Selin Kiazim: My Career in Five Dishes
Selin Kiazim's cooking has entranced Londoners for half a decade, during which she's experienced both success and setbacks. She shares her career-defining dishes
When the news broke that Kyseri was closing its doors for good in late 2019, anyone lucky enough to have sampled Selin Kiazim's manti – fat Turkish dumplings, Kiazim's take on them filled with beef and sour cherry – mourned the loss of a exceptional restaurant.
When Kiazim revealed that she had made the decision to close her Bloomsbury restaurant herself, and would be overseeing the opening of a brand new concept in that same space, we all breathed a sigh of relief.
But it was just seven months until said concept, Oklava Bakery + Wine – an extension of her first restaurant Oklava, with a focus on freshly baked pogaca buns and eclectic Turkish wine – was forced to close permanently as a consequence of the pandemic.
We have done a lot more mourning since then; a tragic number of lives and livelihoods have been lost along the way, and many brilliant restaurants have closed for good.
Yet, in spite of everything, Kiazim has remained right where she's always been: at the heart of the action, feeding people.
Whether it was through helping Hackney's Morningside & Gascoyne Youth Club deliver nutritious lunches to school children and their families over half term, or scrapping the traditional service charge to incorporate it into menu prices to ensure her staff receive a fairer wage, Kiazim has remained resolute in her mission to serve her community throughout the pandemic.
"I just want to feed good people with good food," she says. "That’s what I've always done, and what I’ll always try to do."
Beginning her kitchen career at Peter Gordon's The Providores, Kiazim moved swiftly up the ranks before taking over as head chef of Gordon's sister restaurant Kopapa in 2012.
Solo success followed as she caught the attention of the public and the press through a series of pop-ups. Selin's first brick and mortar premises, Oklava, opened in Shoreditch in 2015 and her unique and exciting brand of modern Turkish cooking – inspired by her own Turkish-Cypriot upbringing and childhood summers spent in northern Cyprus – has besotted Londoners ever since.
Kyseri was "the wrong place, the wrong time, the wrong concept," she says, and Oklava Bakery + Wine's "strong snack game" wasn’t enough to weather Covid’s storm but – at the time of writing – Oklava still stands strong.
And in these times, one thing we're certain of is that Selin Kiazim the kind of chef we need now more than ever.
Crispy fried red mullet
"This dish comes from my family in Cyprus. When I was growing up, my grandfather would take a three-hour round trip on his tractor – because he never drove a car, always a tractor – and he'd drive over the hills and bring back a bag full of red mullet and some other little fish. My grandmother would then dust them in loads of flour and fry them in their own homemade olive oil until they were all really crispy. We'd go and pick all the salad ingredients and make the most amazing fresh salad to go with it and it's just heaven. I love it."
Spiced bread and medjool date butter
"There are only two things in this dish and they’re both very, very dear to me. The bread is my grandmother's bread, which she would make in her wood-burning oven. We used to go to Cyprus every summer on holiday and her bread would be one of the first things we'd eat, toasted over an open flame and spread with her amazing strawberry jam. It just tastes like home, and when I was writing the menu for Oklava, it was the first thing that went on there. Bread is so important in Turkish culture – it goes with every single meal, and this bread in particular just brings back great memories.
The date butter goes with it really well. I actually created it by accident years ago when I was head chef at Kopapa. I had some friends coming in for a last meal before they moved back to New Zealand. I was making them a special menu and I saw this little tub of medjool dates that had been cooked in a black vinegar syrup, so I just took a dollop of it and blitzed it into the butter. I banked the idea and started serving it at my pop-ups,. and people would ask if they could have some more."
Pomegranate-glazed lamb breast
"When I became head chef at Kopapa, I really wanted to start developing my own style. I had the idea of doing modern Turkish stuff and wanted to slowly start bringing that in and experimenting with it a little bit. Lamb is my favourite meat and I decided around then that I wanted to make the best lamb dish I could possibly make.
We started off doing slow-cooked lamb ribs in this pomegranate glaze until one day one of the chefs overcooked all the ribs so much that all the meat fell off the bone. That's how it developed into this dish where we braise the whole lamb breast, pick out all the bones, press it, and then crisp it up so you get beautiful soft meat that's all caramelised on the outside. We add a load of spices and pomegranate molasses to the liquor produced in the process and make this really rich, intense glaze for the lamb before serving it with a bit of yoghurt and some fresh herbs. Sometimes customers dictate which dishes stay with you and which ones define you and ever since I've had that on the menu, the people go crazy for it."
"The şeftali kebab is the kebab of Cyprus – they do it on both sides of the border, except on the Turkish side they don't eat pork so they make it with either beef or lamb mince. It’s basically a kofte with loads of onions and parsley in there. I like to put a little bit of Turkish chilli flake in there, too. We wrap it in lamb caul fat which is very – well – fatty and can be quite difficult to work with. But I think it gives the best flavour. You then wrap the kofte into little sausages, skewer them up, and cook them over low coals.
It's just the perfect marriage. There's quite a lot of fat there – which is a good thing because the fat is where the flavour is, and the coals (as long as they’re not too hot) will gently cook it and start to render out all of that fat while the smoke that you get from it flicks up and licks the meat. It's a perfect thing and you have it with a wedge of lemon and then a fresh little salad before wrapping it up in a flatbread. It's very simple. There’s a lot of technique involved in making it but you’re only talking about a handful of ingredients treated with loads of love."
"This dish was something of a happy accident. I took a trip to Istanbul quite a few years ago, went to a few different markets and bought this little tub of pepper paste back home with me. Pepper paste is used a lot in Turkish cooking for braising meats or in stews. When I was back home in London, I wanted to make dinner and rarely for me I only had a few things in my fridge.
One of them was a head of cauliflower, the other was this pepper paste and then also some parsley, so I just started winging this thing together. I rubbed the paste all over the cauliflower, then I roasted it, then I sat down to eat it and thought 'Actually this is really interesting.' I’d never seen anything like it before so I started serving it at the pop-ups, and thanks again to the customers, it’s been on the Oklava menu since day one. We still get people saying 'I’ve never had cauliflower like that.' It just goes to show that sometimes the less you think about a dish, the better."