Has the White House inadvertently stepped into one of the Mediterranean's oldest unresolved conflicts, namely: which country in the region gets to claim itself as the inventor of baklava?
The issue has been heating up over the last few years. In 2006, for example, Turkish makers of the flaky dessert were outraged when European Union tourism posters featured baklava as a, gasp, Cypriot invention. But the baklava battle has opened up a new front after a March 22 White House dinner in honor of Greek Independence Day. Although it was a closed affair, Maria Loi, a New York-based Greek chef who prepared the evening's dinner, told a Greek-American publication that President Barack Obama "loved baklava." Picked up by the Turkish press, the story became one of the President saying how much he loved "Greek baklava," leading to angry denunciations from columnists who suggested Obama brush up on his Balkan culinary history and that Loi's entire menu for the affair -- moussaka, stuffed grape leaves, Greek salad and the offending baklava -- was comprised of nothing more than Turkish dishes dressed up as Greek ones.
Worried about the Greeks claiming other cross-border staples as their own, some Turkish foodmakers are now taking preemptive action. Reports Turkey's Cihan news agency:
The İstanbul Simit Tradesmen Chamber has launched a process to get an international patent for the number one Turkish street food, the simit, a ring of chewy bread coated with toasted sesame seeds.
As anyone who has visited Turkey knows, the fruits and vegetables there taste, well, simply more like what fruits and vegetables should taste like. To anyone used to the mealy, flavorless tomatoes sold in American supermarkets, their first taste of a vine-ripened Turkish tomato is likely a revelation.
But a new report by Greenpeace's German branch could make that tomato and other Turkish fruits and vegetables a little less appetizing. From the Green Prophet blog:
Of 76 different fruits and vegetables recently evaluated, Turkish peppers contained the most excessive and dangerous amounts of pesticide chemicals, according to Food Without Pesticides, a new 26-page guide to European food released this week by Greenpeace Germany.
Turkish peppers topped the list of “most contaminated” produce in the guide, with an average of 24 chemical substances found in the specimens analyzed. In second place, with an average of 10 chemical substances, were Turkish pears. Nine chemical substances were found in Turkish pears, on average, putting them at third place.
Eleven different Turkish crops were rated, using 582 samples. The guide used a green/yellow/red light system to show its ratings, with a red light meaning that more than one-third of the samples had dangerous levels of chemicals in them.
With financial sanctions against it getting tighter and tighter and the drums of war beating louder and louder, Iran appears to be getting proactive -- at least on the food front. As Reuters reports, Tehran is busy stockpiling grain in anticipation of the sanctions' effect on daily life. From the Reuters report:
Vessels carrying at least 360,000 metric tonnes (396,832 tons) of grain are lined up to unload in Iran, Reuters shipping data showed on Thursday, a sign that Tehran is succeeding in stockpiling food to blunt the impact of tougher Western sanctions.
Iran has been shopping for wheat at a frantic pace, ordering a large part of its expected yearly requirement in a little over one month and paying a premium in non-dollar currencies to work around toughened Western sanctions and avoid social unrest.
Food shipments are not targeted under western sanctions aimed at Iran's disputed nuclear program, but financial measures have frozen Iranian firms out of much of the global banking system.
Since the new year, some vessels had turned away from Iran without unloading after Iranian buyers were hit by a trade finance squeeze, but Thursday's data appears to show that shipments are now arriving successfully.
Meanwhile, this stockpiling is having the unintended consequence of helping American wheat growers and the US economy. As Reuters notes in another article, Iran's stockpiling includes buying large amount of wheat from the land of amber waves of grain:
In an effort to forge a unified Turkish nation out of a society that was far from homogenous, the Turkish state for decades tried to suppress Kurdish cultural expression (not to mention political expression). But recent years have seen something of a change. Kurdish music, film and theater and now a visible part of the cultural scene in Turkey in a way that they weren’t only a decade ago, while a Kurdish-language national television network (albeit state-run) has been on the air since 2009 and the first-ever undergraduate program in Kurdish was launched last year.
But there has been one aspect of Kurdish culture that’s been conspicuously absent from all this activity: food. In Istanbul, for example, it’s now possible to find films or plays in Kurdish, but good luck finding a restaurant dedicated explicitly to serving Kurdish food. And while bookshops are filled these days with food books that explore Turkish cuisine, you would be hard pressed to find something that deals with Kurdish cooking.
Although there have been some recent indications that there might be a bit of a thawing out in the tense relations between former allies Turkey and Israel, some Israeli egg producers are having none of it. According to a report in Globes, an Israeli business publication, a lawsuit has been filed against Tnuva, one of Israel's largest food producers, charging the company with selling Turkish eggs disguised as Israeli ones. The switcheroo is no yolk, the suit says. Turkey, the petition, notes "is a country that has turned into a hostile country to Israel in recent years and where the level of veterinary inspection is lower than the level prevailing in Israel."
This is not the first time eggs have come in the way of Turkish-Israeli relations. In late 2009, Israel's then ambassador to Turkey, Gabby Levy, had to cancel a scheduled visit to a university in the Black Sea area's Trabzon after students pelted him with eggs. The egg-hurling students were protesting Israel's Gaza invasion earlier in the year.
Meanwhile, while on the subject of eggs, Istanbul Eats has a recommendation for what is very likely the best spot in Istanbul to eat eggs, Turkish or otherwise.
As Eurasianet's Nino Pasturia wrote last year, Georgia's efforts to break into the American wine market had been stymied by the fact that some famous Georgian wine brand names were actually trademarked to a company based in New Jersey.
