Hours before the sun rises over Van, a city in the far east of Turkey fringed by rolling hillsides and a spectacular lake, preparations are already well underway for the most important meal of the day. By 5 a.m., the scent of oven-hot flatbreads and freshly brewed Turkish tea is wafting across Kahvaltıcılar Çarşısı — Van’s famous so-called “Breakfast Street” — as dozens of traders open for business to serve up the region’s ritual morning feast.
Over the course of each day, thousands will pass through this cobbled pedestrian street thought to be Ground Zero for the world’s capital of breakfasts. “There is nothing except breakfast during the day here,” says Kenan Coşkun, who, along with his brother, runs one of the oldest breakfast joints in the city, Sütçü Kenan. “I mean, no bagels, no sandwiches, no soup, no patties, no kebab, no lunch, no fish in the evening, no live music, no hookah, no alcohol. Breakfast only.” While Turkey is famed for its breakfasts, Van is the capital of the epic, sprawling serpme kahvaltı, or breakfast spread. These morning banquets can contain up to 30 different dishes, and they often have a heavy emphasis on the prized dairy produce from livestock that graze on the surrounding Anatolian plateaus.
Those specialties include kaymak clotted buffalo cream; martuğa, a thick roux of butter and flour mixed with crispy scrambled egg; kavut, a sweet porridge-like paste made of ground wheat toasted in butter and sugar; and Van’s famed otlu peynir, a crumbly and potent white cheese often blended with local wild leeks, mountain thyme, fennel, mint, and, most notably, a garlicky herb called sirmo. Often these breakfasts will be served with more traditional Turkish dishes like tahini and grape molasses; cacık, a thick dip made of yogurt and cucumber; a rainbow of jams from sour cherry to walnut and apricot; as well as pots of local honey (or in the best places, entire slabs of honeycomb) and plates of fragrant raw vegetables.
“You have to have lots of different small plates of local delicacies,” says Aylin Oney Tan, one of Turkey’s leading food writers. “That is what Van’s breakfasts are all about. There won’t be space for anything else on the table.”
The origins of Van’s legendary breakfast culture are the subject of debate. According to Tan, it emerged in the mid-20th century as farmers from the nearby villages would bring their produce to the city’s bus terminal early in the morning for sale. “They set up these very small breakfast joints, with fresh, puffy pide bread, churned butter and cheeses,” she says. Others point to the earlier precedents of Ottoman culinary culture and Van’s location on the Silk Road, an ancient trade route linking the Western world with the Middle East and Asia that would have supplied a constant flow of ravenous travelers. But locals say the more modern history of Van breakfasts can with certainty be linked to the development of so-called “milk houses” — which would serve early morning meals of milk, cheese and bread to laborers — in the 1940s.
By Peter Yeung,