(Editor’s Note: A recent article  about a spat between Turkey and Greek Cyprus over who owns the rights to claim lahmacun as their own got us thinking about those minced-meat covered discs of dough and how, when done right, they really are something worth fighting over. So, prompted by the Turkish-Cypriot food fight, we’ve decided to officially declare this week “Lahmacun Week in Istanbul,” where we’ve be looking at five of our undisputed favorite spots in town to get a taste of how the contested savory delight should be made. Today we feature out top two places, both in the Asian side’s Kadıköy area.)
There was nothing simple about selecting the number one lahmacun maker in Istanbul. There are scores of freshly fired crispy/chewy, spicy/piquant versions of the dish all over town. But, perhaps by sheer coincidence, our top two lahmacun joints are located a stone’s throw from each other in the Asian side’s Kadıköy district, which at least gave us the chance to line them up for a side-by-side comparison of lahmacun-ness.
We started the sampling at Halil Lahmacun – an old favorite and a celebrated destination for Istanbul lahmacun lovers. In 1980, Urfa native Halil Dörtok turned his back on a promising career as a tailor to open a small shop with an oven where he started making lahmacun. Perhaps it was a tailor’s attention to detail, but Halil’s oven-baked creations quickly won him fame in the lahmacun world. Today Halil’s son Fuat is in charge of the oven and, judging by the traffic in the shop on a Wednesday well before lunchtime, nobody is complaining.
Lahmacun, like pizza, is one of those mysterious foods where a lot is created with so little. But in the hands of a real master, or usta, a paper-thin round of dough topped with a simple mix of ground peppers, meat and spices, becomes something magical – almost a living thing.
Fuat pulled two lahmacun from the oven for us – the perfectly round edges just slightly charred from sitting on the floor of the brick oven – and garnished them with a bit of parsley and a lemon wedge on the side. Mamma Mia! This looked like a perfect lahmacun.
This was a fine specimen. The topping was light and had a clean taste of fresh vegetables, even without the parsley and a spritz of lemon juice. “Crispy” was the word double-underlined in our field notes, followed by “awesome.”
From there it was on to our next taste-ination. We are usually suspicious of chains, particularly when it comes to something as hand-crafted as lahmacun. But in the past, we’ve enjoyed many a lahmacun at the Kadıköy fish market location of Borsam Taşfırın, an Istanbul mini-chain of lahmacun ovens. When we set out to find the number one lahmacun in Istanbul, we were intrigued by a few tips that urged us to head toward another branch of Borsam, just a few streets north of the market. Preference of one branch over another of the same chain must indicate the presence of an outstanding usta, we thought to ourselves.
Still quite impressed by Halil and ready to walk off a full lunch at Çiya, we headed uphill to find Borsam Taşfırın in full swing. This is not a place that skimps on production. Along with an oven-tending usta and his two assistants, there was a young man whose sole occupation was to brush off excess flour from the back of the freshly baked lahmacun with a tiny broom, before passing it on to be served. The team worked in a quick rhythm and we had our lahmacun in hand within a minute or two of ordering.
Discerning between these two top-notch lahmacun makers – Halil and Borsam – seemed impossible. Like Halil’s, Borsam’s lahmacun, with its lovely contrasts of oven-darkened crust and deep red flecked topping, looked ready for the cover shoot of Bon Appétit magazine. But we recognized the difference before even tasting this one, thanks to Borsam’s brush boy, who rolled up our lahmacun into a baton with some parsley inside, forcing us to tear it apart to share. Thinking back to the first lahmacun of the day, Halil’s was not the tearing sort, its crust so crisp it nearly shattered in our hands. Borsam’s lahmacun, on the other hand, first snapped a bit and then gave way to a soft stretchy second layer of the crust hidden between the bubbly topping and the matzo-like crispy bottom crust. Imagine a crust just a couple of millimeters thick with three completely different personalities all formed in just a few minutes in a raging oven. This is the lahmacun usta’s magic touch. With a crust this complex, the topping, a peppery, musty spread that reminded us that this is not a vegetarian treat, was almost beside the point.
Due to the work of the nameless doughboy who, by luck or instinct, created a lasting memory, Borsam won our vote for the best lahmacun maker in Istanbul. Our search for lahmacun perfection is over (for now).
Address: Guneşlibahçe Sokak 26, Kadıköy
Borsam Taşfırın Lahmacun
Address: Serasker Sokak 78, Kadıköy
(photos by Robert H.Gertner)