Legacy of Ottoman Empire : Lamb Comes On Like a Lion in Istanbul’s Renowned Beyti Restaurant

Times Staff Writer

Anyone traveling to Istanbul will eventually discover Beyti, a restaurant renowned for its lamb.

Lamb, you know, is to the Mediterranean as beef is to the United States.

You will find grilled chicken and entrecote or sizzling steak on the menu too, but lamb is their thing, some of it roasted, most of it grilled.

Let us count the ways.


If you try the Beyti fixed menu, you will be served a lamb feast starting with a plate of doner kebap, lamb layers cooked vertically on a spit, which, say Turks, was an invention of Mongol Turks arriving in the area more than 1,000 years ago. A refreshing salad of greens and tomatoes arrives, then a plate of grilled meat balls, followed by shish kebab, then chops and loin medallions of lamb. Rice and some vegetables and the omnipresent grilled chiles are also part of the meal.

Turkey, you may remember from History I, is the land once inhabited by ancient Hittites, Phrygians and Lydians. After the fall of Rome in the 5th Century, Constantinople was the capital of the Byzantine Empire, which flourished for 1,000 years. With the invasion of Ottoman Turks in the mid-15th Century, an empire ruled by sultans covered a vast area of the Middle East and the Balkans, bringing opulence to all things cultural, including a brilliant cuisine.

Ottomans Refine Cuisine

The Ottomans succeeded in consolidating and refining a cuisine, which had been a mixed bag of East and West influences for thousands of years. Byzantine bakers, influenced by the flow of cultural exchange between Rome and Constantinople, probably can be credited for contributing the great sweets of the Middle East (baklava, burek, custards and the like), while the nomads from the North East brought to the land a meat culture based on barbecued and spit-roasted meats, such as shish kebabs, lamb roasted on a spit and doner kebab, which are layers of lamb roasted vertically on a spit.


Beyti, which began humbly in a corner of the Bosporus in 1945, now is housed in a palatial 4,000-square-meter mansion built by its owner, Beyti Guler, a descendant of the Mongol Turks. His impeccable dress parallels his impeccably clean and orderly restaurant. Not a hair out of place.

His attention to detail will strike anyone walking through the portals of Beyti. He proudly escorts the diner, willing to walk through room after room of the mansion, pointing to photographs in which he appears with dignitaries--ex-American Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, the Begum Aga Khan and China’s presidents and even Danny Kaye.

“Very fine man,” said Beyti.

Prime Meat

Unlike most lamb in Turkey, whose quality Americans might consider a lesser cousin of American lamb--or even New Zealand lamb, Beyti uses prime meat, chosen for utmost leanness and good taste, according to Beyti. His marinating techniques are secret, so don’t bother asking.

The meat was, of course, excellent. Perfectly prepared to the proper doneness. If you like it rare, you may be out of luck, with the possible exception of shish kebab, which generally, but not always, is cooked until pinkish inside and somewhat charred outside. You can, however, try to persuade the accommodating waiter of your preference. In Turkey, lamb is preferred medium well--more well than medium--but not so overdone as to become tough.

Here is a sampling of lamb recipes typical of Beyti’s fare, taken from our own files. Additional lamb recipes can be found in a new publication, “The Complete Book of Turkish Cooking” by Ayla Esen Algar (Kegan Paul International: $17.95, 335 pp., illustrated). Algar is a native Turk who studied Near Eastern studies at UC Berkeley.

The grilled patties, called kofte , are generally served with flat bread, much like the pita found here, with sliced onion mixed with chopped parsley, according to Algar. At Beyti they are served with onion and chiles.


For a variation, the same patties are shaped into sausages, similar to frankfurters, and threaded on skewers to serve as a filling for pita sandwiches. Algar suggests using a seasoning called sumac, from the seed of a plant from the cashew family, found in Middle Eastern grocery stores. But it can be omitted, if not available. According to Algar, the shish kebab is best when juicy and pinkish inside. Serve the skewers over a bed of rice or with fried potatoes, if desired. Grilled lamb chop is wonderful with French fried potatoes and is considered common fare throughout Turkey. The marinade is an essential part of the recipe.

GRILLED KOFTE (Izgara Kofte)

1 pound ground lamb

1 egg

1 small onion, minced

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

Salt, pepper

Combine meat, egg, onion and season to taste with parsley, salt and pepper. Mix until consistency of paste. Shape into round 1-inch balls and flatten into patties. Grill over charcoal, turning patties once or twice. Makes 4 servings.


Variation: Kofte on Skewers--Prepare meat as for Grilled Kofte, but add 2 to 3 tablespoons sumac, if desired. After kneading, shape meat into rolls size of average frankfurter and wrap around skewer, pressing gently so meat adheres to skewer. Cook over charcoal 3 to 4 minutes, turning to cook meat evenly. Makes 4 servings.


2 pounds boneless leg of lamb, cut into 1-inch cubes or larger

1 medium onion, sliced paper-thin

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon chopped mint leaves

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons vinegar or wine

8 to 16 tiny white onions or quarters of large onions

2 green peppers, cut into 1-inch squares

8 to 16 cherry tomatoes

Place lamb cubes in shallow pan. Spread with onion slices and sprinkle with salt, pepper and mint. Drizzle with olive oil and vinegar. Cover with wax paper and refrigerate overnight, turning meat once or twice.

When ready to grill, thread meat on skewers alternately with tiny onions, green pepper pieces and cherry tomatoes. Cook over charcoal, turning skewers frequently, about 4 to 6 minutes. Do not overcook meat. Meat should be pinkish inside. Makes 6 servings.


2 pounds loin lamb chops with rib bones

1 onion, grated

1 clove garlic, mashed

1 tablespoon chopped mint or thyme

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons vinegar

Place chops in layer in shallow pan. Sprinkle with onion, garlic and mint. Drizzle with olive oil and vinegar. Cover and let marinate in refrigerator at least 2 hours or overnight, turning lamb chops several times.

When ready to cook, grill chops over charcoal about 3 to 4 minutes on each side, depending on thickness. Adjust seasonings before serving. Serve with thick-cut French fried potatoes, if desired. Makes 6 servings.