Those in Istanbul with a fried chicken craving can turn to faceless American fast food chains (Popeyes and KFC are both in town) or to newly trendy spots popping up in neighborhoods like Beşiktaş and Kadıköy. But those looking for quality and something different have a much better option: Syrian broasted chicken (or simply broasted in local Syrian dialect), served at the many chicken joints that have opened up throughout the city in recent years.
Broasted chicken is named after the Broaster pressure cookers brand, first designed in Wisconsin in the early 1950s. Unlike an open-air fryer, this more sophisticated contraption seals the battered bird in what resembles a pressure cooker, releasing steam at the optimal time for a juicer, crispier and less greasy piece.
Syrian chefs in Istanbul told us different theories of how the machine originally made its way to Syria. The story mainly centers around Syrians living in the United States, Latin America or the Arab Gulf bringing the technique and the device back with them to Syria. The machine may be American, but Syrians have made “broasting” distinctly their own. And with more than half a million Syrians who have arrived to Istanbul since 2011, Syrian fast food – broaster chicken included – has also appeared throughout the city.
These joints face tough competition from their local counterparts, with Turkish fast food equivalents that rival most dishes on offer – for shawarma, wherener kebap gold so much. Kibbeh? İçli köfte. Kebab? Well, kebap. The one chink in the armor is fried chicken – the Syrian main dish. With Turkey currently experiencing double-digit inflation and a currency collapse, poultry offers a cheaper, healthier substitute to pricier red meat.
We decided to check out some of the city’s top broaster spots to see whether we could believe the hype. After weekly Friday prayers, families in the Fatih district of Istanbul shuffle into the second floor of Grand Manar to eat. Despite the crowds, chef Sayed Ferjani was kind enough to walk us through what makes his broasted so tasty. Originally from the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria, Ferjani has led the kitchen at Grand Manar for the last five years.
He was welcoming but firmly declined our advances to know the spice mix of his 12-hour marinade. Still, from what we could see, everything from curry powder to fresh ginger went into the blend. Chef Ferjani tossed the chicken in a wheat and corn flour batter before dropping the assortment of chicken pieces into his Henny Penny-brand broaster. He locked the lid and set the timer for 12 minutes.
Chef Ferjani brought our half portion which came with four pieces of chicken, French fries, Russian salad, pickles and toum cream – a punchy aioli-like garlic spread.
When asked what made the chicken so tasty, chef Ferjani replied: naves. The word translates to “breath” in both Arabic and Turkish, but in the context of Syrian cooking, it refers to the “it factor” that makes some people’s food exceptional. Chef Ferjani loves his job. “You can taste it, can’t you?” he asked, knowing how we would answer if our mouths weren’t full.
Down the road in the Aksaray neighborhood, another spot, Anas Chicken, has cornered a major thoroughfare with two locations on either side of the block. Originally from Damascus but now with five restaurants across Istanbul, it is prime broasted chicken in a prime location. The Aksaray setting exudes a fast-casual vibe, with bright lime green chairs and promotional posters disguised as aspirational life goals, such as “Enjoy Life, Eat Anas Chicken,” plastered on the walls.
As we looked through the menu (offered in three languages: Arabic, Turkish and English), we observed a suite of customers, mostly Arabic speakers and Somalis, walk in and know immediately what they wanted. The rhythm was quick, both behind and in front of the counter.
The plate of broasted chicken we ordered was absolutely delicious. The crunchy poultry contained warm spices, including hints of coriander, and appeared immune to the sogginess to which ordinary fried chicken inevitably succumbs. The fries were light with a hint of chicken seasoning, and the toum cream was accompanied with a side of spicy mayonnaise, a saucer of bracing pickles and peppers, and a small bag of Syrian flatbread.
A few blocks down, Sahtin offers a more familial vibe to Anas’s slick, corporate setting. The name literally means “double health,” but is a term used in the Levant as the equivalent of enjoy your food. The first step of Sahtin’s broasted is to dip chicken into ice. “It removes that chicken smell, you know?” Hotaifa, the chef, told us. Although we had no idea what he was talking about, we nodded along in agreement.
Interestingly, broasted is listed under the “Western” side of the restaurant’s menu. Unlike many of the “Eastern” dishes – mainly Syrian or pan-Arab recipes – broasted brings in more international clientele, including diners from Indonesia, South Asia and Europe, according to Sahtin’s manager.
Out of the broasted plates tried in Istanbul, this was by far the most decorative. The ice-dipped chicken came on a bed of lettuce, surrounded by raw vegetables, and generous schmears of toum cream and ketchup. The sweet, vocally FC Barcelona-supporting waiter also brought us a plate of hummus and a torpedo-shaped kibbeh as lagniappe.
We weren’t finished yet. Our friend Tarek remodels restaurants in Istanbul and said he knew a special place for broasted. So, we traveled to the middle-class immigrant neighborhood of Bahçeşehir, where you can find food from Afghanistan to Yemen. On the side of a strip mall sits Abdul Hamid, an eatery which traces back to 1975 – owner Abu Mazin Abu Hamid first opened his restaurant Andaleeb (“Nightingale”) back in Syria, which then eventually evolved into four branches of Abu Hamid.
“Broasted was the first thing I ever learned to cook,” Abu Mazin told us in his shop. “I loved it and have stuck with it until now.” Abu Mazin eventually became a sheikh al kar of broasted – a Syrian term to refer to a master of a craft – and others looking to open up restaurants would come to consult him. Tarek told us that Abu Hamid’s broasted became so popular that a bus stop near one location was named after the restaurant.
The Istanbul location is managed by Abu Mazin’s nephew Moayed, who brought us several broasted plates to try as well as berak jibneh, a type of Syrian hand pie with cheese, and a plate of mozzarella sticks. Upon the first bite of chicken, it was clear we were in the presence of a higher power.
“It’s crispy, yes?” Moayed asked, revealing that a hint of vanilla extract delivers extra crunch. Too much, however, and the chicken turns bitter. He explained how potatoes are cooked with the chicken in the broaster, making the fries pop. “Praise to the broasted,” Tarek joked as he handed us extra slices of Syrian bread. We finished our meal drinking tea, listening to past memories shared between families and friends over broasted.
Our broaster tour done, we were now able to reflect a bit on what the arrival of this dish means for Istanbul. Syrian broasted joints here act a kind of primal unifier for many new immigrant groups to the city. In some ways, the story of broasted reflects the path of the Syrians that brought this delicacy with them to Turkey. While broasted has somewhat integrated itself into the fabric of Istanbul’s dining scene, the city’s Turkish residents are still noticeably missing in large numbers from the restaurants’ clientele. Without wide-spread acceptance of its host community, the legacy of Syrian broasted in Istanbul remains to be seen.