One of the culinary trends to take hold in Istanbul over the last few years is the appearance of several restaurants promising "Ottoman palace" cuisine, with menus made up of dishes, based on recipes dug up in archives, that the chefs swear are no different than what the sultans themselves ate.
These claims, of course, should be taken with a grain of salt. Considering Ottoman palace cooks probably didn't leave behind cookbooks for today's chefs to work with, are there really that many researchers out there who are poring over archival material to somehow reconstruct what went into the sultans' favorite dishes? And are there that many chefs with the skills to translate both what the researchers are coming up with and the sultans' notoriously finicky tastes into actual dishes that will appeal to today's palates?
Can neo-Ottoman cuisine, then, be anything more than tarted up traditional Turkish dishes served in dining room with overstuffed chairs and gaudy decor? That's the question doctoral candidate Pinar Tremblay tackles in an interesting piece she wrote for the Al-Monitor website, tying it in with the same questions raised by the rise of Turkey's neo-Ottoman foreign policy. From her article:
When they were signed in Switzerland in October of 2009, the normalization accords between Turkey and Armenia promised to be perhaps the fullest expression of Ankara's then new (and now failed) "zero problems with neighbors" policy, restoring diplomatic ties with a country that had strong historical grievances against Turkey.
Sadly, the accords never went much further, languishing to this day in the Turkish and Armenian parliaments, where they have yet to be ratified. Although both sides blame the other for the failure of the process, the general consensus among experts is that what mostly doomed the process was Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's insistence after the protocols were signed that their ratification be linked to the successful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, a precondition that was not part of the original negotiations between Ankara and Yerevan. (For a thorough history of the rise and fall of the protocols, take a look at this report by David L. Phillips, Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights Institute for the Study of Human Rights.)
Is there any prospect for the Turkey-Armenia normalization process to be revived? Yesterday, on the signing's fourth anniversary, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu suggested Turkey is still trying to find ways to move forward. From Today's Zaman:
Unlike other things, when it comes to fish, size does matter. That's certainly the argument that Fikir Sahibi Damaklar ("Sophisticated Palates," Istanbul's Slow Food chapter) has been making for the last few years, since it started a campaign to save the local population of lufer (bluefish) by asking Istanbulites to make sure they only sell, cook or eat fish that are larger than 24 centimeters, which is the size at which they can start to reproduce.
The campaign has been both successful, with the government responding to it by raising the size limit on bluefish from 14 cm. to 20 cm., and controversial, leading to infighting among commercial fisherman (for more, check out this previous Eurasianet article).
To raise regional awareness about the issue of overfishing, Fikir Sahibi Damaklar is organizing a four-day "Slow Fish" conference that will take place in Istanbul October starting October 17. Culinary Backstreets caught up with Defne Koryurek, who runs the Slow Food Istanbul chapter, to interview her about the conference and her group's efforts to save Istanbul's threatened lufer. From the interview:
How did the idea for the Slow Fish conference come about?
It was Fikir Sahibi Damaklar who decided to do this event, and it is mainly because we've been campaigning for fish, particularly for our beloved lüfer, or bluefish, for the last 4 years.
Turkey may be involved in a peace process with its Kurds, but there's no denying things have gotten bogged down. Last month, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) announced it was halting the withdrawal of its fighters from Turkey because Ankara has failed to reciprocate with positive steps of its own. Meanwhile, a new "democratization" package of reforms unveiled last week by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was widely panned as not offering enough in terms of Kurdish reforms, stopping short of making some crucial changes -- such as lowering the 10 percent national election threshold or introducing Kurdish-language education in public schools -- that Kurds have long asked for.
In a new report, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group suggests the reason the Turkish government's Kurdish reform effort might be stalling is the fear of a nationalist backlash and its impact on the ruling Justice and Development Party's domestic fortunes. The report, though, argues those fears may be overblown. From its executive summary:
In a comprehensive report released today, Amnesty International takes a look at this summer's Gezi Park protests in Istanbul and other Turkish cities, concluding that the government's heavy-handed response resulted in "gross human rights violations." The report, which can be found here, includes several interviews with protestors and others who were victims of police violence during the protests and is well worth reading.
To get a bit more background about the report's finding, I spoke with Andrew Gardner, Amnesty's Turkey researcher. Below is an edited version of our conversation:
How did things the Gezi events, in terms of the government’s response, get to the point that they did?
I think there are a couple of points to discuss. One is that there isn’t anything especially remarkable about peaceful protest in Turkey being broken up by police, them using excessive force and the government denying the rights of protesters to gather peacefully. The difference with the Gezi events was the scale and the constituency – there were plenty of middle class Turks involved in the protests – and the fact that there was so much exposure of the events in the mainstream international process. What happened was remarkable in terms of its scale and the government reaction was, unfortunately, similar to what has happened in the past.
I think the way the government looks at opposition is to really try to crush dissenting opinions and to see all dissenting opinions expressed as representing illegal organizations or those looking to undermine Turkey. So the response is to try to crush any effort to oppose the government.
For months now, Turkish officials had been promising they would soon unveil a significant new democratization package, building it up with the kind of hype reserved for Hollywood summer blockbusters. The package, meant to move Turkey further down the democratic road and restore the ruling Justice and Development Party's reformist image after the summer's bruising Gezi Park events, was finally released yesterday, though -- at first blush -- it appears to have failed to live up to the hype, as if it had been cobbled together from outtakes and recycled footage.
