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On the first night of Ramadan last month, thousands of people gathered on İstiklal Caddesi in central Istanbul. They laid down newspapers and tablecloths in a long line stretching nearly half a kilometer — then sat down on the ground to break their fast in the middle of the city’s busiest pedestrian boulevard.
Passing food and drinks from hand to hand, participants called out to people walking by, “Is anyone hungry? Is anyone thirsty?” and leaped up to distribute water, dates, baklava and other traditional fast-breaking items. As the meal wrapped up, young men toting large garbage bags chanted, “Trash! Trash! Trash!” as they worked their way through the crowd collecting refuse.
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A typical iftar table
The elements of the iftar meal in Turkey have changed relatively little over the centuries. Many people still have a date -- believed to be the preferred fast-breaking food of the Prophet Mohammed -- as their first bite of sustenance after abstaining from dawn to dusk.
"The iftar meal is traditionally served in two sections -- you start off with tiny little sauces, dates, olives, spoonfuls of jam and other bits and bobs to nibble to assuage your hunger," says culinary history writer Mary Işın. "Then you have the evening prayer, a little rest and maybe a smoke, and then the proper meal itself: soups, stews, roasts and pilav [rice]."
Sweets, especially baklava and the milky dessert güllaç, are also closely tied to Ramadan in Turkey because of their importance in Ottoman cuisine. The period following the end of Ramadan is actually called Şeker Bayramı, or "Holiday of Sweets."
“Ramadan used to be a time for community, for people to come together and get to know each other, but with rapid urbanization and the social isolation that’s come with that, people have started to [either] stay in their homes for iftar or attend expensive [fast-breaking] meals at restaurants or hotels,” says Abdurrahim Özer, a member of the Anti-Capitalist Muslims. This loosely organized group of pious activists has coalesced in opposition to what they see as the too-close relationship between religion and wealth under Turkey’s current government.
Two years ago, members of the group organized small public meals during Ramadan outside of luxury hotels where local dignitaries, business leaders and celebrities often host and attend lavish iftar dinners. Just one fast-breaking meal at a top hotel can cost nearly a quarter of the monthly minimum wage. Much food is often wasted during Ramadan, and many people (up to 25% of Turks, according to one recent news report) actually gain weight during the fasting month.
Ramadan “shouldn’t be about eating expensive foods; it should be about understanding and helping the poor, the hungry, the needy,” Özer says.
The ongoing demonstrations this year have reinvigorated the earlier effort to protest the commercialization of Ramadan, drawing people of various segments of society and levels of religious belief to share in the yeryüzü sofrası, or “earth tables.” (According to Turkish food writer Aylin Öney Tan, the “earth tables” hearken back to the original meaning of “sofra,” which comes from the Arabic word for a traveler’s provisions, eaten on a cloth or mat placed on the ground.)
Communal meals in symbolic locations
Following the first people’s iftar this year on İstiklal Caddesi, a thoroughfare that has hosted regular protests this summer, yeryüzü sofrası spread throughout the city, with individuals and groups organizing them each night in different locations — often places with symbolic importance due to conflicts in the area or threats facing historic heritage.
After a public forum related to the ongoing protests was attacked by people with sticks and knives in the Kocamustafapaşa neighborhood of Istanbul, a communal iftar was held in the area the next night, drawing more than 1,000 people. Another was organized inside the Yedikule bostan, a series of centuries-old market gardens around the city walls that are in the process of being razed to build a landscaped park with tea gardens and an artificial river. Outside of Istanbul, a yeryüzü iftarı was held along the banks of the Tigris River in Hasankeyf, an ancient town in Southeast Turkey that faces being submerged under the waters of a hydroelectric dam.
The people’s iftars are part of a tradition that predates Islam itself, according to Özer. “This goes back to the Prophet Abraham, who shared his food with other people who sat around his table,” he says.
