25 May 2023

Turkey's own Masterchef says there's more to his country's delicious cuisine than kebabs and baklava

| Genevieve Jacobs
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man holding cookbook

Chef Sivrioglu says Australians only taste a limited selection of Turkish food. Photo: G Jacobs.

So you think Masterchef Australia is a big deal?

Somer Sivrioglu roars with laughter and tells Region it’s nothing compared with Masterchef Turkey, where the Sydney-based chef behind restaurants Anason and Efendy has been a judge for the past six years.

And it’s a wildly successful role, too: the show is the most popular thing on Turkish television, showing six episodes per week, each of them two hours long. Each series is a 180-hour marathon that has the locals gripped with competitive fervour.

“It’s tension, it’s drama, it’s everything you want in a good reality show!” he says.

A vegetarian Turkish feast celebrates Turkish cuisine week. Photo: G Jacobs.

Chef Sivrioglu is explaining all this at the Turkish Embassy residence, where he’s been demonstrating how to prepare savoury sweet cheesecakes drenched in sugar syrup and topped with pistachios. Stretchy soft cheese oozes from the kataifi string pastry, burnished golden brown by butter spiked with saffron or turmeric and topped with clotted buffalo cream.

The cooking demonstration is followed by a vegetarian feast of lentil and burghul salads, braised eggplant and tomato, freshly made creamy hummus, and Turkish bread washed down with pomegranate juice spiced with cinnamon.

The event is in honour of International Turkish Cuisine Week. Chef Sivrioglu says most Australians have a very limited view of his home country’s culinary tradition.

“Turkish food came here as the immigrant food. So many people couldn’t translate their jobs when they arrived here so they started to cook, they started to do the easiest thing that a migrant does – kebabs and baklava,” he explains.

“But if you go to the Western part of Turkey, the focus is on the abundance of vegetables, greens, the abundant, abundant use of olive oil.

“Then you go to the northern part of Turkey where you have lots of little fish dishes. So it’s the variety and abundance that I think we miss in Australia, the regional differences. The land is abundant, so whatever the land gives you, you cook with it.”

chef at kitchen table

Cooking demonstration at the Turkish embassy residence. Photo: Brendan Smyth.

Masterchef Turkey isn’t Chef Sivrioglu’s first experience in front of a camera. He was also a guest on the Australian show several times before being offered a starring role in his home country.

He was physically prepared for filming over long hours on set but admits to brushing up on his cultural influences.

While he’s retained fluent Turkish, presenting with food terms was more challenging, and he needed to refresh his memory on the many traditional Turkish dishes contestants recreated in the challenges. It’s been quite a marathon.

“I said I’ll do it for one season. Six years later, I’m still doing it, and I’m loving it. It’s great for me because I came to Australia 25 years ago and lost that connection with the regional Turkish cuisine.

“Being on Masterchef Turkey gives me a chance to learn regional dishes and bring them back to my restaurants here.”

bowl of salad

Fine burghul salad with pomegranate seeds. Photo: G Jacobs.

Modern Turkish cuisine is in an exciting stage of growth and flux, he says. More and more chefs are honing their craft overseas before returning home to experiment.

“We always say it’s about respecting the tradition but embracing the innovation. Make it more palatable to people and change it without losing respect for the tradition.”

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