"Do you know what you want?" Ercan, one of the six brothers running Van Kahvalti Evi, Istanbul's best breakfast spot, asks me. "Istanbul's best breakfast" is a hard claim to defend in a sprawling city with more than 15 million people, but the queue outside the restaurant seems to confirm that this place is brunch royalty.
"Um, not really," I answer. "Perfect… so everything," he says with the smile of someone who has reused this joke multiple times over. "We'll have the full kahvalti," he tells the waiter.
Twenty two little white plates full of unknown goodies are in our future.
Breakfast in Turkey is a serious deal. The minimum is ten servings. Anything less doesn't count as proper by Turkish traditional standards. Each dish is served on a tiny white plate making kahvalti (the Turkish word for this traditional breakfast, pronounced with a strong "t" at the end).
I sip chai while we wait. Busy waiters are juggling large trays full of kahvalti and bardaks, elegantly shaped Turkish tea glasses and magically, no one has dropped a single plate yet.
"You see that cheese over there?" Ercan asks as he points to a waiter serving a couple. "They ship it to us directly from Van."
Kahvalti is served all over Turkey, but in Van—an area in the country's deep east next to Iran—is universally recognized as the world's "breakfast capital."
Ercan's family has been running Van Kahvalti Evi for nearly ten years. "When we first opened, no one showed up. Nowadays, things are different," he tells me with the satisfied look of loving his job. There's so many eager kahvalti-goers that Ercan's brother, Niyazi, bought the restaurant next door to try to open an outpost of the restaurant, and to help with the long lines outside of the shop. It didn't really work. Most of the clientele dislikes the modern and updated feel of the new breakfast house and still prefer to wait in line to be seated in the original location.
Inside the original restaurant, the smell of freshly baked kete, a special flat Turkish bread made of dense, sweet dough covered in black sesame seeds is served to the table next to me, and I suddenly realize that I never want to get up from my table.
Finally, kahvalti arrives. The small plates of food are elegant and hastily placed in front of me. Black and brown olives guard one side of the table while kaymak, a dense sweet cream the breakfast house makes daily, and honey, sit on the other. Kavut, a compact granular brown flower mixed with honey and sprinkled with sweet is right next to the tahin petnet, a sauce made of tahini and sweet grape molasses and gemen, a tomato, sweet peppers and various spices.
There are no rules to eating kahvalti. "Just eat," the waiter says as I stare at the infinite food combos in front of me. I grab a piece of kete. "Open it, spread some kaymak and on top put some of that honey,," the waiter says as he gestures a kiss in the air. And he's right. The sweet taste of the bread melts with the cream, while the dense honey adds a sweet, complex layer.
In the middle of serving us a plate of cherry tomatoes that have been cut up to resemble blooming flowers and cucumbers, the waiter adds a plate with three different types of cheese. It's a miracle that there's any room left on the table. There's orgu peynir, strips of salty goat cheese, beas peynir, a soft and slightly sweet cow cheese, and otlu van peynir, a special cheese from Van. "This is my favourite," Ercan tells me, as he explains the secret ingredient in the cheese: herbs that are freshly picked from the mountains next to the city by the elders of Van.
I stick my fork into the stringy, delicious goat cheese and mix it with the tahini-grape molasses and a piece of bread, upon Ercan's suggestion. The result is sweet, dense, and salty all in one bite, with a texture like Twizzlers.
The traditional hand-made brass pot in front of me is boiling. Inside eggs cooked with onion, tomato, green peppers, and spices like ground black pepper, red pepper, salt, and oregano fill the air with a perfume that can only be described as the scent of brunch Call it a Turkish version of Mexico's huevos rancheros, menemen should be enjoyed by dipping some bread into the boiling pan to sop up the poached eggs and spicy, fulfilling sauce. It's warm, spicy, and melts into my mouth. A 20-something kid from Iran sitting at the table next to me suggests I add jaji to my combo, a sour yogurt created from the same milk used to prepare the kraymak mixed with celery. It tastes like a dense version of Greek tzatziki that I generously drizzle on top.
I am stuffed. "I told you," Ecem tells me with a laugh, "I told you couldn't finish it all." I stay silent. I lost. When we talked on the phone to fix the kahvalti date, he challenged me, explaining that I couldn't finish what he would serve. The breakfast should be on me, but Turkish hospitality trumps all rules and Ecem insists I am his guest.