During Ottoman times in Turkey, “rich people would open their homes for the iftar meal,” says Mary Işın, the author of the recent book “Sherbet and Spice: The Complete Story of Turkish Sweets and Desserts,” and a writer on Turkish culinary history who has lived in the country since 1973. “They made huge amounts of food, mostly for friends and neighbors and colleagues, but theoretically anyone could turn up and be fed.” The sultan’s palace may have done similarly, if reports by foreign observers documenting life in Istanbul at the time are accurate.
That tradition has morphed in recent years into massive municipality-organized iftar tents set up in central locations around Turkish cities to offer free meals to the public, but members of Özer’s group and their allies are critical of the way such charity has been commercialized.
“Outside Kocatepe Camii, the main mosque in Ankara, there’s a huge banner saying who sponsored the iftar that night. That’s not Islamic. There is a saying attributed to the Prophet Mohammed, ‘You need to give with your one hand and the other hand should not know about it,’” Özer says. “We believe that wealth comes from God and people who have wealth are obligated to share it. If they use that as a way of boasting, then it diminishes the act [of charity] in the eyes of God.”
Top photo: People gather on İstiklal Caddesi in Istanbul for iftar meal. Credit: Jennifer Hattam
Clad in a red vest with gold embroidery and matching fez, the ice cream vendor rings a bell hanging above his booth on Istanbul’s busiest pedestrian thoroughfare, then grabs a long stick and plunges it into a vat in front of him, churning its contents with great effort. Triumphantly, he raises what looks like a football-sized mass of taffy into the air, spins it around, and then drops the ice cream back into its container as the first customer of the day steps up.
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What gives Turkish ice cream (maraş dondurması in Turkish, after the Kahramanmaraş region in the southeast of the country where it is believed to have originated) the unique firm, chewy consistency that allows it to be slung around or cut with a knife has traditionally been salep — a powder made from tuberous orchids.
Around the time that the ice cream-selling business begins heating up each year, Turkish villagers in the Aegean, Mediterranean and Black Sea regions head to local meadows and fields to search for orchids. Their tubers are washed; boiled with water, milk or the local yogurt drink ayran; dried in the open air; and then ground into powder for sale. Salep is also used to produce a hot, milky drink of the same name that has been consumed since Ottoman times and is believed to have medicinal properties. But the popularity of these traditional products may be threatening their key ingredient.
“Some 80 tons of orchids are harvested each year, but demand is still growing,” says Zafer Kızılkaya, a researcher with the Turkish Orchid Conservation Project. “Many species are already on the edge. The current level of demand doesn’t allow for sustainable harvesting.”
Unlike most tropical orchid species, which grow in trees and forest canopies and thus do not have roots, orchids in temperate places such as Turkey grow in the soil, producing the tubers used for culinary purposes. More than 100 species of orchids are found in Turkey, dozens of them endemic to the country.
“The aromatic quality of each species is different,” says Kızılkaya. “The best is the ‘Roma’ or Gypsy orchid, which only grows in black pine forests. It’s impossible to grow agriculturally.”
The difficulty of cultivating orchids may limit attempts to bolster their population, but also ensures that food and drink produced from them has a distinctive taste.
“The really interesting molecules made by these plants — which we experience as taste or other culinary or medicinal properties — are often produced when the plants grow wild to help them cope with environmental factors,” says Susanne Masters, a U.K.-based ethnobotanist studying Turkey’s orchids. “Cultivating these plants, where they are cosseted with watering and protection from pests, means they often don’t produce these molecules — so wild plants can taste very different from cultivated ones.”
Seeking a sustainable alternative
According to Kızılkaya, a Turkish institute in the Aegean city of İzmir has succeeded in cultivating a species of orchid that has retained good salep-making properties, but there is a lack of government incentives to further such work. His organization is lobbying to create the country’s first orchid conservation area, where collecting would be totally restricted, and to generate new sources of income for villagers that require less intensive harvesting.
“It takes 2,000 to 4,000 plants to make a kilogram [2.2 pounds] of salep powder,” he says. “Selling orchids as garden plants [to customers] in the city would be more profitable [for villagers] and require less collecting.”
