The divine ingredient

Turkish lamb is food for the gods.

lamb chop 88 (photo credit: )
lamb chop 88
(photo credit: )
'Let's slaughter a sheep" has long been the Middle Eastern metaphor for "let's have a party." In the Book of Exodus, Moses and Aaron were commanded to have the Hebrews slaughter one lamb per household. There were even instructions on how to cook it, making roast lamb a rare biblical recipe: "Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted, its head with its legs and its inner parts" (Exodus 12:9). That must have been some party! But after all, this was a feast to celebrate a grand event - preparing the Jews to leave Egypt and take control of their own destiny. In fact, sheep were valued in our region since a much earlier epoch. According to Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia, sheep were probably first domesticated in what is now northern Iraq about 11,000 years ago. Lamb remains the most prized meat of the Mideast to this day. When I visited her city of Gaziantep in southeast Turkey, my friend Filiz Hosukoglu told me that she grew up without eating beef. Lamb, which was much more common in her area, was the meat served on her family's table. Gaziantep, according to the city's tourism director Mehmet Dogan, is the oldest city in the world that is still functioning. The city's name used to be Antep, and it is still referred to by this name by many in the region. In Turkey, he explained, from a culinary standpoint, Gaziantep is Mecca - which is why we went there. Throughout Turkey, the city is renowned for its superb lamb and its excellent kebabs and other lamb dishes. Fittingly, the first dish we tasted in Gaziantep featured lamb, or rather mutton. There, mutton is not looked down upon; it is tasty and used in many dishes. We ate it as the topping of lahmacun, a thin cheeseless pizza (often spelled "lahmajun" outside Turkey), for which Gaziantep is famous. It was absolutely delicious. We sampled it not in a restaurant, but at the elegant home of Nuket-Celal Ersoy. The meat was ground very fine and combined with parsley, semi-hot green peppers and tomatoes, and seasoned with salt and red and black pepper. Nuket explained that in winter the topping is different: the lamb is combined with onion and pomegranate molasses. She said it's always made with mutton, not lamb. At Cagdas restaurant in Gaziantep's Old Town, Mr. Dogan showed us the preferred way to eat lahmacun: You spread it with eggplant puree, fold it in half and eat it with bites of semi-hot peppers. Throughout our stay, we sampled many creative lamb dishes. At Cagdas there was lamb stew in tomato sauce, and a wonderful dish called ali nazik, ground lamb kebab sitting atop a rich sauce of roasted eggplant and garlic. At home, we learned, people make it with stir-fried ground lamb instead of kebab. Also delicious were the eggplant kebabs, made by alternating eggplant slices with lamb pieces on the skewers, then grilling them. In Istanbul, too, we enjoyed one tasty lamb dish after another. We especially liked ozbek pilavi, a specialty of Kanaat restaurant on Istanbul's Asian side, made of rice cooked with carrots, chickpeas, currants and pine nuts and enriched with the juices from a braised lamb chop which accompanied it. The lamb of Turkey is delicate in flavor; even the mutton did not have a strong aroma. When it comes to choosing mutton, Nuket explained, it's important that it be from a male. Her husband added that in Gaziantep, they don't use the meat of the ewes until they're very old, as they give milk. And what milk it is! Mr. Murat, one of the owners of Kanaat, told us that sheep's milk is the best there is, and is the key to the quality of the ice cream for which the restaurant is famous. Diners at the restaurant also enjoy luscious sheep's milk yogurt, so thick that you can eat it with a fork. Middle Eastern Grilled Lamb Chops At casual eateries in Istanbul that specialize in doner kebab (what we know as shwarma), one of the most popular sandwiches is iskender kebab, made of slices of hot grilled lamb set on warm flatbread and coated with a tomato sauce, then topped with grilled hot peppers. At the restaurants, they use doner kebab to make the sandwich, but at home, people make it with grilled chunks of lamb. This lamb chop recipe combines the same flavors in a different way. The sauce, which is also delicious with chicken or with grilled eggplant, is easy to prepare. Slice the lamb and serve it on warm pita with the sauce, or serve the lamb with rice pilaf. 1 fresh hot pepper (optional) 4 small fresh semi-hot peppers, grilled and peeled (see note following recipe) 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil 1 large onion, chopped 2 red sweet peppers or 1 red and 1 green, diced 2 cloves garlic, chopped 700 grams ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped, or an 800-gram can tomatoes, drained and chopped Salt and freshly ground black pepper 8 rib lamb chops, about 4 cm. thick If using a hot pepper, discard seeds and ribs if you like, and finely chop the pepper. Heat oil in a deep skillet. Add onion and cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, for five minutes or until soft but not brown. Add sweet peppers and cook, stirring often, about five minutes or until they soften. Add garlic and chopped hot pepper and saute one minute. Add tomatoes and a pinch of salt. Cook uncovered over medium heat, stirring often, 20 to 30 minutes or until sauce is thick. Taste and adjust seasoning. Heat barbecue or stove-top grill, or preheat broiler with rack about three inches from heat source. Trim excess fat from lamb chops and sprinkle them with pepper. Put chops on hot grill or hot broiler rack. Grill or broil about six minutes per side or until done to your taste. To check for doneness, press meat with your finger; if lamb is fairly firm, it is medium to well-done. Meanwhile, reheat sauce in a saucepan over medium heat. Serve sauce alongside chops. Makes 4 servings. To grill semi-hot peppers: Put whole peppers, with core and stems still on, in preheated broiler or on hot grill. Broil or grill peppers until their skins are blistered and slightly charred all over but still firm; do not let them burn - about five to seven minutes total. During broiling, turn peppers often with tongs so another side faces flame. Transfer peppers to a bowl and cover; or put them in a paper or plastic bag and close bag. Let stand for 10 minutes. If your skin is sensitive, wear gloves when handling hot chiles. Peel peppers using paring knife. Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.