It turns out the Georgian government was facing similar problems in Germany, where the trademark on three types of Georgian wines were held by a Russian company. Considering the ongoing trade battle between Georgia and Russia, which banned the import of Georgian wine in 2006 in the wake of political tensions with Tbilisi, finding out Russians held those trademarks could not have been good news for Georgian winemakers. But now it appears the Georgians have managed to gain the upper hand. From a report on the website of Georgia's Democracy & Freedom Watch:
Georgia has reclaimed three brand names of wine that had been patented in Germany by a Russian company.
The company, Moscow Wine and Spirits Company GmbH, had been selling the wine brands Tsinandali, Kindzmarauli, Khvanchkara.
Irakli Ghvaladze, head of Sakpatent, Georgia’s intellectual property agency, says these brands are of Georgian origin and have been Georgian property for centuries. In 2011 Sakpatent became aware that the Russian company had registered the brandnames with the German patent and trademark office.
Last year Georgia reclaimed the trademark of Khvanchkara from the U.S. patent office, which had granted the rights to use it to Dozortsev & Sons. According to the agreement, all rights to use the Khvanchkara trademark in the United States have been transferred to Georgia, which means that no one will have the right to import goods and sell it on the American market under this name without Georgia’s permission.
Despite threats to punish France for its parliament's recent passing of a bill that would make it a crime to deny that the mass killing of Armenians by the Ottoman state in 1915 was a genocide, Ankara for now is holding back on hitting the French with any sanctions. But things appear to be a bit different in the culinary realm. As the Financial Times reports, while the Turkish government might be taking a more patient approach, some Turks are talking about boycotting Sodexo, a French company that is responsible for managing a large program that allows Turkish companies to provide their employees with lunch, either in-house or by going out using chits. From the FT:
Turkey is talking of boycotts in its increasingly bitter dispute with France.
At the centre of attention: Sodexo, the French food company now the target of Istanbul restaurateurs who say revenue from $2bn’s worth of Turkish meals is at stake....
....“We will carry out a boycott against the people who are trying to blacken the name of Turkey for political reasons in France,” declared Sait Karabagli, the [Chamber of Istanbul Restaurant Owners] chairman, announcing steps he said would hit not just Sodexo but also Ticket and Multinet, two other French-owned food groups. “We and our 13,500 members have decided to say enough to the French companies,” he added.
Karabagli reckons $150m is at stake in the boycott he is proposing – part of the reason for his action in the first place. He claimed the French companies were exploiting Turkish restaurants by imposing an eight per cent commission on $2bn or so or receipts – and also asked for help for the Turkish state to get the commission come down.
Perhaps it's an indication of how bad things have gotten between Turkey and Israel -- whose once close relations have been severely downgraded in recent years -- that what would otherwise be normal gestures between regional neighbors are viewed as possible breakthroughs. When Turkey sent firefighting airplanes to help Israel out with the massive 2010 Carmel forest fire the gesture was hailed as "fire diplomacy," while some suggested Ankara's acceptance of Israeli aid during last year's devastating earthquake in Van could serve as a form of natural disaster diplomacy. Meanwhile, as Eurasianet's Turko-File blog previously reported, the decision in 2010 by two zoos in Israel to send some extra animals to a Turkish zoo was also weighed down with perhaps more political significance than it really deserved.
Now the task of bringing the two bickering countries together is being handed over to Israeli celebrity chef Shaul Ben Aderet, who recently practiced some "culinary diplomacy" by appearing live on a Turkish television cooking show. From a report on Israel's Ynetnews website:
Turkey and Israel haven't been the best of friends in recent years, but agreements may be reached in the kitchen. Famous Israeli chef Shaul Ben Aderet embarked on a 24-hour visit to Istanbul on Wednesday in order to cook live on Turkish TV.
Foamy on top, viscous in the middle, sludgy on the bottom -- Turkish coffee is a multilayered and complex thing. Likewise the drink's history, which turns out to be a complicated and no so sweet one. As NPR's Salt blog recounts in a recent post, during the reign of one 17th-century Ottoman sultan, taking a sip of Turkish coffee could lead to big trouble. From the blog:
Sultan Murad IV, a ruler of the Ottoman Empire, would not have been a fan of Starbucks. Under his rule, the consumption of coffee was a capital offense.
The sultan was so intent on eradicating coffee that he would disguise himself as a commoner and stalk the streets of Istanbul with a hundred-pound broadsword. Unfortunate coffee drinkers were decapitated as they sipped.
Murad IV's successor was more lenient. The punishment for a first offense was a light cudgeling. Caught with coffee a second time, the perpetrator was sewn into a leather bag and tossed in the river.
But people still drank coffee. Even with the sultan at the front door with a sword and the executioner at the back door with a sewing kit, they still wanted their daily cup of joe. And that's the history of coffee in a bean skin: Old habits die hard.
The rest of the post can be found here. And for a taste of Turkish coffee as it should be, check out this Istanbul Eats recommendation.
With negotiations seemingly stalled and talk of a permanent division of their island getting louder, the Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders decided to at least create the impression of goodwill by hosting a dinner for United Nations officials at the island's only ethnically mixed village. From the AP's report on the dinner, which took place Thursday in the village of Pyla:
The gathering in Pyla came ahead of a crucial session with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in New York later this month.
Accompanied by their wives, Greek Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias and breakaway Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu braved midwinter drizzle to greet villagers and exchange New Year’s wishes in the village square before sitting down for a meal at a Greek Cypriot fish tavern, followed by coffee at a Turkish Cypriot cafe.
The event was effectively a photo-op designed to underscore the leaders’ commitment to a peace deal, even though there has been scant progress in recent months.
Straddling the U.N. controlled buffer zone in the island’s southeast, Pyla remains the only village where Greek and Turkish Cypriots have continued to live together since 1974, when the island was split after Turkey invaded in response to a coup by supporters of union with Greece.