But Kızılkaya and Masters agree that collecting orchids for culinary purposes is not the only danger facing the plants in Turkey. Urbanization, tourism development and mining are among the threats to the orchids’ habitat — and to an even more important element of Turkish cuisine.
Olives and orchids have a symbiotic relationship, according to Kızılkaya, who explains that the orchid plants thrive in the semi-shade provided by olive groves, which kills off competing plants that need more sun. Turkey is one of the world’s largest producers of olives and olive oil, generating 400,000 tons of olives and 195,000 tons of olive oil a year. But with small-scale olive-growing operations threatened by development and large-scale ones employing methods less friendly to the flowering plants, the historic relationship between the two local products is at risk as well.
“As much as intensification of agriculture can cause decline in orchid populations, abandonment of [traditional] agriculture can also cause decline, because both change the habitat,” Masters says. “I think we need to take a more holistic view, not only for conservation of orchids but also for conservation of the human culture connected to salep — from the landscape the orchids grow in, through the supply chain, up to the point of consumption.”
Top photo: An ice cream vendor in Istanbul. Credit: Jennifer Hattam
Steam rose from the two heavy pots perched on top of twin cooking-gas cylinders, the scent of orange peels and apples wafting through the crisp morning air at Istanbul’s first organic farmers market. At that moment, the aromatic contents resembled soup, or even mulled wine, but as the hours passed, they would jell into a pudding called aşure, a dish seen by some as the epitome of the Turkish “melting pot.”
A common sight on Istanbul tables in recent weeks, aşure, which some believe to be the world’s oldest dessert, is an unusual blend of savory and sweet. While the base ingredients — wheat, rice, white beans, chickpeas — remain generally the same, each cook has her own repertoire of ways to add what one Turkish friend calls “the excitement”: pomegranate seeds, dried mulberries, lemon peel, molasses, rosewater, anise, or other fruits, nuts and spices.
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“It doesn’t matter what you put in aşure. What matters is that you make aşure and share it,” says Şemsa Denizsel, the chef/owner of Kantin, a critically acclaimed restaurant in Istanbul’s chic Nişantaşı district. “You distribute aşure to share the wealth, with the hope of having that wealth again in the years to come.”
By giving away most of the aşure she makes at Kantin to fellow shopkeepers in her neighborhood, Denizsel is following a tradition that dates back centuries.
“The Ottoman sultan’s mother would direct the cooks in preparing aşure, and it would be distributed to the palace inhabitants, dignitaries and the common people,” says Dr. Özge Samancı, a food historian at Yeditepe University’s Gastronomy & Culinary Arts Department. The palace aşure was served in a porcelain ewer and strained smooth, a style still sometimes seen in Turkey under the name süzme aşure.
Aşure is rooted in even earlier pagan traditions related to the harvest season and wishes for future abundance, Samancı added, but the dish encompasses almost as many cultures and beliefs as it does ingredients.
In Muslim countries, aşure is most frequently cooked to mark Ashura, the 10th day of the Islamic month of Muharrem. In 2012, it fell between Nov. 15 and Dec. 13. This date is of particular importance to Shiite Muslims, as it commemorates the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein, an event that contributed to the Shiite-Sunni split in the religion. But many Muslims, Jews and Christians in and around the Middle East also believe that Ashura was the date when Noah’s Ark finally hit dry land, and that the grateful survivors of the great flood cooked a dish similar to aşure — often called “Noah’s pudding” in English — out of what was left of their supplies. Many members of all three religions follow suit today, with Armenians, for example, cooking a version of the dish called anoush abour (“sweet soup”) for New Year’s or on Jan. 6, when they celebrate Christmas.
That broad range of rituals and meanings makes aşure a better metaphor for Turkey’s historic cultural diversity than the oft-used “mosaic,” according to Mustafa Avkıran, a Turkish actor and director who has periodically staged a theatrical musical, “Ashura,” since 2004. It features folk songs on the theme of migration in a dozen languages currently or previously spoken in Anatolia, including Turkish, Armenian, Arabic, Greek and Ladino. Each performance ended with — what else? — the distribution of aşure to audience members.
