For the world outside of Turkey, the words “Turkish cuisine” usually conjure a very limited set of images: kebab, baklava, and Turkish delight. If you say “Istanbul cuisine”, most people probably assume that it is the same. Istanbul is part of Turkey, right? As Dr. Zeynep Kılıç explores in her film Tables of Istanbul, the answer is both yes and no.
Kılıç grew up in Ankara and then spent most of her adult life in the US, where she is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Alaska Anchorage. As the only Turk among her American friends and family, Kılıç has been placed in the role of representing Turkish food as a whole. But one message of the film is that there is no generalized version of Turkish food – dishes are peculiar to different regions, towns, and even families.
What is Turkish food?
“My mom is from Trabzon on the Black Sea, so I was very familiar with mıhlama or hamsili pilav,” Kılıç told The Guide Istanbul. “Then my dad is from the southern region of Kahramanmaraş, so my mum knew some of his foods, like çiğ köfte. But I never ate artichokes growing up, and I didn’t even know that things like samphire existed – these are Aegean dishes. So it was very bizarre for me when people asked me about Turkish food, because I realized that my knowledge was really limited to what I grew up eating.”
The search for a better answer to “What is Turkish food?” brought Kılıç to Istanbul. Despite being born in the same country, Kılıç emphasizes that this was a journey of discovery for her. “I really didn’t know that much about Istanbul – I’ve never lived here and only visited cousins. When I decided to make the film, I thought Istanbul is a fascinating place because there are so many migrants, even if they’re not international. But moving from Urfa to Istanbul is probably just as jarring as moving from Istanbul to Arizona.” Because of its megacity draw on the provinces, Istanbul is also on the frontline of arguments over what is considered authentic in a multicultural environment. “Over the last decade the idea of Ottoman food has started coming up in conversation. Along with that I started thinking, is that what Istanbul’s cuisine is?”
Istanbul’s multicultural cuisine
Whatever authentic Istanbul cuisine is, there is a definite sense among Istanbul residents that this culture is being lost. Kılıç’s research into academic papers on the subject revealed a view that Istanbul cuisine is being pushed out by the kebab culture of immigrants from other provinces. “All the chefs I spoke to were very kind, none of them said anything about diversity being bad. Some were concerned though that we don’t know what Istanbul cuisine is anymore – it was a mixture of Armenian, Greek, Jewish, and Turkish. The cuisine was around the palace, which received the best quality of everything. But the new migrants are so unaware of the history, the climate, or the symbolism of Istanbul that they bring their own cultures and superimpose them. The real Istanbullites are a minority at this point. Just as we preserve other kinds of cultural heritage we need to preserve Istanbul’s unique quality as well.”
At the same time as Istanbul’s cuisine is competing with Anatolian newcomers, it is also being challenged by Western cuisine. “Musa Dağdeviren, the owner of Çiya, said that Turks will go and pay 45 lira for a risotto with porcini mushrooms. But if you take the Turkish equivalent, then nobody wants to pay that because it doesn’t sound fancy. We have some work to do about this elitism and constantly looking towards the West.” Turkish restaurants see the easy advantages of serving Western cuisine, and in this way the city’s native dishes are gradually squeezed out. But a surge in interest in Ottoman cuisine, with restaurants such as Asitane and Topaz recreating dishes from the imperial palace, has managed to protect some of Istanbul’s heritage.
And by opening restaurants or cooking at home, the migrants to Istanbul are also continuing their own traditions. “One thing I found fascinating in the film was the kitchens of migrants to Istanbul who have been here for over thirty years. I asked them whether they took recipes from neighbors or TV and they all said, “No.” These immigrants seemed completely content with repeating the dishes that they brought with them.” So while some of the city’s native diversity has been lost, it is now possible to try dishes from all corners of Turkey without leaving Istanbul. In a city of over 15 million people, it isn’t enough to “do as the Romans do” – first you have to decide which Romans we’re talking about.