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The purple skin of the Kavak fig is so thin that the fruit can be eaten whole, without peeling — and so fragile that it cannot be transported long distances. One of the few places this Istanbul delicacy is grown is a small market garden (known as a bostan in Turkish) in Rümeli Kavağı, a windswept waterfront settlement near where the Bosphorus Strait opens into the Black Sea.
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“It’s probably the last historical bostan along the Bosphorus, just 100 meters from the water. It’s registered as green space, but threatened with development because of the third Bosphorus bridge being built nearby,” explains Aleksandar Sopov, a Harvard University Ph.D. candidate in history and Middle Eastern studies who is researching Istanbul’s Ottoman-era agriculture.
Fruits and vegetables were once widely grown within city limits, with many neighborhoods becoming well known for their specialty produce. Istanbul old-timers still wax poetic about the flavorful romaine lettuce of Yedikule, near the Byzantine city walls; the fragrant strawberries grown in the Bosphorus village of Arnavutköy; and the cucumbers from Çengelköy, along the Asian side of the strait, and from Langa, now part of the gritty central-city Aksaray neighborhood.
As recently as 1900, historical sources indicate, Istanbul was home to more than 1,200 market gardens covering as many as 12 square kilometers. Today, most have been plowed under and paved over — and most of those that remain face the threat of a similar fate. But the wheels of urbanization and development that began churning vigorously in the 1970s and 1980s have more recently also spurred a grass-roots resurgence in urban food growing.
The Tarlataban garden in the Rümeli Hisarı neighborhood was among the first in this new wave.
“When a Starbucks was opened at Boğazici University, there was a protest against the increasing food prices and commercialization on campus and some of us said, ‘Let’s see if we can grow our own food instead,’ ” garden volunteer Pınar Ercan recalls as she sits on a tarp picking chard seeds from a stack of dried stalks and gathering them in a jar. “We didn’t know if we could do it or not.”
Three years later, the small plot of land on a woody, remote corner of the university campus supplies produce to a student-run collective kitchen and serves as a laboratory for seed saving, composting and other sustainability initiatives. From a distance, the growing area looks like a wild tangle of plants, but move in closer and bright purple eggplants, red tomatoes and green peppers emerge from their vines, while robust melon and squash flourish in the undergrowth. (Crop diversity and rotation are notable characteristics of traditional bostan, which typically yield 15 to 20 different types of produce a year.)
A small group of volunteers tends the Tarlataban garden each week using techniques derived from the environmentally friendly practice of permaculture. Learning as they go, they have recently been sharing the knowledge they have acquired with students from other local universities who want to start similar projects on their campuses.
Demonstrations spur urban gardening projects
Istanbul’s new urban-gardening movement got a dramatic boost last year, when mass protests broke out in response to the threatened destruction of a centrally located green space to make way for a shopping mall. During the week or so that demonstrators occupied Gezi Park, some of them planted a small vegetable garden along its northern edge. After the park was cleared by police, similar gardens began to pop up around the city.
“Many places were cultivated after Gezi — empty plots of land owned by city municipalities and often threatened by development,” Sopov says.
In the Cihangir neighborhood, a short walk from Gezi Park, the Roma Bostan sits on a vacant hillside with a million-dollar view of the city, next to a staircase often crowded with young beer drinkers and littered with the broken bottles they leave behind. A sign on the fence surrounding its cornstalks and cabbage heads reads: “In the summer of 2013, this area was cleared of garbage for the first time. The soil was treated, planting beds created, and vegetables and healing herbs planted from local seeds. … It is kept alive by the collective effort of neighborhood residents. We await your support to keep it clean and protected. …”
Across the water, on the Asian side of the city, residents of the Kadıköy district have rallied, so far successfully, to keep their postage-stamp-sized Moda Gezi Bostan from being covered with asphalt for a parking lot.
“It’s all totally free — people plant and take whatever they want,” says a local who ambles up to chat with a visitor.
Small in scale and tended by hobbyists, these community plots can’t make up for the destruction of the historical bostan whose gardeners passed down a lifetime of knowledge from one generation to the next and fed the city for so many years with the produce they grew to sell at local markets. But the Tarlataban garden’s Ercan and others hope they might just be able to point Istanbul in a new direction.
“We understood after Gezi that we can be an example,” she says. “We’re trying to make what we need for ourselves, and the garden is a way to show people a more sustainable model for living.”
Main photo: Piyale Paşa Bostan in Istanbul. Credit: Jennifer Hattam
With the world’s largest collection of living plants, and its scientists working around the globe to preserve biodiversity, the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in London is internationally renowned for its conservation work. Less well known, perhaps, is the fact that its 300-acre grounds harbor the ingredients for some darn good cocktails.
“Sweet cicely, or garden myrrh, is very fragrant, but it also has a natural sweetness so it’s good to pair with rhubarb,” says Jo Farish, founder of the Gin Garden, as she hands over a Strawberry Cup. The beguiling early summer concoction of strawberry-infused gin, homemade rhubarb-and-sweet-cicely cordial, and lemon juice is garnished with fresh strawberries, cucumber and edible flowers.
