Underground cities

Underground cities

Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
14 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Lisa Cohen and William Meppem

The day dawned, cool but without a cloud on the horizon, and we breakfasted heartily on soft, flaky açma rolls served with tangy local ewe’s butter, dark intensely flavoured honeycomb and preserves made from last summer’s apricots and plums.

Thus fortified, we headed off on the road south towards the mysterious-sounding ‘underground cities’. It seemed that Cappadocia’s geological attractions were not limited to its surreal landscape; there was also an extensive network of interlinked prehistoric cave communities carved deep beneath the earth’s surface.

Derinkuyu was our destination, one of a handful of the cities to have been excavated safely enough for visitors. Hittite artefacts date some of the simpler caves back 3000–4000 years. Over the centuries they became more elaborate and extensive and were carved deeper and deeper into the earth – down to 80 metres, in places. Almost entirely invisible from the surface, these tunnels and caves were the ideal hiding place for communities who were vulnerable to attack. Early Christian communities were believed to have sought refuge here from Roman persecution and, later, from marauding Arab tribes.

At Derinkuyu we found ourselves hunched over in a narrow, back-breaking tunnel, descending inexorably down, away from the comforting daylight. Off either side of the tunnel, passages wound away into darkness. Rooms led into further rooms, and every now and then a ventilation shaft sent dim rays of hazy light down into the depths. There were ancient kitchens and ovens, wine-presses, storage rooms, dormitories and dining rooms and even, we were startled to discover, stables.

The thought of living in this maze of narrow, damp darkness gave us the heebie-jeebies – this particular adventure is definitely not for the claustrophobic. But it did give us boundless respect for the poor persecuted communities that were forced, surely out of sheer desperation, to hide here for months on end, deep within the earth.

Back on the surface, in the glorious, reviving sunlight, we felt the urge to celebrate life. We’d arranged to have lunch in the small village of Ayvalı, back towards Ürgüp, and the Yazgan family were expecting us. Yusuf and Nurhoyat and their son Okan run a small traditional pension in an old village house and they welcomed us with the usual Turkish warmth and enthusiasm.

The old stone house was built into the side of a shallow valley and Nurhoyat had set the simple wooden table for lunch on a vine-shaded terrace. We had a sweeping view over the flat rooftops, domes and cupolas of the small village below. Pigeons, from their nesting boxes, swooped in and around the balustrade, while we sat quietly for a few moments enjoying the warm sunshine.

Okan took us over to the outdoor kitchen to show us the family’s tandır oven. Although many people tend to think of Turks as being the masters of grilled dishes – they invented the kebab, after all – in this wild and remote part of the country, with its extremes of temperature, they favour slow-cooking in clay-pit ovens – tandır style.

Under the ground in Derinkuyu we’d seen ancient versions of these pit ovens hollowed into the cave floors. This was a more elaborate version, carved in stone and half-raised above the ground. Nurhoyat lifted the lid for us to peer down inside. At the bottom were two tall vase-like pots, one containing lamb, the other beans, and on the oven walls we spotted the telltale round charred marks where circles of dough had been pressed to bake flat bread.

Okan brought out a series of little dishes for us to eat: first there were crunchy long pickled peppers, mild, and tangy with vinegar. Next came a rich tomato soup, its surface gleaming with sizzling butter and flecked with chilli and mint, accompanied by some of that flat bread, hot from the tandır oven. Nurhoyat’s stuffed vine leaves were as skinny as a pencil, and made with leaves picked from their own grapevines, Okan told us. We scooped up creamy haydari, a dip made from homemade yoghurt and dill and crumbly gömlek peyniri, a white cheese that Okan’s family matured for a few months in a clay pot to develop its flavour.

And then out came the main dishes, the clay pots of steaming tandır lamb and fasulye (beans). Nurhoyat had started preparing both dishes early that morning, so by now they’d been quietly slow-cooking away at the bottom of the tandır oven for nearly five hours. Both were simple peasant-style dishes, uncomplicated by layers of spices and herbs. The lamb was meltingly tender and juicy in a light tomato stock that was thick with onion, garlic and peppers. The beans were soft and flavoursome – a sort of home-style version of baked beans.

To end the meal, there were apricots from Nurhoyat’s garden. Sun-dried on the roof, they’d been stored underground through the winter months before being simmered in the tandır oven with a little local grape juice. They were sticky and dark as treacle, with an intense muscat flavour; Nurhoyat served them warm, split open and stuffed with chopped walnuts and a spoonful of thick clotted cream.

By now the sky was becoming a deep, late-afternoon gold, and the shadows were lengthening. We said our thanks and farewells to Okan and his family, fumbling with our few words of Turkish. As we wandered contentedly down the hillside to where our car was parked, the muezzin’s call from the village mosque started up and, turning, we saw a little group of men wending their way up the hill to prayer.

