Japan, and especially this part of Japan, is not known for its ethnic diversity, which is reflected in the relatively narrow variety of international foods available. Yes, there are a few import stores here and there, and Fukuoka City has a decent range of non-Japanese eateries – including Jamaican, African, Russian, Thai, Latin American, and Indian restaurants – but the most exotic fare you’re likely to find here in Kitakyushu is tteokbokki or peanut butter.
Or so I thought. A few weeks ago, I was surprised and delighted to learn that a Turkish restaurant had recently opened downtown, serving up kebab, pilaf, and Turkish ice cream, among other delicacies. Recently, I had started to miss Middle Eastern food more than I ever thought I would, mostly thanks to the memory of Zankou‘s maddeningly juicy rotisserie chicken and sweet, creamy garlic sauce (I swear they put crack in that stuff). So the prospect of some spit-roasted meat and a little homemade hummus was very enticing.
But before I get into the food, I need to relay the story behind Restaurant Ertugrul: Cuisine of the Ottoman Empire. As I was paying my bill, I began talking with the owner, who said he came to Japan from Turkey thirteen years ago and had been running a used car dealership since then. Why he decided to open a restaurant, I failed to ask, but after reading a printout he handed to me and my dinner companion, I was able to glean at least a few of his reasons.
The printout told the story of the Ottoman frigate Ertugrul, which was shipwrecked in 1890 (22 years after the Meiji Restoration) off the coast of Wakayama due to a typhoon. Apparently, the Ertugrul was en route back to Turkey after a diplomatic mission to Yokohama and Tokyo, during which the “gallant and likeable” admiral Osman Pasha met with several high-ranking Japanese officials, including the Foreign Minister, Prime Minister, and even the Emperor. Friendly relations were quickly established, and so when the Ertugrul went down, its survivors were rescued by Japanese sailors and taken to Kobe, where they were treated with utmost hospitality and rapidly restored to health.
The Ertugrul story is now remembered as a foundation stone for Japan-Turkey friendship, but, in fact, it was more than that: It was the beginning of Japan’s modern encounter with the Islamic world as a whole.
So, according to the printout, Restaurant Ertugrul was built as a sort of monument “in honor of the sacrifice made by Osman Pasha and his crew in forging the first link in Japanese-Islamic friendship…. [it] will serve to introduce the cuisine and culture of lands that exist on the opposite end of the great continent of Asia.”
This kind of material is a food scholar’s jackpot. It’s got it all: the conflation of cuisine and culture, taste associations and collective memory, and my favorite, culinary tourism and food as a means of intercultural exchange. Wow. Frankly, it makes me giddy to know that there’s someone else, from somewhere completely foreign to me, who thinks about food in much the same terms that I do. I hope Ertugrul succeeds, if for no other reason than that I very much admire its mission. This is food with a purpose.
But as I know all too well, good intentions will only get you so far; what matters, in the end, is flavor. So how was it? For the most part, tasty. The first course was some white Turkish cheese that reminded me a bit of paneer, but more firm and more salty, well paired with a dark Turkish lager (I’m sorry, but I can’t recall the name, and it isn’t listed in the Beer Advocate database). Then came a light soup with the flavor of chili oil and lentils and a soft, grainy texture. After that, we were served the main course: salad, pilaf, and kebab. The salad was simple, but fresh, well-constructed, and not too wet. The pilaf was tasty but simplistic, as if to say, “this is the only pilaf in town, so Japanese rice studded with slivered almonds should be adequate.” And as for the kebab, it left my tastebuds searching for a bit more fat, a bit more moisture. It was flavorful and satisfying as it was, but it lacked that exuberant juiciness I’ve come to expect from Middle Eastern meat. But dessert was exceptional, a dish of stretchy, sweet Turkish ice cream garnished with dried fruit and chopped nuts. If you’ve never had Turkish ice cream, it has quite an interesting texture; resilient against the warmth of the tongue like soft taffy, but when it finally melts, it has the thick, rich consistency of heavy cream.
I whole-heartedly recommend Restaurant Ertugrul. While the food isn’t all that exciting, I get the impression that there’s a certain passion behind it, a sort of nostalgic patriotism with which I can certainly identify. Though there are more tasty meals to be had in Kokura for 2000¥, few of them come with such a compelling backstory.
Restaurant Ertugrul レストランエルトゥールル
Kokura Kita-ku Uomachi 1-4-9 小倉北区魚町１−４−９
Fukuoka-ken Kitakyushu-shi 802-0006 福岡県北九州市８０２−０００６