If you’re a Bostonian who likes to eat out, you’ve probably heard of Ana Sortun.
At age 19, this Seattle-born chef left the Pacific Northwest for Paris, where she earned her Grand Diplôme from the fabled La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine. Upon returning to the States in the early 90s, she began laying deep culinary roots in Massachusetts, and diners and critics alike took notice.
Today, with three restaurants, two cookbooks (the second drops this fall), and a prestigious James Beard award from a 2005 Best Chef / Northeast win, the talented Sortun plays a pivotal role in the Boston-area food scene.
Early Yogurt Disinterest, then an Invitation
Ana Sortun brings the Eastern Mediterranean to life through her food.
Her embrace of yogurt today is deeply rooted in her passion and respect for Turkish cuisine in particular, but things weren’t always this way. In her childhood and early adulthood, in fact, yogurt merited little respect. “It was nonfat or low-fat, always watery, with overly sugary fruit at the bottom. It just was not good.”
One night in the mid-90s, everything changed.
While cooking at Casablanca in Harvard Square, Sortun was introduced to a woman named Ayfer Unsal, who hailed from Southeast Turkey. Sortun recalls: “Ayfer was having dinner with my boss and said to him: ‘You should send your chef to study with me, and I’ll teach her everything I know.’ My boss had had a bit to drink and was really excited about the idea. He mentioned it to me, and I was like, ‘Wow… Turkey!’”
[Pictured above: Chef Ana Sortun with Ayfer Unsal, Gazientep, Turkey, 2012]
When she arrived in Turkey that first time – she has returned twice a year for the last 15 years – she realized just how little she’d known about this vital pocket of the Mediterranean. Yes, she’d been cooking the food of Italy, Spain, and southern France for years, but for her, Turkey was entirely new. “I was riveted by the food, the flavors. I was almost upset that I’d never known about it before. At that point, at least in Boston, Turkey hadn’t been well-represented in Mediterranean cuisine.”
After several more visits, she fully committed herself to narrowing her focus, drilling down more intently on Turkish food. It became a goal and a mission – even, she says, a course of study.
[Chef Ana Sortun baking flatbread with Restaurateur Musa Dagdeviren and Musa's nephew in Turkey in 2014]
Yogurt in Turkey, In Greece, In Sicily
Yogurt is a huge part of daily life and culture there, Sortun explains, adding “I realized what yogurt was supposed to be the first time I went to Turkey.”
She recalls: “I remember the real grass-fed milk in Turkey being incredibly flavorful and delicious, like a good cheese would be. The yogurt would just pool up on your spoon. The texture was so different. It was thicker, but not like Greek yogurt. It just wasn’t what I was used to. “
Her first drink of ayran, the salty Turkish yogurt drink, is a vivid taste memory, as is the classic pairing of yogurt with kebabs. “I remember having yogurt with manti (dumplings), which was basically pasta with yogurt! I thought, ‘This is the weirdest thing,’ when I first tried it, but I also appreciated how the yogurt made the dish appear lighter. Cooking with yogurt became really interesting for me after that time.”
That first trip brought her to Gaziantep in Southeastern Anatolia, where, she says, everyone had sheep or goats and made their own yogurt at home.
During subsequent trips back to the Mediterranean, she explored Greece, with a particular visit to the port city of Thessaloniki standing out. “When we visited, the cows grazed on a lot of horny thistle, these artichoke weeds in the pasture. And when they made the yogurt, it was so thick from the natural coagulants in the milk you could stand a spoon up in it.”
In Sicily, she remembers finding yogurt in the grocery store paired with grano, a form of wheat. “You’re almost eating cereal,” she explains. “They cook the grano then stir it into the yogurt, and it soaks up the yogurt without dissolving or making the yogurt too thick. It’s like little dumplings.”
Yogurt's Central Role in Sortun's + Her Partner Chefs' 3 Restaurants
It’s no surprise that all of these travels made an impression on the chef, and that these influences show up on her restaurant menus.
That yogurt with grano? Find it at Sofra, the healthy, quick-service bakery and café she co-owns in Cambridge. There, it’s served parfait-style: She poaches seasonal fruit (think strawberries, raspberries, pumpkin, rhubarb) and tosses the grano with the poaching syrup, then layers the fruit and grano with pristine yogurt she sources from Rhode Island-based Narraganset Creamery or directly from Greece via one of her suppliers.
At Oleana, which opened in 2001, she serves a cheese borek. “It’s soaked in yogurt. There’s dough and fresh cheese and yogurt and eggs, and it’s baked like a lasagna, like a kugel. We also do a vegetable borek, where we brush the pastry with lots of yogurt before it’s baked and roll it like cigars. It looks like cannellonis, stuffed with nettles, yogurt, brown butter, and cheese. We top it with a tomato brown butter sauce, a yogurt sauce and spices like sumac, maras pepper, and dried spearmint. It’s always on the menu at Oleana in one form or another.”
Both Oleana and Sofra also offer a beet tzatziki, a vibrantly colored mix of shredded beet, yogurt, lemon, garlic, dill, and olive oil.
Finally, at Sarma in Somerville, yogurt and sugar marry in a simple frozen yogurt that’s one of the restaurant’s signature desserts. The base is poured into a softserve machine and then served with a rotating army of deeply-flavored toppings. Current toppings on offer include mocha trifle, fig bisteeya, halva caramel, katayif chocolate covered banana, strawberry rhubarb creamsicle, black lime pavlova, fluffernutter, coconut muhalabiyah. Go with a group so you can try them all, but do not – this is important – skip the halva caramel. A housemade halva is whisked into a buttery caramel and produces a sauce that perfectly complements the yogurt’s clean acidity and tang.
It’s a combination I enjoyed on a visit to Sarma last September, one so memorable I thought of it again and again.
Sortun was quick to credit the sesame (halva) caramel to her Sofra co-owner and Executive Pastry Chef Maura Kilpatrick, who also co-authored the pair’s forthcoming cookbook, Soframiz: Vibrant Middle Eastern Recipes from Sofra Café and Bakery (Ten Speed Press, October 2016). The book is currently available for pre-order. And note that Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean, Sortun's 2006 cookbook, is worth your while as well.
While I urge you to order both books, those who can’t wait for the release of Soframiz will be pleased to know that Kilpatrick and Sortun have generously agreed to share their sesame caramel sauce recipe here. Try it over plain yogurt (fresh or frozen) and prepare to be wowed.
I ask Sortun what she wishes more people understood about yogurt as an ingredient, and she pauses, considering.
“Yogurt can take a lot of different spices,” she says.
A second later she adds, “But I also love yogurt with melted butter. It’s an amazing combination.”
One more beat, and a closing thought. “Yogurt also brings a lot of acidity and is a really good dairy sugar. If you’re marinating chicken, it caramelizes to make something naturally sweeter because of the milk sugar. Heavy cream just provides fat, but yogurt… yogurt provides fat, sugar, tang. It has so many dimensions.”
Note: Sortun co-owns all three of her restaurants with Gary Griffin. The pair shares ownership of Sofra with Executive Pastry Chef Maura Kilpatrick and co-owns Sarma with Executive Chef Cassie Piuma and Piuma's husband, Matt.
|| Purchase Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean ||
|| Pre-Order Soframiz: Vibrant Middle Eastern Recipes from Sofra Bakery & Cafe (forthcoming, Fall 2016) ||
Photographs of the Sofra Menu Board, Yogurt Parfait, and Caramel Sauce © Cheryl Sternman Rule
Lead photo of Ana Sortun © Susie Cushner (Courtesy Ten Speed Press)
Remaining Photos + Video Courtesy Ana Sortun