“When making aşure, you melt all these grains and legumes, all these fruits together in a pot — it’s like a society. All these religions, these beliefs; it all goes in this pot,” says Defne Koryürek, the founder of Slow Food Istanbul, who organized an aşure-making (and, of course, sharing) event recently at the farmers market for the international Slow Food organization’s Terra Madre Day.
The Terra Madre Day aşure incorporated ingredients from all four corners of Turkey and was made based on Denizsel’s recipe (see below). “My grandmother used to make aşure, but by the time I realized its importance, my mother and grandmother had both passed on, so I had to develop my own recipe,” she says.
That kind of gap is what Koryürek is working to close through Slow Food Istanbul’s latest project, which seeks to create a multi-generational network of (initially) women “coming together in a kitchen around a pot” to share the knowledge about how to sustain ourselves when it comes to food that she says is so often lost in the hustle and bustle of modern urban life.
That bubbling pot of aşure, with all the hands-on work it requires, appears to be the perfect place to start.
“Making aşure takes time; it’s laborious. You need to peel all the chestnuts one by one. That takes many hands,” Denizsel says. “It takes six to eight hours to cook. You need someone to gossip with — that way the time flies.”
Aşure (Noah’s Pudding)
This aşure recipe comes from Istanbul chef Şemsa Denizsel. It was used with permission and translated by the author. Start preparations the night before.
Makes approximately 15 portions
For the aşure:
250 grams (8.8 ounces) wheat
25 grams (0.88 ounces) rice
250 grams (8.8 ounces) pears
250 grams (8.8 ounces) apples
125 grams (4.4 ounces) white beans
125 grams (4.4 ounces) chickpeas
500 grams (1.1 pounds) chestnuts
62.5 grams (2.2 ounces) dried apricots
62.5 grams (2.2 ounces) dried figs
62.5 grams (2.2 ounces) dried golden raisins
62.5 grams (2.2 ounces) orange rind
25 grams (0.88 ounces) currants
1 cinnamon stick
375 grams (13.2 ounces) caster sugar
- The night before, wash wheat well in hot water. Put in a pot, cover with four to five finger-widths of water, and bring to a boil. Remove the foam on top, strain, and re-wash. Once again, bring to a boil in a pot with four to five finger-widths of water. After it comes to a boil this second time, again remove the foam, then set the pot to the side and let it rest.
- Wash and soak the chickpeas and dried beans.
- Boil the chestnuts and peel them.
- In the morning, boil the chickpeas and dried beans separately.
- Wash the dried apricots, dried figs, golden raisins and currants, and soak in water.
- Take the soaked wheat, add the rice and put it back on the stove. If necessary, add some more water. Leaving the pot uncovered, cook for four to six hours on medium heat, intermittently removing foam and stirring. If the water level becomes too low during the cooking process, add a little more hot water.
- Make sure all white pith has been removed from the orange rinds, julienne them and add them to the wheat.
- Remove the skin from the apples and pears, cut into cubes and add to the pot of wheat.
- While the chickpeas and beans cook, strain the water to pick out the husks.
- Cut the soaked apricots and figs into four to five parts. Bring the apricots, figs, raisins and currants to a boil in their separate soaking water.
- When the wheat has almost achieved a thick and chewy consistency, about half an hour before it’s completely cooked, add the dried apricots and raisins with their water to the pot and bring to a boil. At the same time, add the beans, chickpeas, chestnuts and cinnamon stick.
- In the final 10 minutes of cooking, add the figs and currants. Add sugar and stir; remove from heat once it has dissolved. Mix in a pinch of salt. Remove the cinnamon stick.
- Once the aşure has come down to room temperature, divide it into bowls, and once it has completely cool, decorate with seeds and nuts and serve.
Top photo: Making aşure for Terra Madre Day in Istanbul. Credit: Jennifer Hattam