The early reviews of the government's package, presented in Ankara by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, certainly have been mostly neutral to negative. "Package proves disappointing for non-Muslim communities" and "Turkey's Alevis disheartened by democratization package" were two headlines found on the Today's Zaman website yesterday. Kurdish leaders, meanwhile, also expressed disappointment with proposed reforms. "This is not a democratization package but an election package,” said Gultan Kisanak, one of the leaders of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy party.
The Wall Street Journal has a great story about the travails of the makers of Nosh, a beer whose name in means "cheers!" in Kurdish (and, interestingly, "to snack" in Yiddish).
Brewed in Romania to be marketed in Turkey (perhaps with the idea of appealing to Kurdish-minded tipplers), the beer has suddenly found itself locked out of the market after government officials cancelled Nosh's import license. From the WSJ's story:
Company CEO Nurettin Keske said he had already sunk $600,000 into producing almost 40,000 bottles of Kurdish-branded beer in Romania, and imported them to be distributed and sold to Turkish consumers. Although the permissions still existed in writing, Mr. Keske concluded it would have been too risky for him to make sales agreements with distributors.
“A representative from the ministry called me and said that all of the necessary permissions to import Nosh were cancelled. We had to either drink all the beer or dispose of it,” added Mr. Keske who opted to transport the bottles back to Romania on Tuesday after storing them in a depot in Istanbul for over two months.
The Ministry of Agriculture declined to comment on the case, saying that they could not verify whether permissions had been cancelled due to technical reasons. The representative added that it was “unlikely” that the ministry will respond later on the issue, either.
The curious case of Keske Gida comes as Turkey’s government has reached a crucial stage of a peace process aimed at providing greater autonomy and language rights for the country’s 15 million Kurds to end a three decade conflict which has claimed some 40,000 lives.
Some Kurdish businessmen called on the Agriculture Ministry to explain the reason for the alleged cancellation of permission to import, or risk the perception that there was discrimination against Kurdish language.
Food writer and blogger Katie Parla certainly leads an enviable life, splitting her time between Italy and Turkey and chronicling traditional food culture in both countries.
Recently, Parla had a chance to visit eastern Turkey's Kars, a city famed throughout the country for its cheese (and, among the more literary-minded, for being the setting for Orhan Pamuk's "Snow"), where she had a chance to work side-by-side with some of the city's local cheese makers.
I asked Parla is she could share some thoughts about her experience in Kars (which she wrote about here). Our exchange is below:
How did you end up in Kars making cheese?
I was invited to Kars by my friend chef Şemsa Denizsel of Kantin. She has been making outrageously good sourdough bread with heirloom wheats from Kars for three years and was eager to see the grain fields and visit the water-powered mill that grinds grains for her flour. While in Kars, we called on her friend İlhan Koçulu who makes gravyer (gruyere) in his village. He showed us the process of his own cheese as well as that of kaşar. While visiting the kaşar workshop I was invited to try my hand at making this cheese. It looked difficult to make and turned out to be even harder than it looked.
Did anything in particular stick out about the cheesmaking in Kars?
Italian photographer Gabriele Galimberti has been traveling around the world in the name of a project that is both admirable and ambitious (and certainly not without its perks): capturing images of the globe's grandmothers at work in their kitchens. The results of his project, "Delicatessen with Love," can be found here.
I recently reached out to Galimberti, who spent part of his project photographing grannies in Turkey, Armenia and Georgia, to find out more about his project and its origins. Our exchange is below:
1. Why did you decide to do this project?
When I started my trip around the world with the idea of making a documentary about CouchSurfing all my family was a little worried for the fact that I was going away from home for two years. I was going to travel in many different countries, sleeping at somebody's house, hosted by people that I didn't know. I then realized though that my grandmother was mostly worried about the food that I was going to eat. She told me something like: “Are you sure you want to go? What are you going to eat in Africa? And in China? You should stay at home. I can cook for you.”
All this made me laugh a lot and I told to my grandma: You know grandma? There are many grandmothers all over the world and I'm sure they will be happy to feed me and cook something special for me. This is the way I had the idea for this project!
2. Considering this blog's geographic interests, what stood out the most to you about the grandmas you met in Turkey and the Caucasus and their cooking?
As an Italian, I have to say that the places where I felt more like if I was at home are actually Turkey and Georgia. I feel the grandmothers there really similar and close to the Italian grandmothers... the way the treated me, the taste of their food. I really felt like I was at home in these places.
Photographer Dave Hagerman is the picture-taking half of the visually-arresting and wonderfully-written EatingAsia blog. Lately, Dave and his partner, Robyn Eckhardt, have been spending a lot of time in Turkey and chronicling their travels in a drool-inducing Tumblr called EatingTurkey.
During his most recent stay in Turkey, Hagerman also managed to make it down to Gaziantep, a city near the Syria border famed for its kebabs and baklava, on assignment for Saveur magazine to shoot a story about the city's grill masters.
I recently sent Hagerman some questions about his impressions of the trip to Gaziantep and the the role of the city's ustas ("masters" in Turkish) in keeping the local culinary culture alive. Our exchange is below:
1. You've travelled and eaten your way through much of Turkey -- what stood out for you about Gaziantep and its food culture?
For starters the minute you walk out your door it smells like grilling meat. You know you are in kebab country and it is everywhere - street corners, shops - indoors and out. You might not think you are hungry for kebab morning, noon and night but somehow you just are.
Also, the ustas display a certain amount of precision as they prepare/cook their kebabs, as if to say ' people in other parts of Turkey might do it that way, but we Antepians do it this way' -- in other words, the right way. Ingredients are key, meat -- particularly lamb -- must be sourced from only the best suppliers. It is an obsession. People would say that if it is not going to be the best, then don't bother.