(CNN) — Hours before sunrise over Van, a city in the far east of Turkey fringed by rolling hillsides and a picturesque lake, preparations are already underway for the most important meal of the day.
By 5 a.m., the aroma of hot cakes and freshly brewed Turkish tea wafts along Kahvaltıcılar Čarshisi—Van’s famous so-called “breakfast street”—when dozens of vendors open for business to cater for the region’s ritual morning feast.
Every day, thousands of people will pass along this cobbled pedestrian street, which is considered the epicenter of the breakfast capital of the world.
“During the day, there’s nothing here but breakfast,” says Kenan Coskun, who runs one of the oldest breakfast spots in the city, Sütçü Kenan, with his brother.
“I mean, no bagels, no sandwiches, no soup, no pies, no barbecue, no dinner, no fish in the evening, no live music, no hookah, no alcohol. Breakfast only.”
While Turkey is famous for its breakfasts, Van is the capital of epic, sprawling serpme kahwalty, or breakfast spread. These morning banquets can contain up to 30 different dishes, and they often focus on valuable dairy products from livestock that graze on the surrounding Anatolian plateau.
These specialties include kaimak buffalo whipped cream; martugaa thick butter and flour sauce mixed with crispy scrambled eggs; kavut, a sweet porridge-like paste made from ground wheat fried in butter and sugar; and famous Van otlu payneera crumbly and strong white cheese that is often mixed with local leeks, mountain thyme, fennel, mint and, most notably, a garlic herb called Sirmo.
Often these breakfasts feature more traditional Turkish dishes such as tahini and grape molasses; chajik, thick sauce of yogurt and cucumber; a rainbow of jams from cherry to nutty to apricot; as well as pots of local honey (or, in the best places, whole slabs of honeycomb) and plates of fragrant raw vegetables.
“You should have a lot of different small plates with local delicacies,” says Aylin Oney Tan, one of Turkey’s leading food writers. “That’s what Wang’s breakfasts are about. There will be no room on the table for anything else.”
Silk Road Diner
Van is located near Turkey’s borders with Iraq, Iran and Syria.
The origin of Wang’s legendary breakfast culture is a matter of debate. According to Tan, it originated in the mid-20th century, when farmers from nearby villages would bring their produce to the city’s bus station early in the morning for sale.
“They opened these very small eateries with fresh, plump pide bread, whipped butter and cheeses,” she says.
Others point to earlier precedents in Ottoman culinary culture and Van’s location on the Silk Road, an ancient trade route that linked the Western world to the Middle East and Asia and provided a steady stream of predatory travelers.
But locals say the more modern history of Van breakfasts can certainly be traced back to the development of so-called “dairy houses,” which served workers an early-morning meal of milk, cheese, and bread, in the 1940s.
A traditional Van breakfast can consist of dozens of dishes.
Sütçü Kenan, which translates from Turkish as “Kenan the Milkman”, was opened by Coskun’s great-grandfather Kenan in 1946, and since then its management has been passed down from generation to generation in the family.
“A few years ago, the breakfast room was a dairy shop,” Coskun says. “In our great-grandfather’s day, the villagers used to gather for coffee early in the morning before working in the fields or at the construction site. Someone brought eggs from home, someone bread, someone cheese and olives. They shared them and set the table.”
Away from the crazy crowds on Breakfast Street, Bak Hele Bak, founded in 1975, is another restaurant in the old dairy tradition. It is also one of the few establishments that still serve the traditional rose petal jam.
“Our place goes back to the dairy house culture,” says Yusuf Konak, the talkative 67-year-old owner. “We created this breakfast culture. We have a wide variety of clients aged 7 to 70 – politicians, writers, teachers, all kinds of ordinary citizens. Is Van the breakfast capital of the world? Definitely”.
The local authorities have even applied for the region’s breakfast to be added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List, which already features world-famous Neapolitan pizza, Belgian beer and Singapore’s street vendor culture.
The right start to the day
Wang holds the Guinness World Record for the “largest full breakfast attendance”, with over 50,000 attendees.
Özge Samansi, head of the department of gastronomy and culinary arts at Özyegin University in Istanbul, says that Van’s breakfasts, fueled by the rise in tea consumption in the 1940s, now play an important social function.
“The main role that breakfast plays and its importance to the Turkish community has become even more evident in the last few years,” he says. “This is a family moment and is considered the most important meal of the day.”
The tradition has become so popular that van-style breakfast parlors 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 now. Matbah-ı Van, which opened in 2020, is one of the innovative new establishments in the city, offering a 12-course menu made with only organic ingredients.
Matbah-i bread is baked in a traditional tandoor clay oven, butter is churned by hand in a nearby village, and a cooperative of local women collects the distinctly flowery honeycomb from the surrounding mountains.
“I tried to create that homely environment, here I dreamed a little about the breakfast tables that I dreamed of as a child,” says owner Gonca Gyuray. “We want to recognize this history. You can’t start the day without breakfast.”