"What should we eat for breakfast today?" I asked my wife, Adri, and my sister Pico as we walked down the street on what must have been our fourth or fifth morning in Istanbul.
I knew the answer before I asked the question, but I played along anyway. Who's going to give in first? I thought to myself.
It was my sister who chimed in with a quiet Mahna mahna, which Adri and I immediately followed up with a do-doo be-do-do.
See, ever since our first taste of the Turkish scrambled-egg dish called menemen, at Van Kahvalti Evi, a Kurdish restaurant in the upper Beyoglu neighborhood, that song from The Muppet Show had become code for PUT SOFTLY SCRAMBLED EGGS WITH ONIONS, PEPPERS, AND TOMATOES IN MY MOUTH RIGHT NOW.
Even after a full week and a half of eating awesome stuff all over Turkey, it was the one dish that continued to haunt my dreams—both sleeping and waking—long after we got back home.
Having wisely bought myself a couple of small tinned-copper sahans—the shallow metal dishes typically used to cook and serve menemen—I've made it a few times since I've come home, but always with some problems. The main issue is finding the right kind of pepper.
Most home recipes call for green bell peppers, slow-cooked with onions and tomatoes, to form the base of the dish before eggs are added, and indeed, even in Istanbul, we had versions made with bell peppers. But the best ones were made with an entirely different type of green pepper: one that's thinner, less grassy, with a touch more bitterness and a distinct heat.
Last week, as I was digging through the fridge and happened across a pint of leftover Japanese shishito peppers, a lightbulb went off in my head (and yes, I immediately started singing the song to myself).
Shishitos have just the right mild heat and bitterness to work in this dish, which made me realize that their cousins—the Spanish Padrón pepper and the Chinese long green horned peppers (probably the most widely available of the bunch if you live near a Chinatown or a Whole Foods)—would also sub in perfectly.
I immediately grabbed my sahan and started slow-cooking onions and those shishito peppers in extra-virgin olive oil, along with a pinch of pepper flakes from Urfa in Turkey (hot paprika powder works well if you can't find Turkish pepper), a tiny pinch of oregano, and plenty of black pepper.
Once they were very soft, I added some canned whole tomatoes that I had very roughly chopped, then cooked down the whole mixture until the tomatoes' juices were concentrated and the oil had acquired a deep red hue.
One trick I've learned really helps get the soft texture just right: Remove about half of the vegetable mixture at this point and set it aside. It will cool slightly, so that when you add it back to the eggs at the end, it'll instantly cool the mixture, preventing the eggs from overcooking.
The eggs themselves should be well seasoned with salt and pepper, but very gently beaten. There should be distinct bits of white and yolk in the finished dish.
I created a small well in the center of the onion and pepper mixture, then poured in the eggs.
I cooked the eggs, stirring slowly and steadily, making sure to scrape up any cooked eggs from the edges, so as not to allow them to burn.
The key here is constant—but gentle!—movement. This ensures that the eggs cook relatively evenly, while maintaining distinct sections of whites and yolks.
Once the eggs had reached the stage of being just barely, quiveringly set, I removed the sahan and stirred in the mixture I'd reserved.
It's not traditional, but I added a small sprinkle of chives to the dish, because eggs and chives were made for each other.
It's a strong testament to the deliciousness of this dish that even Adri—a woman who likes her scrambled eggs so well done that they end up beyond simply dry, and move on to a stage of such deep browning and drying that they take on the appearance of grains of wild rice—downed it quickly and eagerly for brunch.
Of course, she started singing as soon as she sat down at the table, and dammit, now that song is stuck in my head again. (And yours too, I'll bet. You can thank me later.)
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