Esra Muslu first came to London when she was 18 to study, but later left to do a degree in Culinary Arts at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. Working with Nick Jones as a head chef in Soho House Istanbul brought her to London again and a few years later, Zahter was born.
Zahter showcases a true Istanbulite cuisine with its rich and vibrant flavours, with many dishes cooked over coals. We caught up with Esra to find out all about Zahter.
How did it all start?
I got a taste for cooking when I was 18 when I was staying with an English-Jewish lady in Stanmore. She was an incredible cook and taught me everything she knew! We’d make traditional Jewish dishes like Matzah crackers and chicken soup. I used to call it the witches’ soup because she used the whole carcass for the stock, feet and all, but it was one of my favourites. I cook more of my native Turkish cuisine now.
Tell us all about the menu at Zahter?
The menu at Zahter is focused on authentic Turkish cooking. You’ll come across a lot of dishes you may not be familiar with from regions all over the country from the coast to the dishes of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans do a lot of slow cooking with lamb shoulder and game, dried fruits and nuts – not spices at all – but Turkish cuisine also has a lot for vegetarians and vegans. A lot of our menu is suitable for vegetarians without using processed meat alternatives.
How is Istanbul’s food different to the rest of Turkey?
Regional food in Turkey is extremely varied, but in Istanbul you can find cuisine from all over. It’s a total melting pot of cultures and worldwide flavours. For example in Izmir on the coast, you’ll find a lot more olive oil-based dishes and a lot of fish with fresh flavours. We have something like that on the menu at Zahter – Sea bass with chimichurri cooked over a coal grill, whereas in Antep you’ll find much more meats, spices, bulgur and freekeh, balanced with the sourness of sumac.
What new flavour combinations or ingredients have recently caught your attention?
I live near Towpath Café on the Regent’s Canal in East London. I love what they’re doing there especially that cheese toasty with quince jelly that I had there recently and will never forget. I regularly go to Kiln, the Thai restaurant in Soho. The spice and balance of Thai food fascinates me – the perfect combination of sourness, sweetness and heat. I love the sweet potato noodles there.
Any future signature dishes you are working on currently that you can tell us about?
We’re planning to bring on a new, slow-cooked lamb shank dish for the colder months. This is an Ottoman Empire-inspired dish – it will be cooked slowly for 12 hours in stock and will be finished with prunes, almonds and pomegranate seeds with Keskek as a base.
How important is sustainability in the dishes you create?
Sustainability is very important to us. Cooking with seasonal produce is where that starts, then using any scraps or meat offcuts to make incredible stocks so nothing is wasted. We’re donating all of our plastics to our neighbours in Carnaby, a furniture company called Are You MAD (Making a Difference). They’re recycling single-use plastics from the neighbourhood to make all kinds of homewares and give it a second life. It’s like an art gallery. We also used Wildfarmed flour in our Pide and other Turkish bread, which comes from a regenerative farm here in the UK where they grow wheat in a way that improves soil health.
What do you like to cook at home?
Lately, I’ve been cooking a lot of fish at home, whatever is in season. Some people might be surprised to learn that fish is actually great in the winter. When the water is colder the fish become fattier and tastier. When it snows in Turkey, that’s when we want fish. At the moment I also make lots of vegetables or salads on the side.
Top 3 favourite restaurants in the UK?
Brat – I go once or twice a month to the original one in Shoreditch, their potatoes and vegetable side dishes are excellent.
Barrafina in Soho – I like to go to a bit of everything but the tortilla and chipirones are my favourite.
Kiln – My favourite for Thai food.
What is next for you at Zahter?
We’ve just brought on a pre-theatre menu which is available from 2:30pm-6pm. It’s a great option for anyone going to a show in the nearby theatres like the Apollo or the Palladium. For £29.50 or £36.50 including wine, you can get cold mezzo, hot mezze and a platter. It’s great for mixing up and sharing. We also have a private space in our loft for Christmas private hire.
To discover more, visit: zahter.co.uk
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All imagery courtesy of Zahter.