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Hot Chef: Oleana's Ana Sortun on why she likes to cook Turkish food

Ana Sortun of Oleana narrows down which spice is her favorite for us.

Visit Oleana at 134 Hampshire St. in Cambridge. For more info, go to www.oleanarestaurant.com. Credit: Susie Cushner Visit Oleana at 134 Hampshire St. in Cambridge. For more info, go to www.oleanarestaurant.com.
Credit: Susie Cushner

What do you like about Turkish cuisine?
I think I fell in love with it because of the way that they use spices. When I first arrived there, I didn’t really know what to expect. I didn’t really know much about Turkish cuisine or culture and I was pretty blown away by how sophisticated the food was, how the flavors were incredibly rich and deep and layered but nothing was heavy. For me, especially coming from a French-trained background, that was a complete revelation to me.

What’s your favorite thing you’ve brought back from Turkey?
All the plates on the wall at Sarma are from last year’s trip. The trays that hang over the meze bar at Sarma are from there as well.

Where’s your favorite place to eat around town?
It’s actually in Sudbury, which coincidentally happens to be where we live too. It’s called Oishii Too. It’s the brother in law of Oishii in Boston. It is incredible sushi.

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So you’re a big sushi fan?
I’ve been to my fair share of sushi places in town and out of town, and all over the place. I really love what they do [at Oishii Too]. They care so much and it’s really great. I’ve been going there for eight or nine years? And I always see other chefs there too.

What spice could you not live without?
I would have to say it’s this combination of dried herbs and spices? And there’s not a lot of dried herbs. There’s only three that we use. One is dried spearmint, the other is dried oregano and the last one is zaatar which is this dried wild hyssop that’s related to thyme. What I love so much about the eastern Mediterranean is the way that they blend those dried herbs with spices so it’s not straight up spices all the time like in Morocco or in India. The herbs bring in these other tones that are so different, whether they’re warm and sweet or earthy.

But if you had to pick one?
If I had to pick one category, I think I would say sumac was a big revelation for me. In Turkey it’s like a condiment. It’s used on a lot of things and with a very heavy hand. It’s very tart and acidic but also has this dried raisiny quality to it that’s almost like a dried lemon. It acts like lemon. It brings acidity and balance to dishes and was actually used when lemons were out of season. It tastes different depending on where you are. It’s sort of like wine, it has its terroir. In some instances, it can be almost smoky. It can be sort of tart, sour, sun-dried and smoky. It’s a really complex spice.

 
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