Oklava's Selin Kiazim on modern Turkish-Cypriot cuisine
When, at the age of 25, Selin Kiazim said she’d revolutionise Turkish food in London, she really wasn't kidding. She tells us why London was so ready for her unique style of cooking
By Lydia Winter
Published: Tuesday 2nd May 2017
What does rice pudding mean to you? For many of us, it's likely to evoke memories of strawberry jam and school dinners. Yet this quintessentially British dish is actually related to a traditional dessert in Cyprus and mainland Turkey, where, explains British-born, Turkish-Cypriot-descended chef Selin Kiazim, it's a simple, baked dish, topped with cinnamon.
"But my version is a bit different," she says. "It's more like a rice pudding brûlée. Getting the consistency right is quite technical; I caramelise the sugar on top, which is very French, then I garnish it with rum jelly, top it with caramelised pineapple and marinated lychees, and add flavours like sour tamarind. You just wouldn't see that in Turkish cooking – that's me, that's how I've developed it."
This dish demonstrates everything you need to know about Kiazim's approach to food at Oklava, her hit restaurant on Shoreditch's Luke Street. It uses the core elements of a traditional Turkish recipe, mixing it up with old-school French technique and completely unexpected flavours.
In short, it's culinary alchemy, with a touch that's entirely unique to Kiazim. It's unsurprising that her talents have seen her collect a raft of acolytes; among them is Giles Coren, who radically proclaimed that her cooking has "the potential to change lives".
That's a hell of a statement, and one that might be a lot of responsibility for a 31 year old to shoulder, but Kiazim is nakedly ambitious. Aged 20, she set herself the goal of opening her first restaurant before she turned 30; at 25, she promised she would revolutionise Turkish food in Britain.
I'm showing people what can be done with Turkish food
Just over a year after the opening of Oklava (which she did aged 29), it's safe to say Kiazim has achieved her goals and then some: the restaurant is going strong; her first cookbook, Oklava: Recipes from a Turkish-Cypriot Kitchen, is published this month; and there are plans in the pipeline to open a second site later this year, although Kiazim remains tight-lipped on the subject.
She's clearly driven and talented, yet wears these qualities lightly; sample her food and the natural conclusion you come to is that her cooking is so good it speaks for itself, and doesn't need a loud personality to shout about it.
There's no shortage of authentic Turkish restaurants in London – the north-east, especially the area around Green Lanes in Haringey, is particularly well populated by Turkish expats and their businesses – so why has it taken so long for this widely loved cuisine to get the modern-London treatment?
"It's tricky because it's always been an affordable food that people know well," Kiazim points out. Putting a higher price point on a street-food dish that's known for being cheap was always going to draw criticism, and some would deem it unnecessary, but, she says, she was never fazed by it: "That has its place, but I'm trying to do something different."
What's more, she's adamant in her belief that "there's so much more to the perception of Turkish cuisine. People know the mezzes and the breads, which are fantastic, but people haven't experienced much more beyond."
It's the feedback from these traditionalists that Kiazim treasures the most. At the end of the day, she asserts, "I'm showing them what can be done with Turkish food and taking it to the next level. It's not something they've seen before and then they get excited by it."
Carving a niche in a well-represented cuisine is no mean feat, although Kiazim was always in a position to do it. Born in north London to Cypriot expat parents, she spent her childhood summers in Cyprus, eating the food of her mother and grandmother.
The cooking there differs from that of mainland Turkey: where Turkey uses butter, Cyprus uses olive oil; where Turkey uses dried fruits and nuts, Cypriot cuisine features lemons, parsley, and other ingredients that evoke the region's sun-drenched climate. Kiazim describes it simply as "island cooking."
She's taken these flavours and translated them: the classic Turkish boat-shaped pide bread, traditionally stuffed with cheese and ground meat, has become a thing of elegance, filled with delicate chunks of marinated octopus, thyme, pickled caper leaves and curls of hard ricotta, and finished with a generous drizzle of honey. Elsewhere there's crispy, pomegranate-glazed lamb breast, served with yoghurt; and a side dish so good it's become a signature in its own right: nutty pearl barley with sour cherries, topped with crispy kale, yoghurt, chilli butter and sheep's cheese.
