My Istanbul, the spice and charm of my life
We can talk about an Istanbul cuisine today because of its adaptability, as Istanbul’s long-time inhabitants and its newer arrivals, regardless of when they came, share this common culture with an open mind: seeing, tasting, trying and exchanging recipes for the food each other eat, making it the same way or with some modification according to taste.
Istanbul is rather like traveling through time. Throughout history, intercultural interaction has also been reflected in the city’s eating and drinking habits and has created a unique ‘Istanbul cuisine’.
I was a born and bred in the district of Kurtuluş.
Dining customs were very important for families living in this neighbourhood. All family members respected meal times; clean, ironed linens were always ready on the table. The family sat down together to eat whatever God has given. These kitchens and tables were extremely abundant; in addition to the variety of meals, desserts, olive oil dishes and appetisers that were cooked in the kitchen of the house, the tables were also adorned with many small tasting portions that neighbours sent over, thinking the aroma from their kitchens must have wafted over. At the beginning and end of the meal, a prayer known by each family elder was recited, and the meal ended with the whole family saying ‘amen.’ That is why these tables never lacked flavour, abundance and guests. And if you happened upon any holiday – Christmas, New Year’s Eve or Easter – the colours and richness of that table overflowed from the cupboards of the kitchen, filled with snacks, teatime and breakfast foods.
Among the unparalleled dining customs that I hope everyone who was raised and has resided in Kurtuluş and Şişli are well-acquainted with include fragrant, fresh Ramadan pita bread; Easter buns with mahaleb and mastic, made at home and distributed to neighbours; pilaf with turkey, chestnuts and lots of cinnamon; the egg-cracking games played with colourful Easter eggs brought by neighbours; Christmas trees decorated with shiny sweets; coins hidden in black cumin and sesame pita breads; matzos; and delicious olive oil dishes and dates eaten to break the fast that adorn rich tables.
The following is what Stilyanos Vafiadis of Mabel Chocolates, whom I interviewed for my book İstanbul’um, Tadım, Tuzum, Hayatım [My Istanbul, the Spice and Charm of My Life], says about the Kurtuluş of his time:
When we were children, we would wear our best clothes, be it Christmas or Easter, and have fun celebrating the holidays according to our own customs … We used to live all together as neighbours. And we would enjoy learning about their customs. If we went somewhere, we would leave the keys with our neighbours. We were that close ... Unfortunately, after some political events … I was subjected to bad situations from time to time because I am Greek. These events caused Greeks to leave Istanbul.
Going up to the island
My summer holidays have always been spent on the Princes’ Islands since my childhood and teenage years. As soon as schools closed and we got our report cards, we went to Heybeliada as a family. Later we spent our summers on Büyükada. Istanbulites use the phrase ‘to go up to the island’ (adaya çıkmak) when they talk about going to the islands and ‘to descend from the island’ (adadan inmek) when talking about their return to Istanbul.
The islands were undoubtedly one of the most important examples of Istanbul’s mosaic of cultures.
All cultures lived together on the diamond-like islands, where Greek, Turkish, Ladino, Spanish, Levantine Italian, Armenian and, for a while, French could be frequently heard, where neighbours enjoyed warm and cordial relations, and where their doors were open to guests 24 hours a day.
We miss the perfume-scented roads of our dear islands, where breakfasts and dinners were prepared and eaten with a completely different pleasure, where women and children in their best attire welcomed fathers arriving at the esplanade; and moonlit nights were enjoyed by singing songs in horse-drawn carriages, and balls were frequently held.
As Yorgos Stamboulidis, the manager of Büyükada Kapri Restaurant, said:
Those were very good years when we spent our youth on the island. We all intermingled. We would buy guitars and go to the back of the island with donkeys to sing songs. We would tour around. I studied at the Greek primary school. There were 36 children in one class. Think about how many Greeks there were at that time … I was born here, I grew up here. I don’t go about much [on the island] in my spare time, I get sad because I know the old life. When you see the empty houses, it is as if you are looking for your old friends in those houses. There is a lived experience everywhere, a memory in every house. Seeing different people in those houses now reminds you of the past, and you miss it, so it’s very difficult…
Or in the words of Nikos Mundis, the manager of Büyükada Bakery:
Life was good back then. Everyone lived like brothers and sisters. When I was at the Hanımeli Patisserie, 5500 Greeks lived on Büyükada at the time. We couldn’t make enough tarts and buns. I used to knead the dough for the New Year’s buns with my hands, and my arms would hurt. We were kneading 150 kg of dough for the buns. Now, could that be easy, my dear?
Easter, carnival, Christmas and other holidays were experienced all together and those wonderful and unforgettable times when the traditional customs of some districts of Istanbul – the masquerade balls, decorating Christmas trees, kneading the dough for buns and transporting them to the ovens, dyeing the eggs, cooking Noah’s pudding and distributing it to the whole neighbourhood – were perhaps even more vividly and warmly experienced on the islands…
Baked goods, Easter buns and börekitas (traditional Sephardic stuffed pastries) were bought from Barba Niko; salted bonito and sardines were ordered from Fisherman Isak; mouths were sweetened with cakes and profiteroles from Yordan; a wide variety of appetisers were prepared by Milto; Madam Ortans served fresh fruit and chocolate tarts made by her own dexterous hands; delicious milk and butter from the Yalovalı delicatessen and creamy yoghurt delivered to our homes from the Sarandi shop were all part of our beautiful, multicultural, polyphonic, multi-coloured and delicious islands.
We are very fortunate that our generation lived in Istanbul with all these riches and recognised, tasted and smelled all this beauty. The taste of every dish in Istanbul reflects the past of the people living in these lands and imparts their stories. We can talk about an Istanbul cuisine today because of its adaptability, as Istanbul’s long-time inhabitants and its newer arrivals, regardless of when they came, share this common culture with an open mind: seeing, tasting, trying and exchanging recipes for the food each other eats, making it the same way or with some modification according to taste.
Every society has its own flavours, food habits and food customs. That is why we can see very different dishes during holidays on the tables of every society. Of course, there are also classic culinary delicacies that everyone enjoys, and their existence has continued to this day to reach our tables, still appealing to our taste buds.
The geographical location of our lands, its fertile soil, seas, four seasons and climate enable the abundant cultivation of different types of vegetables and fruits, all kinds of greens, herbs, seafood, legumes, spices, nuts and much more. Because these lands have hosted different civilisations, cultures and religions for centuries, the interaction arising from these experiences make up Istanbul.
I personally believe that experiencing this diversity and an awareness of this richness is a serious privilege. It is a privilege to realise the existence of other worlds within different cultures, to be able to live with this reconciliation through empathy, tolerance and, most of all, love and to be able to continue life with this perspective.
Translation by Ayla Jean Yackley
- One of the oldest districts in Şişli, Kurtuluş is known for its vibrant multicultural and cosmopolitan past and composition, including but not limited to Greek, Armenian, Jewish, Turkish and Kurdish populations. The Greek population of the neighbourhood declined at a considerable rate following the Istanbul Pogrom in 1955, known as September 6–7 Events, leading to thousands of Greeks leaving Istanbul.
- Meri Çevik Simyonidis, İstanbul’um, Tadım, Tuzum, Hayatım [My Istanbul, the Spice and Charm of My Life] (Istanbul: İnkılap Kitabevi, 2015), 329.
- Ibid., 130; 132.
- Ibid., 344.