task. Ice was added to the mix to keep it cool and to help the ingredients meld together.
Actually the final result didn’t look like raw meat at all, more on the dark brown side, and if you didn’t know it contained uncooked meat, I doubt many people would know. Some describe it as a “fresh” taste, likening it to sushi. To me, it was more like a spicy falafel. A really spicy falafel (said while taking another sip of the yoghurty ayran to quell the fire).
The mix was eaten rolled up in lettuce leaves with a squeeze of lemon. And of course who eats in Turkey without bread! Overall, it was palatable but edging on too spicy to enjoy it for me. I wouldn't be in a rush to try this again but I would give it another go if the opportunity arises.
The chance to try this interesting dish basically relies on friends willing to make it because it actually can't be ordered out. You may see it on restaurant menus in Turkey but this is a vegetarian version. The original recipe so loved by the people, in this part of Turkey especially, can no longer be sold due to some European regulations on food safety, we were told. So this little window into what goes on in the home was a special opportunity, and one we were so grateful for.
There was a mountain of dishes in the kitchen but that would have to wait. For now, it was time for more song and recounting tales of their close win with the random foreigner.