Nearly a year ago, Gavin and I were enjoying our final weeks in Turkey by methodically eating our way through our favorite restaurants like wood-boring termites. It's quite easy to feel constricted in Istanbul by the lack of reasonably priced non-Turkish options - mirroring football and politics, food also bends toward the hyper-nationalist realm. That said, Turkish food is extraordinarily diverse and varies greatly depending on the region. In most neighborhoods in Istanbul, in the span of a single day, one can sample delights from across the vast country.
If my memory serves me correct, here is a sampling of that final, hazy week: Etli Ekmek, an elongated, razor-thin pide hailing from Konya (the home of 13th-century Sufi mystic Mevlana Jelaleddin Rumi); Hamsi, the salty, deep-fried anchovy that is reverently consumed along the Black Sea coast; and Iskender, a rich plate full of doner meat, tomato sauce, and yogurt, originally conceived in the city of Bursa (which is also known for its thriving homosexual community). Little did we know that those would be our final Turkish meals (with the exception of the occasional doner kebab) until this past week.
I think the cravings began last month sometime. A faint gnawing in the pit of my tummy and beads of perspiration accumulating on the upper lip. When I finally mentioned the symptoms to Gavin, he agreed that it was time for us to tuck into a Turkish feast. After a bit of research, we thought we should give Pasha a try. Righteously placed in the beating heart of District 1's Halal block, between Dong Khoi and Hai Ba Trung at 25 Dong Du, it is next door to an Indian spot and across the street from the Mosque and a couple other Malaysian eateries.
We headed inside to a table straddled by over-sized, regal chairs. I admired the stained-glass lanterns and traditional pottery adorning the elegant interior. In typical Ottoman style, the restaurant is quite big and ostentatious; albeit, devoid of patrons except for yours truly. The ornately decorated upstairs, complete with belly dancing costumes hanging from the walls, was eerily silent on the Saturday night we visited. Slightly aghast at the prices (comparable to Istanbul, yet extravagant for Saigon), Gavin and I proceeded onward and ordered - treating ourselves to a meze along with two entrees to share.
To begin, I chose one of my favorite meze dishes, Yaprak Sarma. We were initially a bit disappointed by the rations provided: four miniscule stuffed grape leaves beside an anemic scoop of cacik (chilled yogurt and cucumber sauce). However, with one bite we were devout believers! They were delightful. Roasted pine nuts and a slight hint of cinnamon juxtaposed with the creamy cacik and tender leaves made for a fine appetizer.
For our main course, I went for a vegetarian Imam Bayildi. Literally translated to "the Imam fainted", this dish was good enough to make me swoon as well. Eggplants grilled in olive oil, then stuffed with garlic, onions, vegetables, and juicy tomatoes, complete with some pilaf on the side. The patlican was cooked to perfection, the stuffing was delicious, and although the rice had a certain Vietnamese flare, I enjoyed it thoroughly.
Gavin hit up the pide menu (the Turkish equivalent of pizza) and went for an Ispanakli Pide. The pide arrived looking very reminiscent of the ones offered up at our favorite local spot back in Kadikoy - Pide Sun. The oblong, football-shaped thin crust (crispy on the edges yet pliable in the center) was covered in a thin layer of toppings including beyaz peynir (white cheese), kasar peynir (a mozzarella-like cheese generally appropriated from sheep), fresh spinach, and the drizzled remnants of an egg. We sprinkled a hearty amount of spicy chili flakes on top and dug in. While nothing can ever compare to our beloved Pide Sun's version, this is worth going back for.
We passed on dessert, but were informed that baklava is always available. Don't let the price deter you, this is authentic, well-crafted Turkish food in tropical Saigon. Once moisture starts glistening on my upper lip and that insatiable craving returns, I know where I will be heading.