Summertime gin garden
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The Gin Garden’s summer residence at Kew Gardens, where Farish and her team have turned a small greenhouse into a jungle-like bar serving up gin cocktails and tonics on weekends (Friday through Sunday) and British bank holidays, offers plenty of inspiration for mixologists.
“We’re taste-testing new ingredients as they come into season — we’ve been infusing cherry gin, with more fruits and berries coming up, and the lavender and Roman chamomile growing over there will be used in drinks when they’re ready,” Farish says.
The cocktail menu, which changes weekly, “uses bits and pieces from the Kew Gardens, but we can’t use too much,” she says. “The ingredients are all things that are grown here, but these plants have to be preserved.”
Serving drinks based on what’s growing nearby is the focus of the Gin Garden, which Farish started in fall 2012 after a successful trial run making apple martinis for an event at a historic house and garden run by the U.K.’s National Trust from the apples, lavender and honey on the property’s grounds.
Her company, which has taken its traveling botanical bar to museums, flower shows, design fairs and other locations in and around London, melds Farish’s background in event planning and garden design — and, she says, some very British sensibilities.
“British people are real gardeners and lots of people make their own gin. The two go hand in hand,” Farish says. “People are used to preserving (food) and having something to get through the winter.” She assures urban dwellers with more limited space that plenty of cocktail ingredients are easy to cultivate in a window box.
In addition to its pop-up bars, the Gin Garden also offers workshops on growing botanical ingredients at home and making infusions and syrups.
To make the infused gin that forms the base of its refreshing Kew-cumber cocktail, for example, Farish recommends slicing up cucumbers like you would for a sandwich, filling up a Mason jar halfway with the vegetables and topping it off with gin.
“Sip it the next morning and see how it tastes,” Farish says. “If the flavor isn’t strong enough, just close the jar up and try it again the next morning.”
A Gooseberry & Fennel cocktail is made from gin infused with the fennel that grows wild along the coast of Norfolk, in the east of England. The drink has a subtly acidic bite — and plenty of health benefits. “Gooseberries have vitamins A, B, C and antioxidants; they were actually used to ward off scurvy before citrus fruit was available in the U.K.,” Farish says.
The temporary Gin & Tonics Garden at Kew is part of the botanic garden’s summertime “Plantasia” festival, which includes a variety of activities, from a healing plants tour to a barefoot walk. The activities are aimed at introducing visitors to plants’ benefits “for body, mind, and soul.”
Benefit of plants
The passiflora tincture in the Rose Garden cocktail, for example, is said to be good for anxiety, while the namesake ingredient in the Elderflower Fizz is said to improve resistance to allergens. Angelica root, one of the six botanicals in the No. 3 London Dry Gin used to make the Kew cocktails, has long been employed in traditional medicine as a treatment for digestive issues.
“Nearly all plants have some kind of health benefit,” says Farish, who prefers to use a masticating or cold-press juicer for serious cocktail-making because it preserves more of the nutrients in fruits, vegetables and herbs.
Some of the Gin Garden’s drinks get an extra boost from a spritz of aromatic water before serving. The water is applied over the top of the glass with an old-fashioned perfume atomizer. Made by the London-based company The Herball, these aromatic waters are distilled using the same method as gin itself, retaining the complete essence of herbs and flowers like the chamomile spritzed over the Strawberry Cup or the geranium, rose and lavender that add a floral twist to the otherwise classic G&T.
“There are so many botanicals you can use with gin. It’s pretty limitless,” Farish says, mentioning her recent discovery of a small distillery in Cornwall that makes a violet leaf gin. “You really have free reign with ingredients compared to other drinks.”
Though gin is often thought of as a summertime tipple, Farish is already thinking ahead to the chillier seasons to come after the Kew pop-up bar closes its doors Sept. 7. “I’d like to do a winter gin garden,” she says. “Gin makes a great hot toddy with warming winter herbs and spices like ginger, sage and thyme.”
- 7 parts (35 milliliters) cucumber-infused No. 3 London Dry Gin (infuse your gin with sliced cucumbers for 48 hours)
- 1 part (5 milliliters) lime juice
- 1 part (5 milliliters) basil and mint syrup (simmer water and sugar to form a simple syrup then add herbs, keep on heat for 5 minutes, strain and bottle)
- Top with freshly pressed (juiced) cumber juice that has been diluted with sparkling water -- 1 part cucumber juice to 10 parts sparkling water
- Fill a highball glass with ice and add the ingredients above, stir, garnish with a slice of cucumber and a sprig of mint.
* Recipe courtesy Jo Farish. Find more recipes at The Gin Garden.