These dishes leverage Kiazim's background and the recipes of her mother and grandmother, giving them her characteristic modern, confident touch – something she began to develop during her chef's diploma, and then honed when working under Peter Gordon of The Providores and Tapa Room, who remains
her mentor and a long-time fan.
Having been involved with restaurants in Istanbul for 16 years, he's an authority on authentic Turkish cooking, and he recognises Kiazim's ability to marry tradition with what he calls a 'London 2017 tweak'. "Selin's twists aren't always obvious, and it gives her food an intriguing edge while still paying homage to her ancestors," says Gordon. "Her flavours and creations are terrific," he continues. "She knows how to balance a dish and meld the sweetness of honey with the sharp notes of pomegranate molasses, combine it with a charcoal-grilled piece of meat, and produce a delicious meal."
High praise from a chef known as the father of fusion food, and who's responsible for introducing a wide array of previously unheard of ingredients into our store cupboards – and testament to how Kiazim has developed a style that's all her own.
She cites her time at The Providores, and later at Kopapa, another restaurant in Gordon's stable, as a turning point in her career, saying it was 'vital' to where she's ended up – not only when it comes to her cooking but also her skill in running a happy business. "Peter always blew my mind with the things that he would put together," Kiazim says. "Although I don't do complete fusion, it taught me to not set strict boundaries, and if it tastes delicious, to go with it."
i don’t do complete fusion, but i don’t set strict boundaries
Kiazim delivers this with quiet confidence; it's not hard to see how her strength of personality made her shine to an industry stalwart like Gordon in the first place; "I knew she would one day get a restaurant," he says, "and that one day she would write a book and in all likelihood do television. Secretly I hoped she would forge the way for other female chefs, as there just aren't enough at the top of the game – although I didn't realise all this would happen quite so soon."
Yet it had never occurred to Kiazim to follow the more traditional path of working her way up the ladder before branching out on her own: "Before I left college, I was already developing a clear idea that I wanted to do something of my own and that it would most likely be a restaurant. I had the overwhelming desire to be cooking my own food and doing things the way I wanted to."
Once she had spotted the gap in the market for this kind of Turkish food, her conviction became unshakable. "When you believe in something enough, you can convince anyone it's going to work. I was fearless."
With such steely, single-minded determination to drive her, it's unsurprising that Gordon's hopes are well on their way to being met. Her cookbook is as well thought-out as her restaurant, balancing her family recipes with a modern touch.
Lovers of the restaurant will recognise favourite dishes, like the pides, the lamb breast and Kiazim's knock-out puddings, but there's a wealth of new content, too – short ribs braised in a Turkish spice mix known as çemen, with brown butter bread sauce; roast duck salad with sumac onions, poached figs and salted walnuts; simple streaky bacon sandwiches, slathered with umami-laden medjool date butter.
Oklava: The Cookbook – in pictures:
Most of the dishes detail how she came to develop them: bulgur wheat koftes are based on her mum's friend's recipe; fried red mullet with pickled apricots and caper leaves is what Kiazim's grandmother made when Selin visited Cyprus as a child, "but picking the salad fresh from her garden was an incredible taste sensation," Kiazim reminisces. "I want people to be able to recreate that."
This passion for bringing these flavours to London's kitchens, both in restaurants and at home, threads through everything Kiazim does. "I wanted to create a book that people love using. I want someone to show me their book in a year's time and for it to be beaten up and crinkly around the edges because they've been using it so much. I want people to be able to achieve what we cook at Oklava."
So what does the future hold? "My next goal is to open another restaurant with a different concept," Kiazim says. "There's just so much more to explore that hasn't been done yet." Kiazim may have already achieved a lot, but she's only just getting started.
'Oklava: Recipes from a Turkish-Cypriot Kitchen' is out on 4 May, published by Mitchell Beazley.