As I spooned sizzling, red-tinged butter over my awaiting plate of yogurt and a wobbly poached egg, painting rusty swirls across the stark white canvas, the voice of Turkish culinary expert Filiz Hösükoğlu echoed in my head. “When you see the colors yellow, white, and red, it looks so simple,” Hösükoğlu told me when I asked her to describe çılbır (pronounced “CHILL-burr”), a hot meze and light meal cooked in homes all over Turkey. “But when you eat, the result is not so simple.”
The moment I broke into the egg, allowing its golden yolk to ooze across the plate, and then scooped and took a bite, I understood exactly what Hösükoğlu meant. Çılbır is a beloved, homey dish Turkish cooks turn to when they need a quick, ultrasatisfying meal, thanks to its succinct ingredient list of yogurt, eggs, butter, and the red pepper flakes pul biber. At the same time, the dish is so thrilling to eat and to behold—the creamy, garlicky yogurt and golden yolk are luscious; the butter is toasty, fruity, and warm from the spice—that it’s no wonder that the dish was once served to Ottoman royalty.
But nailing a pitch-perfect iteration of this dish was no small feat. While the assembly of çılbır is quick and straightforward—spread yogurt on a plate, top it with a poached egg, drizzle the plate with sizzling and nutty spiced butter—the dish hinges upon a precise balance of flavors. Hösükoğlu told me that in an ideal çılbır, “No ingredient dominates the others. Rather than jumping and saying, ‘I am here,’ each ingredient takes its turn to come and please you.” I made it my goal to master this flavor and textural harmony as I developed my own version of the dish.
Traditionally, the yogurt base of çılbır is thick and creamy, and when I plated a few yogurts, I immediately knew I’d be sticking with this customary choice. Whole-milk strained yogurt had enough structure to provide a plush, creamy bed for the poached egg, while the runniness of unstrained yogurt didn’t provide enough textural contrast with the liquid-y egg yolk.
Ingredient Spotlight: The Right Yogurt for Çılbır
Yogurts run the gamut in consistency, ranging from thin and liquid-y to thick and spreadable, depending on how much whey has been drained away. The yogurt in çılbır should be thick and strained to support the poached egg and provide contrast with its runny yolk. However, the yogurt should still contain enough moisture to be scooped up with bread—labneh is too thick.
To give the yogurt a savory edge, I incorporated garlic, as some cooks like to do, grating it into a paste so that it melded seamlessly into the smooth yogurt. Most recipes don’t call for adding salt to the yogurt, but I found that a small amount brought the flavors into focus. I divided the seasoned mixture among four serving plates; spread the dollops into even layers; and then followed the traditional step of leaving the plates on the counter for a few minutes so that the yogurt could warm up, ensuring that it wouldn’t be too cold against the hot egg and butter.
Perfecting the Poach
When I spoke with Aysenur Altan, a Turkish food writer, content creator, and YouTuber, about çılbır, she told me that palace chefs in the Ottoman Empire had to audition by making an egg dish before they could take on high positions in the royal kitchens. It’s easy to understand why: There are a lot of ways that poached eggs, the most common preparation for çılbır, can go wrong. A perfectly poached egg has a tender, fully set white with no raw bits; a fluid but thickened yolk; and no ragged edges. Thankfully, a few years ago my former Cook’s Illustrated colleague Andrew Janjigian mastered a foolproof poached egg method, which I was happy to adopt here. First, I briefly strained four eggs in a colander, which allowed the looser parts of the white to slip away before cooking, ensuring tidy edges in the cooked egg. I seasoned the water with salt and vinegar, two ingredients that help the whites set up more quickly, to ensure that the faster-cooking yolk would still be liquid by the time the whites were firm and cooked through. When the water came to a boil, I took the pot off the heat and then gently slipped the eggs in and let them cook in the residual heat for just a few minutes. I removed the poached eggs with a slotted spoon, gently patting them dry before laying them atop their yogurt beds.
Yogurt: A Staple in the Turkish Kitchen for Centuries
The Divanü Lügati’t-Türk, the first major dictionary of Turkic languages, includes references to “soured” dishes made tangy with yogurt—so we know that Turks were enjoying the substance as early as the 11th century, likely relying on wild bacteria to spontaneously ferment milk in bags made of animal skins. Since then, yogurt—whose name in English may have originated from the Turkish word “yogurmak,” meaning to “thicken or curdle”—has held a prominent place in the regional cuisine, appearing on Turkish tables at all times of the day, in sweet, but more often savory, applications. “You make manti, you make pasta, you make rice or bulgur—it’s always served with yogurt as an accompaniment,” said Turkish culinary expert Filiz Hösükoğlu. –Alyssa Vaughn
(picture) The Divanü Lügati’t-Türk, compiled from 1072 to 1074, contains references to yogurt.
Foam and Sizzle
The last component was the spiced butter, a nuanced finishing touch that graces dishes throughout Turkish cuisine, from countless soups to manti (Turkish dumplings stuffed with spiced meat). Making this condiment is, according to Hösükoğlu, “an art”—the butter is melted and then taken just a whisper further, the milk solids taking on a hint of browning and nuttiness as moisture is driven off. “It is something you want to hear,” Altan explained to me, referencing the foaming and sizzling that occurs during the process. That sizzling also signals that the butter is hot enough to rapidly absorb the pigment of the pul biber, taking on the pepper’s brilliant red-orange hue.
In a small saucepan (instead of a skillet, to catch some of the sputtering), I heated a couple tablespoons of unsalted butter over medium heat for a few minutes. Once the butter began to sputter and just smell nutty, I added a teaspoon of pul biber and then quickly removed the saucepan from the heat so that I didn’t risk burning the spice. As I swirled in the pul biber, I watched as the butter took on an incredible red color and then spooned it over each plate.
A Stunning Finishing Touch
The striking red-orange butter that serves as the sizzling topper on çılbır is a lesson in precision: The butter should be melted and then cooked just a bit further to imbue it with a whisper of nutty toastiness before fruity, gently spiced pul biber is stirred into the mix. This butter isn’t just the perfect finishing touch on a plate of çılbır—it’s used throughout Turkish cuisine on dishes from soups to manti. Here are a few more ideas for incorporating this vibrant condiment into your cooking.
- Drizzle over roasted vegetables
- Spoon over grilled corn
- Stir into yogurt dip or hummus
- Top roasted fish fillets
The dish can then be enjoyed as is, but some add a final garnish of fresh herbs, such as parsley, dill, or mint, or dried herbs, such as sage or mint. Dried mint is my favorite: Though its grassy, vegetal flavors dissipate during drying, the dried herb’s characteristic menthol flavors, which come from a class of compounds known as terpenes, are far more stable and potent than in the fresh leaves. Dried mint also boasts an earthy depth that you don’t get from fresh.
I knew I had finally constructed a palace-worthy plate of çılbır—strikingly simple yet beguilingly complex—and that it certainly wouldn’t be my last. Whether I’m in the mood for something luxurious, comforting, or just quick, at breakfast, lunch, or dinner alike, çılbır fits the bill. I understand now why Hösükoğlu personifies the dish the way she does. “It’s like a good friend,” she said. “It fits all days.”