(CNN) — Hours before the sun rises over Van, a city in far eastern Turkey bordered by rolling hills and a spectacular lake, preparations are already well underway for the most important meal of the day.
At 5 a.m., the smell of oven-baked flatbreads and freshly brewed Turkish tea wafts over Kahvaltıcılar Çarşısı – Van’s famous “breakfast street” – as dozens of traders open their doors to serve the ritual morning feast of the region.
During each day, thousands of people will pass through this cobblestone pedestrian street considered Ground Zero for the breakfast capital of the world.
“There’s nothing but breakfast during the day here,” says Kenan Coşkun, who, together with his brother, runs one of the city’s oldest breakfast establishments, Sütçü Kenan.
“I mean, no bagels, no sandwiches, no soup, no patties, no kebabs, no lunch, no fish at night, no live music, no hookah, no alcohol. Small -lunch only.”
While Turkey is famous for its breakfasts, Van is the capital of epic, sprawling serpme kahvalti, or breakfast spread. These morning banquets can contain up to 30 different dishes and often emphasize the valuable dairy products of the cattle that graze on the surrounding Anatolian plateaus.
These specialties include kaymak buffalo curd cream; martugaa thick roux of butter and flour mixed with a crispy scrambled egg; kavut, a sweet, porridge-like dough made from ground wheat toasted in butter and sugar; and Van is famous otlu peynira crumbly and powerful white cheese often blended with local wild leeks, mountain thyme, fennel, mint and, most notably, a garlic herb called Sirmo.
Often these breakfasts will be served alongside more traditional Turkish dishes like tahini and grape molasses; cacik, a thick dip made with yogurt and cucumber; a rainbow of jams ranging from morello cherries to walnuts and apricots; as well as jars of local honey (or in the best places, whole slabs of honeycomb) and plates of fragrant crudités.
“You have to have lots of different small plates of local delicacies,” says Aylin Oney Tan, one of Turkey’s leading food writers. “That’s what Van’s breakfasts are for. There won’t be room for anything else on the table.”
silk road snack
Van is located near Turkey’s borders with Iraq, Iran and Syria.
The origins of Van’s legendary breakfast culture are debated. According to Tan, it emerged in the middle of the 20th century when farmers from nearby villages brought their produce to the city bus terminal early in the morning to sell.
“They set up these very small breakfast joints, with fresh and puffy stuff piss bread, churned butter and cheeses,” she says.
Others point to the precedents of Ottoman culinary culture and Van’s location on the Silk Road, an ancient trade route linking the Western world to the Middle East and Asia that is said to have provided a steady stream of voracious travelers .
But locals say the more modern history of Van breakfasts can with certainty be linked to the development of so-called “dairies” – which served early morning meals of milk, cheese and bread to workers – in the 1900s. 1940.
A traditional Van breakfast can contain dozens of dishes.
Sütçü Kenan, which translates from Turkish as “Dairy Kenan”, was itself opened by Coşkun’s great-grandfather Kenan in 1946 and its management has been passed down through the family for three generations.
“Years ago, the breakfast room was a dairy,” says Coşkun. “In our great-grandfather’s time, villagers would get together for coffee early in the morning before working in the fields or in construction. Someone brought eggs from home, someone brought bread, someone cheese and olives. They shared them and prepared a table.”
Away from the madding crowds of Breakfast Street, Bak Hele Bak, which was founded in 1975, is another restaurant in the old dairies tradition. It is also one of the rare establishments to still serve the traditional rose petal jam.
“Ours is a place that grew out of the dairy culture,” says Yusuf Konak, the talkative 67-year-old owner. “We have created this breakfast culture. We have all kinds of customers aged 7 to 70: politicians, writers, teachers, all kinds of normal citizens. Is Van the breakfast capital of the world ? Without a doubt.”
Local authorities have even submitted a request for the region’s distinctive breakfast to be added to UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage, which already includes the famous Neapolitan pizza, Belgian beer and the street vendor culture of Singapore.
The right way to start the day
Van holds the Guinness World Record for the “largest full breakfast attendance” involving over 50,000 people.
Özge Samanci, head of the department of gastronomy and culinary arts at Ozyegin University in Istanbul, explains that Van’s breakfasts, which were boosted by the increase in tea consumption in the 1940s, play now an important social function.
“The major role played by breakfast, and its importance for the Turkish community, has become even more evident in recent years,” he says. “It’s a time for families and it’s considered the most important meal of the day.”
The tradition has become so popular that Van-style breakfast lounges have opened across the country, including Meşhur Van Kahvaltı Sarayı and Eylül Yöresel Kahvaltı Salonu in the capital Ankara and Van Kahvaltı Evi in Istanbul.
But back in Van, the age-old breakfast culture continues to take root even today. Matbah-ı Van, which opened in 2020, is one of the city’s pioneering new venues, focusing on an exclusively organic 12-course menu.
Matbah-ı bread is baked in a traditional clay tandoor oven, the butter is churned by hand in a nearby village, and a local women’s cooperative harvests the distinctly flowered honeycomb from the surrounding highlands.
“I tried to create this family environment, here, a little, I dreamed of the breakfast tables that I dreamed of in my childhood,” says owner Gonca Güray. “We want to acknowledge this story. It’s not fair to start a day without breakfast.”