In the end, history, nostalgia and Istanbulites love for cream puffs covered in goopy chocolate sauce were not enough to stand up to the forces of development that have been rapidly changing the face of Turkey's largest city. This week, after a drawn out legal battle, the classic and well-loved sweets shop Inci -- which has long claimed to be the birthplace of the profiterole -- was finally shut down and evicted from the historic building it was housed in, which is set to be "restored" and turned into a shopping mall.
The 70-year-old Inci was most likely not the place where the profiterole was invented and probably didn't even have Istanbul's best version of the dish, but the old-school spot was nonetheless an institution, a culinary touchstone for tourists and locals alike and one of the last operating links to an older Istanbul that's quickly disappearing. On the Culinary Backstreets website, Ansel Mullins offers this eulogy for Inci:
For many, the mention of İnci wells up a sentimental memory of the first taste of something sweet in this classic patisserie, but for us, as non-local students of the area’s heritage, it always represented the last of public emblem of Beyoğlu’s non-Muslim community, a culture long on life support. Though the history of İnci – established in 1944 by a Greek migrant from Albania named Lucas Zigoridis (aka Luka Zigori) – is more recent than the late-19th-century heyday of the neighborhood, it was still a part of that tradition.
Despite the glam pastry scene of İstiklal Caddesi at the time (in an interview with Milliyet, Zigoridis spoke of the stiff competition), the 1940s was a dark period for Beyoğlu, later followed by even darker times. Zigoridis surely saw many of his neighbors and friends shipped off to work camps when the Varlık Vergisi, or “wealth tax,” effectively targeted minorities. A decade into his lease, the shop owner must have feared for his life on September 6-7, 1955 when two days of violent looting trashed nearly every Greek-owned business on İstiklal Caddesi, prompting an exodus of native Greeks from Istanbul to Greece, Europe and North America. And we can only imagine how difficult it must have been for Lucas Bey to continue serving profiterole in the 1970s, after seeing his own son (among many other Istanbul Greeks) forced to emigrate to Greece at a moment’s notice.
But Lucas Bey stayed put at his shop in the Cercle D’Orient building at İstiklal Caddesi 124, spooning out profiterole through the gritty ’80s and ’90s, when even a porn theater was considered a good neighbor. He must have watched the tailors and other esnaf, the theaters and the old meyhanes slowly disappear until he himself passed away, leaving the keys and the lease with his apprentice, Musa Ateş, who dutifully carried it out to its last days.
So while it’s nice to think of İnci with a twinge of nostalgia, as a reminder of the era of misyurler and madamlar, we find it hard not to be reminded of the neighborhood’s cultural destruction. Walking into İnci meant stepping into the past, accompanied by all of Beyoğlu’s ghosts. İnci witnessed it all, and the pastry shop’s forced closure after losing an appeal to retain its lease feels like nothing less than a desecration of the memory of this neighborhood.