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.
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?
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.
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.
Istanbul’s Yedikule gardens present something of an incongruous sight: good-sized agricultural fields squeezed between modern apartment buildings on one side and the city’s historic Byzantine city walls on the other. They are also an ancient sight – according to researchers, urban farmers have been cultivating the land near the walls here since most likely the 6th century. In fact, agriculture is so established in the area that romaine lettuce from the Yedikule fields – the area’s main crop – had long ago developed a citywide reputation for its exceptional taste.
Now, though, these patches of green and the lettuce they produce are under threat, victims of yet another one of the government’s “urban transformation” projects, which tend to look at Istanbul’s past as the greatest impediment to the city’s future (this Tumblr site gives a good sense of the gardens and the plan to replace them). This week, workers from the local Fatih municipality started bulldozing the fields with little warning, as part of a plan to create a large park in the area. While there’s nothing wrong with building parks, the scant details given by the municipality about its plans have left locals and historians concerned, particularly since the Yedikule gardens are considered part of an area that is under UNESCO protection as a cultural heritage site. The fact that the local municipality is the same one that was responsible for the complete tearing down of Sulukule, a nearby neighborhood with a long-standing Roma population whose own history in the area went back for centuries, only raised concerns that little would be done in terms of preservation when it comes to this latest project.
A protest movement must be fed, and that’s exactly what the backbone of Turkish society – its exceedingly quick thinking and entrepreneurial merchant class – is doing.
In "occupied" Taksim Square, it wasn't long after the tear gas cleared that food started being supplied to the protestors, either by generous local businesses or more bottom-line oriented food cart operators. Reports Today's Zaman:
Food vendors probably made the most profits out of all of the vendors as endless customers swarmed around the sellers of meatball subs, watermelon, orange juice, corn and çiğköfte, a traditional dish made with bulgur wheat and spices. As many food places closed due to clashes between riot police and some protestors in the early days of the protest, the few buffets left made record high sales. In addition, many people flocked to street vendors to feed their hunger. A slice of watermelon was priced at TL 5 and the price of meatball subs rose by 50 percent from TL 5 to TL 7.5.
Sellers of tavuk pilav -- a mix of rice and chicken -- are also present among the vendors in Taksim. However, as their numbers increased, the price of a tavuk pilav plate went down from TL 5 to TL 3.5.
(Check out this Istanbul Eats Facebook page for more shots of food vendors in Taksim.)
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recently gone into Turks' bedrooms, calling on Turkish families to have at least three children each in order to keep the country's population growing. Now the mercurial PM is going into his citizens' kitchens, kicking off a new campaign aimed at stopping what he described as the problem of bread waste, an issue that few Turks had probably ever given any thought to.
Yesterday, Erdogan helped kick off a new campaign organized by Turkey's Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Livestock, which plans to tackle this newly-discovered problem of bread waste. Reports the Wall Street Journal:
On Thursday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan turned his attention for a brief moment to bread: the backbone of every meal in Turkey, where bakers put out 37 billion loaves a year.
The premier said wasting bread is tantamount to greed, which lies at the root of economic crises and wars. Turkey, he said, can’t afford to squander 2 billion loaves of bread annually while the country needs to encourage savings and millions worldwide suffer from hunger.
That catapulted the puffy white loaves of dough, which are not nutritious but filling and rich in flavor, into the center of political debate. It also brought Mr. Erdogan, who is ever-present in the lives of Turkey’s 75 million people but not known for culinary curiosity, into the kitchen.
The Guardian has posted a very nicely produced video segment (here) that explores the food traditions of southeast Turkey's Urfa and makes the case for the ancient city being the inspiration for the way we eat today. It's not a farfetched claim: the area around Urfa is considered by archeologists and other researchers to be one of the first regions where hunter gatherers made the shift to farming and domesticating livestock, giving rise to the consumption of dairy products, bread and other foods that are "processed" (in the ancient sense of the word).
That said, considering the city's locals are today best known in Turkey for eating copious amount of grilled liver, sometimes even for breakfast, it's clear that the Urfa diet took off in a different direction from the rest of the world's somewhere along the way.
For those in Istanbul who want to get a taste of Urfa-style kebabs and don't have time to make it down to the source, Istanbul Eats has a review of a superb grill house in the city's Aksaray neighborhood, home to dozens of restaurants opened up by migrants from Urfa and other parts of southeast Turkey.
Though only finger-sized, hamsi -- anchovies that come mostly from the Black Sea region -- loom large in the imagination of Turkish eaters. The little fish's arrival in late fall is greeted with great fanfare and some of the dishes that the humble hamsi is used in, such as a rice pilaf infused with spices and herbs, are treated with utter reverence.
Robyn Eckhardt, creator of the EatingAsia blog, has clearly caught the hamsi bug. In a wonderful piece that ran in yesterday's New York Times, Eckhardt describes a recent journey she made to Turkey's northern Black Sea coast in search of what turns out be an elusive catch. From her piece:
I was on a pilgrimage of sorts, inspired by an anchovy obsession, one shared by many Turks. For connoisseurs of hamsi, as anchovies are called in Turkish, the fat-padded specimens netted from the frigid Black Sea trump those taken from the Sea of Marmara, south of Istanbul and the Bosporus. The Black Sea season — which usually starts mid-autumn and runs through February — has been keenly anticipated for centuries. In the mid-1600s, the Ottoman traveler Evliya Celebi wrote that in the port of Trabzon, on the coast’s eastern half, “fishmongers at the wharf ... have special trumpets made of elder-tree wood. They only have to blow on these trumpets once and, by God’s dispensation, if people praying in the mosque hear it, they will immediately leave their prayer and come running for the hamsi.” Today, locals settle for feasting on the fish as often as the season will allow, often twice a day at its height, when hamsi are as cheap as 3 Turkish lira (about $1.70) per kilo.
Driven by that sort of passion, my plan was a hamsi-fueled road trip along a 300-mile stretch of Turkey’s central Black Sea coast, with stops en route to sample the best of the catch, which turned out to be delicately seasonal — available one day, then not the next.