The next morning saw us broaching the outskirts of Kayseri, Turkey’s most central city. Its key position on ancient trade routes meant that it has always had a thriving economy, most prominently and prosperously under Roman rule (its name derives from Caesarea) and later during the reign of the Seljuks, when it played second city to their nearby capital, Konya.

As we struggled through the midday traffic the only obvious sign of Kayseri’s history was the sixth-century citadel in the centre of the city. It seemed otherwise to be a busy modern town, complete with a brand-new tramline and freshly laid concrete walkways. We had read that Kayseri was famous throughout Turkey for two unrelated products: its fine carpets and pastırma, a sort of precursor to pastrami. Naturally enough, it was the latter that we’d come to investigate.

Just inside the citadel walls we ventured into Kayseri’s Grand Bazaar. Dating from the 1800s, we learnt that it had been recently re-roofed and renovated. There was plenty of carpet-selling going on in the main part of the bazaar, but we were more interested in tracking down the butcher shops. It didn’t take long. As we rounded a corner we stumbled upon a row of shops draped with strings of reddy-orange sucuk sausages, their windows stacked high with nuggets of pastırma.

We were familiar with pastırma, having seen it in the northern Syrian town of Aleppo, just over the border from the south-east of Turkey, and now, it seemed, we were in pastırma heaven! The name itself is Turkish – meaning ‘pressed meat’ – and legend says that it originated with the Turkic horsemen of Central Asia, who packed it into their saddle bags, where it would, literally, be pressed by their thighs as they rode.

With that rather unappetising image in our mind we ventured into a few shops to sample the wares. One butcher told us that his family had been pastırmacilik – pastırma butchers – for many generations. Using a massive razor-sharp cleaver he rapidly sliced a few wafers for us to sample. As we chewed on the spicy beef, the butcher told us there were more than twenty types of pastırma. Pointing out a few, he identified the most expensive – cut from the fillet and sirloin – and then several from the leg, shank and shoulder. Chuckling as he demonstrated on his own body, he explained that secondary cuts like the flank, neck and brisket produce lesser- quality pastırma.

Irrespective of cut, all the meat is treated the same way. After being thoroughly air-dried it is smothered in a thick bright-red paste called çemen, and left to cure. It’s the çemen that gives pastırma both its distinctive oxblood-red colour and its strong, pungent flavour: it’s made from crushed fenugreek, cumin, garlic and hot paprika. We noticed little tubs of it in the window, sold as a savoury paste for spreading on bread. I bought a little tub to try later, stuffing it into my shoulder bag as we walked back to the car. It was indeed delicious, but it didn’t take me long to regret that decision. A month later, back home in Australia, my bag still reeked of the stuff!


In Turkish cooking, as is generally the case in the Middle East, meat means lamb. Thousands of years ago, tribes of nomadic Turks roamed the Central Asian steppes on horseback, surviving by hunting game animals and birds and supplementing their sparse diet with wild vegetation and berries. Eventually they learnt how to herd flocks of sheep to mountain pastures, so sheep became one of the first animals to be domesticated, bred for their woolly coats, milk and tallow fat as well as their meat.

This meat-oriented diet persisted as the nomadic Turks migrated out of the steppes and into Anatolia. Every part of the animal was eaten, from the head to the tail, and all the organs in between! A taste for offal endures to this day: kokoreç (grilled intestines) are a favourite street snack; brains, liver and kidneys all make popular mezze dishes; and tripe soup (iskembe çorbası) has famous restorative properties.

The solid white fat from the over-sized sheep’s tail was traditionally used as a cooking fat called kuyrukyagi. Even today kuyrukyagi is still the preferred cooking fat in many rural parts of Turkey, although olive oil is more common along the Aegean and Mediterranean coastlines.

Many frequently used methods of cooking meat can be traced back to the nomadic Turks and, subsequently, the Ottoman armies. Being constantly on the move, there would be little time in the evenings to set up camp and gather firewood for cooking, so meat was generally cut into very small pieces, threaded onto makeshift skewers and cooked over a quickly lit, fierce-burning fire. If camp was struck for several days, they would have time for slow-cooking in clay pots or cauldrons; victories were celebrated by roasting whole lamb in a deep pit known as a tandır.

Köfte kebabs, made from minced meat, evolved as an economic way of pounding or grinding somewhat tougher cuts of meat into a smooth palatable paste, flavoured with herbs and spices. The paste was shaped into long sausages around skewers for grilling over hot coals, or formed into meatballs for frying. When wood was scarce or there was danger afoot, köfte would be eaten raw – çig köfte.

In times of abundance, hunks of meat were hung on the nomads’ saddles to be tenderised by the rhythmic pounding of the horses’ flanks in motion. The meat was then rubbed with spices and hung in the dry air to cure. It is thought that pastırma – a sort of Turkish pastrami – originated in this way.

Turkish lamb has a superb flavour. It is generally slaughtered young, and Turks will tell you that its flavour and texture is acquired from the wildflowers and herbs in the pastures where the lambs graze.

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