On a quiet street corner in Shoreditch, East London, a restaurant is ridding Turkish food of its dodgy kebab shop reputation, one octopus pide at a time.
Oklava opened in the autumn last year and is manned by Selin Kiazim—a chef as comfortable taking on classic Turkish Cypriot cuisine as she is riffing on the modern street food of Istanbul.
Born to Turkish Cypriot parents, Kiazim grew up surrounded by expats in Southgate, North London, with frequent trips to her grandparents' home in rural North Cyprus. Whether it was her mum preparing a family feast, her grandmother sharing clay ovens with women from the village, or a beachside gathering at a communal grill, cooking for groups of people formed a significant part of her upbringing.
But Kiazim never imagined a future in food.
"In my heart, I knew that's what I wanted but I was afraid to commit to it," she tells me as the last of a lingering lunch crowd leaves Oklava. "Still, there was nothing I enjoyed as much as cooking and ultimately I knew that I wanted my own place."
Kiazim began winning international competitions while still at college, including the now defunct British Culinary Challenge from the NZ-UK Link Foundation, judged by lauded Kiwi chef Peter Gordon. Her prize was work experience in New Zealand and a trial at Gordon's Marylebone fusion restaurant The Providores and Tapa Room. From there, she ended up as sous chef at his next opening: Kopapa, a restaurant celebrated for its "bungee jump of flavours and textures."
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Gordon's adventurous cooking style turned out to be the perfect fit for Kiazim.
"His palate is incredible. Even to this day, I've never seen anything like it," she says. "At that time, I didn't know what I wanted to be cooking and so he was the ideal person to learn from as he knows every ingredient."
After a short while, Kiazim's dishes made it onto Gordon's menus—one of which prompted her to reevaluate the food she grew up with.
"I updated these Cypriot bulgar wheat koftes and they were flying out. It was like, 'Wow, this is a humble dish—one which my mum and her friends would gather in the kitchen for hours making—and now it's on a restaurant menu in central London,'" she remembers. "It made me realise that so much of Turkish food is unexplored in terms of modern cooking."
Kiazim left Kopapa to gain experience elsewhere and after a few pop-up restaurants, wound up with a residency at TripSpace, a converted archway near the capital's Regent's Canal.
"It was a great turning point as I got to serve a whole menu inspired by my heritage with the same idea as Oklava: food for sharing," says Kiazim. "There were a couple of dishes that were so popular they wrote themselves onto the menu here too."
After a glowing review from Times food critic Giles Coren (sample: "Totally original and bafflingly tasty"), she was invited to do another pop-up and met current business partner Laura Christie. Together they found the perfect permanent location that could accommodate the essentials: a clay oven, a charcoal grill, and an open kitchen.
And so, Oklava was born. Today, the menu veers between relatively simple dishes like courgette, feta, and mint fritters—and that octopus pide.
"It's unusual as we braise the octopus, grill it, then marinate it. It's served with ricotta green olives, honey, and caper shoots," explains Kiazim. "I love trying to balance all those sweet, salty, sour flavours but it's not for everyone as there is a lot going on."
Some of her personal favourites are the Cypriot seftali kebab (wrapped in lamb caul fat) and the baked lamb fat potatoes, hellim (haloumi), fried duck egg, and sherry vinegar caramel.
"That was inspired by mum cooking saute potatoes as a lazy dinner," she says.
Kiazim's grilled monkfish is also a favourite, as well as a nod to her years spent with Gordon.
"We grill it over charcoal then use Urfa chilli dressing, which has the classic lemon and honey in it and also soy and fish sauce—an Asian influence but one you find chefs in Istanbul using," she explains. "Fish sauce dates back to the Byzantine era when it was known as garam."
Naturally, the menu also features Turkish Cypriot and Turkish classics like lahmacun and imam bayildi (stuffed aubergine), alongside a spicy lamb kofte lavash.
"Cypriot food is simpler than Turkey's, which uses more spices and butter," Kiazim explains. "Cyprus is an island so you use what's plentiful there: parsley, olive oil, and lemons. You get incredible produce from its soil."
Despite her love of Cypriot produce, Kiazim is careful not to import ingredients when there are British alternatives.
"I want to use local, seasonal produce but naturally some things have to be imported as there's not much sunshine here," she explains, adding that she occasionally uses ingredients grown on her grandparents' farm in Cyprus. "They have an olive grove and make extra virgin oil but then also this oil—which I've never come across anywhere else—that they make by cooking the olives. It's got this really distinct flavour."
As well as introducing Londoners to the intricacies of Turkish Cypriot dining, Kiazim also wants to share the region's grapes. Everything on Oklava's wine list comes from Turkey.
"It's come such a long way," she says. "I was surprised by it at first, but I wanted to do something new in terms of Middle Eastern wines, so [Christie] started looking into it."
But when it comes to the weekend, Oklava stays true to the traditional Turkish brunch.
"It's as you'd find it there, especially in Istanbul, and what I grew up having at home on Sundays: egg dishes, cucumbers, tomatoes, cheeses, sweet things, and fresh breads," she says. "You'd sit there for hours. It's very chilled out. And people stick around here too. When you're eating that much, no one's going to go anywhere in a hurry."
Sometimes, it's best to stick with tradition.
All photos by Liz Seabrook.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in March 2016.