If there's one generalization you can make about Turkish people, it's that they like their meat. They really, really like their meat, in fact. Even though vegetarianism and veganism have taken hold in the Istanbul's hipster neighborhoods like Cihangir and Karaköy, all you need to do is explore a bit of the country to understand that the meatless revolution won't be sweeping through Turkey anytime soon. In the streets of Istanbul, meat is everywhere—from döner kebabs with stuffed vegetables to the thousands of kebab plates churned out daily.
In Turkey, people even eat meat for dessert. One of the country's most famous after-dinner treats is simply named "Tavuk göğsü," which literally means "chicken breast." And that's exactly what goes into this sweet pudding. According to legend, the unusual creation was born one night in the gigantic kitchens of the Palace of Topkapı, one of the main residences of the Ottoman sultans. In the middle of the night, the sultan at the time supposedly asked for something sweet, and since no one would ever risk denying the request of royalty, the cooks used the only thing left in the kitchen: chicken. That turned out not to be such a bad idea—Turkish people still can't get enough it.
For Hamdi Bey*—who's worked at Özkonak, a restaurant known throughout the city for its exceptional chicken dessert, for 50 years—the ancient past is irrelevant. The only thing he cares about is making great tavuk göğsü, which is no small feat. Over the last five decades, this man of short stature has lost his hair and the firmness of his cheeks to time, but he continues to make excellent cooked meals and desserts, the best of which is tavuk göğsu.
"Actually, I've almost been here since the beginning!," he laughs. From his seat behind the counter, it initially took some time for him to loosen up, but there's no stopping him now. He yells to his co-workers: "Hey! There's a French journalist here who wants to know how we make tavuk göğsü!" Again, there's a moment of hesitation. Then they get going until eventually everyone is adding to the description of the process.
"Basically, to fill up a tray, you have to boil three liters of milk and half a kilo of sugar. Then, you grab the chicken breasts—nice ones, too! Not the ones you buy at the store; you have to go to the farm! And you put them in a large pot of milk, after it's cooled down, and pound them with a large wooden ladle so they break into pieces and dissolve," explains Hamdi Bey with illustrative hand gestures. "It's difficult. It's physical," he adds, thinking of the cooks. "Afterward, you heat that up for 20 minutes on the stove, and pour it into the metal trays, where it is cut into pieces." There—now you know the secret of the sultans' dessert. Well, almost.
"I'm not really sure of the amount of sugar," he says. "It depends on the raw materials you're working with: the milk fat, the texture of the chicken, etc. There isn't actually a specific recipe. Decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, and that's why we have the best Tavuk goğsu." This kind of response would provoke outcry among French chefs, with their love of mathematically precise doses and liquid nitrogen cooling techniques. But this is a country that has absorbed culinary traditions from every ethnicity in the region and nearly every surrounding country. It's a country where every housewife (and, let's be honest, housewives are still the ones doing all the cooking in Turkey) has her own version of the classics. So a recipe without a recipe should surprise no one.
Saïd, a server with a frank smile and intelligent eyes, is eavesdropping as Hamdi Bey trails off into an endless stream of details and repetitions. He drags me away, almost by force, and leads me to the kitchen. As the cooks—all women—look on kindly, he mimes the process of dissolving the chicken in milk. The pot of milk, the wooden spoon, and the general atmosphere remind me of a farm in Queyras, France, where my aunt would take us to buy milk, and where little calves would lick our hands with their raspy tongues. While this looks like a typical restaurant kitchen, there are objects here that are undeniable links between the one who produces the food, the one who prepares it, and the one who consumes it.
Saïd then shows us the platters of tavuk göğsü that are served to customers. After cooling for an hour in the refrigerator, they are placed in the restaurant's display case or sold to dozens of Istanbul restaurants. "We even send some out across the country, and sometimes to Europe," Saïd proudly adds. "These ones, the white ones, come from the top part, and those, the caramelized ones, come from the bottom of the pan. They're called Kazandibi. Some people like them better." I place an order, and two desserts arrive on the table, powdered with cinnamon and crushed pistachios, and accompanied, of course, by a glass of Turkish tea.
Upon first taste, it's honestly good, and creamy, too. The texture of the tavuk göğsü lies somewhere between rice pudding and semolina pudding—it's kind of like a flan. What's left of the chicken is only a slightly fibrous consistency. If, one day, you have an opportunity to taste this dessert, opt for the Kazandibi version, which has a caramel flavor that lends a more refined taste to the dish and makes it less heavy.
While my mouth is still full, the manager calls out to me. With a proud look on his face, he explains that his restaurant makes the best tavuk göğsü, and more importantly, that there isn't much competition among homemakers. Saïd elaborates: "It's very physical and very long, and you need special equipment. It's almost impossible to make a good one at home, so people come buy it here and take it to go." Case in point: During my visit, small packages keep sliding across the counter, and leave the premises in the hands of enthusiasts who find nothing strange about the dish. "Try to make one at home, you'll see! You'll be back here in no time!"
Yet, even in this meat-friendly country, the notion of a dessert made with chicken can seem repulsive. In fact, some people believe that tavuk göğsü's name is only part of the legend. Even several food blogs argue that there isn't a single trace of poultry in the dish.
"Of course it's weird at first, but you need only taste it to forget about that," says Volkan, a Turkish-American, raised on the other side of the Atlantic, who is a regular customer at Özkonak. He adds, full of emotion: "I discovered this after moving back here, and I can no longer live without it." Volkan's enthusiasm is not shared by everyone visiting Turkey. In fact, a common prank for foreigners living in Turkey is to invite friends to eat tavuk göğsü, neglecting to mention the main ingredient until the end. The big reveal is usually met with great surprise, and sometimes a hint of disgust—even though the victims were probably busy inhaling a plate full of kebab meat only a minute or two earlier.
Such is the case, a few hours later and a few meters away, with Fabric and Pétronille, a French couple in their fifties vacationing in Istanbul. At a table at the Kardesler Kebap & Cafe, they are halfway through the dessert when the revelation occurs. Shocked, they put down their spoons. "It's really chicken? Um, I think I'm going to stop here then; I'm not really into that," laughs Fabrice, who won't be taking another bite. "It's really quite good, but to think there's mashed chicken in there is grossing me out a bit" adds his wife, a bit embarrassed.
To enjoy this Turkish delicacy, you'll need to ignore the psychological barrier and get into the Turkish mindset. Because, let's admit it, the country's rich and delicious gastronomic heritage includes other strange meat items, like kokoreç, a sandwich of grilled intestines, and the sloppy-Joe-like islak burger, which literally means "wet burger." Without getting in touch with your inner Turk, you'll find yourself konuya Fransız kaldım, "as lost as a French person," as the old Turkish expression goes.
This story was originally published in French in May 2016 on MUNCHIES FR.
* Bey is a marker of respect that is added to men's names, like Mr., or San in Japanese.