Posted by: Stephanie Nawyn | June 22, 2010

My dinner at Ciya

I have a few precious moments before everyone wakes up and I have to get Henry ready to go to Turkish preschool. For all you foodies out there, I wanted to post something about my dinner a Ciya Sofrasi a few nights ago.

Ciya (pronounced “Chia”) first opened many years back (I think in the late 1980s) to ostensibly serve traditional Ottoman cuisine. My friends insist that it is not Ottoman, but rather indicative of a particular region whose name I cannot recall now, in Eastern Anatolia (that is the more rural part of Turkey, in the Kurdish area of the country). At any rate, it is very different from the kebab (actually spelled “kebap”) focused food in many cafes around Istanbul. The food has a lot of stews, and everything is cooked very slowly (and looks quite labor intensive). There was an article written about it in The New Yorker, which my graduate school mentor Pierrette sent to me. Ever since I read that article, I’ve been dreaming of going to this place. Apparently people will spontaneously burst into tears because the dolma remind them of something their grandmother used to make for them.  I didn’t see anyone crying the night I went, but I teared up a little just looking at all of the food.

The restaurant was almost empty inside but packed out in the street (it was a beautiful night and everyone wanted to eat outdoors). So it was easy enough to go in and look at all of the food, which you could then decide which dishes you wanted and write them down for your waiter. You pay ala cart, and they have large and small servings (we got the small servings so that we could try more dishes).  There is also a salad bar and someone who serves you, and you pay by the plate. So again, Banu and I got a spoonful of almost everything. I should also note that Ciya was not really Murat’s thing, as he prefers simple grilled meat. Since the first Ciya opened, it became so popular that the owner opened two more restaurants, all within 50 feet of each other. One serves kebaps and the other serves both kebaps and these regional stews. We went to the combo Ciya so Murat could have his grilled meat.

So, the salads: we had roasted eggplant in a tomato sauce, bulgur wheat in yogurt that was both tart but still had a sweetness from the cream, dark bitter greens cooked with just enough lemon to soften their bitterness, and other things that I cannot even remember now. The dolma were made not from grape leaves (as is traditional in most Middle Eastern cuisines, including Turkey’s) but some other sturdy dark green and stuffed with rice cooked well but still firm (mediocre dolma are mushy) and some cheese that Banu was not familiar with but was soooooooooooo good! A little salty, but again you could taste the lingering sweetness from the cream.

Then the entrees; where do I begin? Here was my favorite dish; chicken cooked with young garlic (not that generic garlic you get in the grocery but some heirloom variety, still green). The picture does not do it justice.

Other highlights were the lamb meatballs cooked with cherries, the rice with almonds and small grapes (almost like currants) wrapped in a thin dough (not quite as thin as phyllo, but close) and baked, chicken cooked in a light tomato sauce with wheat very slow and long until the chicken melted, and… well, I’m overwhelmed just thinking about it all. Here’s a picture of our table:

It’s really hard to describe the food because the flavors and even the cooking techniques were so specific to the region. There were vegetables and herbs used that I cannot get in Michigan, or probably anywhere in the U.S. Some things even Banu was not familiar with, except from her times coming to Ciya (this is one of her favorite restaurants). And the desserts were mind-blowing, not so much in their taste (although they were delicious), but in the way the food was transformed. Here’s a picture of part of the dessert case. The red things on the left are tomatoes, and the round black things on the right are walnuts.

They looked candied, but they were actually put in a limestone container and combined with water, at least that’s what Banu thought, but she wasn’t exactly sure of the process. At any rate, the transformation of the food happens chemically with lime, rather than with heat. And they were so sweet, really like dessert. They were served either with a light goat cheese (which didn’t taste as pungent as goat cheese often does, and again, the sweetness of the cream was there) or a pureed root of some sort that looked like marshmallow cream. We ordered the tomatoes, walnuts, orange peel (you can see that a bit to the left of the tomatoes), and my favorite was the pumpkin (just slices of pumpkin hull that had been “candied” with limestone) with a tahini sauce. I’m telling you, it sounds bizarre but it was one of the most delicious things I had ever eaten.

And here’s the kebaps that Murat and Zeynep ate:

And here is what Henry ate:

We tried to convince him that the red drink made with sumac was cherry juice, but after one sip he was not fooled. They also served us a white cloudy drink made from melon seeds, which I thought tasted like a not-so-sweet horchata.

The meal was an amazing experience, and of course I’m angling to go again before I leave, which will have to be tonight because we leave tomorrow morning. Yikes! Can’t believe the trip is almost over. I’m a little sad of course to leave Istanbul and my dear friends, and Henry has talked about how much he will miss Zeynep. But I am really looking forward to seeing my family again, especially my daughter who has initiated potty training in my absence.



  1. That sounds very very delicious. Wow. I’d go for the stews AND the kebaps.

  2. I am saving all my money and I am taking Arijit to Turkey!

  3. […] you followed my past adventures in Istanbul, you will know my undying love for Ҫiya. It is an Istanbul establishment, was featured in a New […]

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