I have never really liked breakfast. I know it’s shocking, but I don’t like eggs and I don’t care for fluffy, sweet carbohydrates first thing in the morning.
So while I completely understand that there are people who love pancakes, or French toast, or cereal and eggs for breakfast, I have always favored more savory options from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.
As a child in Lebanon, I loved the flat, paper-thin “mountain bread” served with labneh and sometimes eaten with olives, mint, and radishes. I think manaeesh—a za'atar-spiced flatbread—rolled around labneh with pickled turnips, olives, and mint makes a spectacular start to the day, but sadly it requires a “saj,” a domed metal plate that rests over a flame (gas or charcoal), as well as mastery of the technique of stretching a round of dough until it’s super thin, then flicking it over said dome. As magnificent as it is in Beirut, where it’s available on every street corner, it’s pretty complicated to make back in our American world of small kitchens and not a lot of time in the morning to stretch dough and heat domed griddles.
I feel the same way about Vietnam’s breakfast treat pho, a rich broth fragrant with cinnamon and star anise, poured over rare beef and rice noodles, livened up with loads of fresh herbs, bean sprouts, fish sauce, and lime juice. A heady start to the day but not something that I’m about to make first thing in the morning before I rush off to work—especially since I like to sleep until the last possible moment, then eat something quick, nutritious, and energizing as well as really delicious.
So I felt really fortunate last winter, on a trip to Istanbul (we were there to celebrate the addition of the city of Gaziantep to the canon of UNESCO culinary heritage sites to discover what I call Turkish breakfast. (Of course, there are so many different breakfasts all around the huge, diverse country, there's no one that's truer than others.)
In addition to an array of global breakfast foods, the breakfast bar in the Conrad Hotel also had an amazing yogurt bar: tubs of stunningly fresh, tangy, creamy, thickened Turkish yogurt and a display of dried fruits and nuts, including mulberries, figs and apricots, pistachios, walnuts and sunflower seeds. You would select a suitable combination of these, then drizzle honey, tahini, and/or the ubiquitous Turkish pekmez grape syrup over the top. For chile heads like myself, there were various dried Turkish chiles in flakes and powders, including Urfa Biber (also known as isot pepper), which is a dark, almost winey-flavored chile with a faintly smoky flavor.
I was so delighted by this combination that I’ve adopted it as my go-to breakfast, even putting it on the brunch menu at my new restaurant, Nina June, in Rockport, Maine. It’s incredibly easy, as the only fresh ingredient you need to keep on hand is good yogurt. I happen to love Siggi’s Skyr, a thick yogurt from Iceland, but if that’s not available, Fage Greek yogurt is a fine substitute. If you have a great local yogurt at your farmers market, even better. (Or make your own.)
I confess that I filled my suitcase with special Turkish dried fruits that I haven’t been able to find here, like dried mulberries and very fine green raisins, but as I’ve eaten my way through my Turkish imports, those have been replaced with more readily-available apricots and cranberries, which I love because they aren’t too sweet.
It’s good to have two or three dried fruits, a couple of different nuts, and a few seeds like sesame, flax, or even hemp. I played around with various things I had in my pantry for sweetness and ultimately settled on date molasses, but honey is great or that Turkish favorite pekmez. I love a dollop of tahini on top—it’s like a little touch of grown-up peanut butter flavor and doubly good if you add some sesame seeds to the mix.
I admit I’ve even taking to filling a plastic bag with the nuts, fruits, and seeds to bring to the airport when I’m traveling. Combined with a plain yogurt—purchased after security—it’s a better meal than just about anything else you can find. You can’t bring the sweeteners, but you can usually at least find honey somewhere, even if it’s meant for tea.
Use this recipe as a guide and fill in or substitute with whatever you have or like best. Play around and experiment. I think three different ingredients in each category—fruits, nuts, seeds—makes for the most exciting dish, with multiple textures and layers of flavor, but if you only have one in each category, it’s still going to taste very good.
- 12 ounces thick plain yogurt, such as Siggi's, Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, or Fage
- 1 tablespoon well-blended tahini
- 1 tablespoon date molasses (silan)
- 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped walnuts
- 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped pistachios
- 1 tablespoon sunflower seeds
- 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
- 1 tablespoon flax seeds
- 2 ounces (2 to 4) dried figs, cut into eighths
- 2 ounces (6 to 8) dried apricots, cut into strips
- 2 ounces (about 2 or 3 tablespoons) dried cranberries
- 1 teaspoon dried mint
- 1 pinch Turkish dried crushed chile, Aleppo pepper, urfa biber, or isot (optional)