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:
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.
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.
While the recent lifting of the Russian embargo on Georgian wine was a cause for celebration -- both for Russian consumers, who had to go without their favorite bottles of Saperavi for some seven years, and for Georgian winemakers, who had to make due after losing access to a large market with a less-than-discerning wine palette -- questions are being about just how much of an impact this development will have on the Georgian economy.
From a report in the Financial, a Georgian economic news website:
"We do not expect these developments to have a tangible bearing on Georgia's creditworthiness in the near term," said Standard & Poor's credit analyst Ana Jelenkovic. "But they could lead to improvements in key economic and external indicators over the medium to longer term."
Thanks to sweeping new alcohol regulations passed by their parliament a few months ago, Turkish drinkers have had to come to terms with having greater restrictions on where and during what time they can buy a drink. Now, as part of the new law, they will also have to learn that alcohol is no longer their friend. Reports the Hurriyet Daily News:
Signs warning about the possible harms of alcohol consumption will be placed on the bottles of alcoholic beverages within 10 months, according to a statement published in the Official Gazette Aug. 11.
The statement about the warning labels to be put on alcoholic beverage packages, which was released by the Tobacco and Alcohol Market Regulatory Authority (TAPDK), specified three graphic warning signs and a written message to be placed on bottles containing alcohol.
Pictures will involve warnings against consumption under the age of 18, before driving and during pregnancy, while the written message will read, “Alcohol is not your friend.”
Georgian wine and produce may again be appearing in Russian stores after Moscow lifted its seven-year long embargo, but the products remain the potential victims of regional politics. Case in point the recent news that a top Russian official has warned that the presence of a United States-funded bio research lab in Georgia could have a "limiting effect" on the import of Georgian wine.
The $150-million lab, the Richard G. Lugar Center for Public Health Research, was opened several years ago and is designed to help Georgia do research on infectious diseases. But Russia's "chief sanitary doctor" sees it differently, suggesting that cases of Georgian wine might also come with cases of African Swine Fever and other illnesses. Reports the Civil.ge website:
Just few months after Russia dropped embargo on Georgian wines and mineral waters, its chief sanitary doctor warned that presence of the U.S.-funded bio lab in Tbilisi would have “sharply limiting effect” on bilateral trade ties.
Gennady Onishchenko, head of Russia’s state consumer protection agency RosPotrebNadzor, which ordered ban on import of Georgian products to Russia in 2006, told Interfax news agency on July 20 that the laboratory represents “a powerful offensive potential.”
“Russia deems it to be a direct violation of BWC [Biological Weapons Convention],” Onishchenko was quoted by Interfax.
The other day I wrote about the latest disturbing urban development in Istanbul, the bulldozing of centuries-old vegetable gardens alongside the city's historic Byzantine-era walls. Writing for the Atlantic Cities website, Istanbul-based journalist Jennifer Hattam adds more color to the story:
In the shadows of the 1,500-year-old fortifications ringing Istanbul’s historic core, farmers push wheelbarrows of freshly harvested greens through small vegetable gardens, continuing a centuries-long tradition in the area. This past week, however, the farmers watched in dismay as bulldozers moved into the Yedikule neighborhood, dumping trash-strewn dirt and rubble onto the fertile soil of two of those gardens.
"I don’t know what we’ll do, where we’ll go if our land gets destroyed as well. We don’t have anything else," says one woman who works a nearby plot along with her husband, scraping out a living selling their chard, corn, radishes, purslane, and herbs at Istanbul’s wholesale fruit and vegetable market.
Like many of the people currently farming along the old city walls, the couple are migrants from Turkey’s Black Sea coast, who have followed in the footsteps of the Greeks, Armenians, Bulgarians, and Albanians who tended the land before them. The specific gardens currently being razed have been identified on a map dating back to 1786, but historical sources indicate that small-scale agriculture was present in the area not long after the UNESCO-designated city walls were built in the 400s.
For the third year, Yerevan played host to an annual festival celebrating dolma -- the dish made by stuffing grape leaves and other vegetables with an assortment of ingredients. Reports the Asbarez website:
Taste-Testers flocked through the flanked winged oxen of the Sardarabad memorial for the third annual Dolma Festival on Wednesday, July 10. Traditional music, singing, and dancing set the mood for the festival as 24 groups locked in a battle of vine leaves and stuffing for prizes in a number of categories including the longest Dolma.
The festival was organized by the Armenian Cookery Traditions Development and Protection Organization (ACTDP) and exposed visitors to a number of variations of the traditional Armenian dish. Qajik Levonyan, a representative of the Araratian Restaurant , said that the name of the three thousand-year-old dish stems from the Armenian word Dol, which means vine leaves, and that the recipe’s secret lies in the freshness of the ingredients.
As previously reported on this blog, though, the dolma festival is more than just about dolma. This being the Caucasus, the event also has a political subtext to it, with ACTDP head Sedrak Mamulyan telling Armenian reporters two years ago that one of the motivating factors behind the festival was to keep dolma (or "tolma" as he called it) from being "appropriated" by neighboring countries. "We have done nothing to patent our national dishes," he said at the time.
Turkey's recently passed alcohol law, which limits advertising on booze and the time between which it can be sold, was promoted by the government as being about protecting the nation's youth from the evils of drinking. But it appears one of the law's unintended consequences is that it might pull the legs from under Turkey's up-and-coming wine industry. Reports Businessweek:
The most sweeping -- and vague -- part of the law is its prohibition on advertising and promotion.
“Everybody in the wine business has a problem now,” said Ali Basman, owner of Kavaklidere, the country’s largest winery, and president of the Turkish Wine Producers Association, when I reached him by phone.
“It’s not easy to sell wine without having ads or ways to explain about the winery or show reviews telling how good a new wine is,” he said. “But that’s seen as encouraging people to drink. We will have to do more export.”
Basman doesn’t think he will be able to continue using the winery logo on his business cards or hold special tastings, and will probably have to close down part of his website.
His family founded the winery in 1929. It now owns 550 hectares of vineyards, produces 49 wines, and buys grapes from thousands of growers. If Basman has to cut back on production, who will pay them?
After giving a nice fake pass and suggesting he may veto the controversial new alcohol law recently signed by parliament, Turkish President Abdullah Gul today went ahead and signed the new bill, a move that will likely only increase tensions in Turkey.
The Hurriyet Daily News gives a rundown of the new law's restrictions, here. Among its main features are a complete ban on retail alcohol sales between 10pm and 6am, an almost complete ban on the advertising of alcoholic beverages, a restriction that requires establishments selling alcohol to be 100 meters away from "religious and educational" facilities and a ban on screening images in films and on television that show (or even "glorify") the consumption of alcohol. (A similar provision in an anti-smoking law passed in Turkey several years ago forced broadcasters to blur out the screen any time someone lit up.)