Main photo: The pop-up Gin & Tonics Garden at the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in London. Credit: Jennifer Hattam
Inside a weathered storefront surrounded by hardware shops, colorful gems gleam in the dim light — large jars full of hard candies flavored with sesame, cinnamon, rose, orange, bergamot and lemon.
Proprietor Hakan Altanoğlu and his forefathers have been making and selling the Turkish candy called akide şekeri at this shop in Istanbul’s Fatih district since 1865, but the bite-size treat’s history goes back to the glory days of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries.
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The empire’s elite Janissary soldiers “presented the grand vizier, other dignitaries and their own officers with gifts of akide sweets as a symbol of their loyalty to sultan and state,” a tradition deriving from an alternate meaning of the candy’s name, writes Mary Işın in her book “Sherbet and Spice: The Complete Story of Turkish Sweets and Desserts.” Akide then became, as it remains today for many,”the sweet of choice” at circumcisions, weddings and the Şeker Bayram (literally, “Sugar Holiday”), the three-day festival that will mark the end of Ramadan this year from July 28 to 30.
In the early Ottoman days, the candy, whose name derived from the Syrian Arabic word (akîda) for “to knot” or “to thicken,” was made from grape juice, boiled down into a thick, malleable molasses. Today, the typical sweetener is refined sugar, and much akide is machine-manufactured, but a few traditional şekerci (Turkish candy-makers) continue to make it the same laborious way it’s been done for centuries.
Showing off a burn scar on his arm that he says dates back to the 1970s, longtime şekerci Hüseyin Aksoy stirs a wooden spoon through a copper pot of boiling water and sugar — with just a pinch of cream of tartar —in the kitchen of the Istanbul Culinary Arts Center (YESAM), occasionally sweeping the inside of the pot with a wooden brush to prevent burning. (This is also a good technique to use when making stews, notes YESAM coordinator Banu Özden.)
When the sugar mixture has reduced to his satisfaction, Aksoy carries the copper pot over to a spotless marble slab and pours its contents out onto the smooth surface to cool, periodically poking at the sticky edges and flipping them over with a spatula. With the candy still as hot as 70 degrees Celsius, he winces slightly as he folds in a small bowlful of flavoring — some lemon salt and lemon oil, ground to paste with a mortar and pestle; or perhaps some mastic resin.
Made from the gum of the mastic (mastiha) tree, the resin’s piney flavor is an acquired taste but one important to many Turkish desserts. Another traditional flavor that has, thankfully, gone out of fashion is musk, a secretion of the musk deer imported from Nepal and Tibet. One of the most popular varieties of akide in Ottoman times, musk, Işın writes, was “appreciated as much as a mark of wealth and power as for its fragrance.”
Back at YESAM, the real show starts. Aksoy takes the multicolored lump that has resulted from his folding and kneading, drapes it over a rounded metal bar, and then begins to pull the ends like taffy, tossing them back over the bar repeatedly until the candy gets thicker and its color transforms from glistening caramel speckled with white into a glorious opaque blonde hue.
“The more you do it, the more your hands and fingers get calloused to the heat,” he explains, laughing a bit as he admits that when he was learning the trade 45 years ago, he once dropped the hot candy during the pulling process. “The master şekerci‘s wife hit me with a broomstick for ruining the batch.”
Next, Aksoy presses out a sheet of the newly blended mix, adds a layer of unflavored candy he’s kept in reserve, and rolls the two into a thick cylinder. Tugging at one end of the tube, he pulls out thin ropes, cuts them off with scissors and passes them to an assistant to roll into smooth dowels. The whole process must be done quickly, or the candy’s consistency becomes too hard to be useable. Taking a handful of the now-firm candy sticks, Aksoy taps them level on top of a square metal bar set above a bowl, then strikes them rapid-fire with one edge of his scissors to produce tiny cylinders of the finished akide, each with a golden roll of color inside.
Though each of the four to five 10-kilogram batches of akide that Aksoy makes every day yields more than 1,000 candies, a machine can turn out 2,500 kilos daily. He insists the taste and consistency of machine-made akide just isn’t the same as handmade, but şekerci like Aksoy and the Altanoğlu family are part of a dying breed.
“Young people aren’t learning this trade anymore; they don’t like the work, and there are other options for them now,” Aksoy says. “After us, there won’t be any more şekerci.”
Main photo: Hüseyin Aksoy makes akide at the Istanbul Culinary Arts Center. Credit: Jennifer Hattam
When faced with almost 1 million needy people, a bowl of soup — even a large vat — doesn’t go a very long way.
But Barbara Massaad refuses to let the daunting scale of the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon deter her from doing her small part to help — one bowl of soup at a time.
“If I were a barber, I would go and cut [refugees'] hair for free. But I write cookbooks, so that’s what I hope to use to better their lives,” Massaad says.
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The longtime Beirut resident, founding member of Slow Food Beirut and author of the award-winning cookbooks “Man’oushé,” “Mouneh,” and “Mezze” recently embarked on a new venture: Soup for Syria. The project’s goal is to create a crowd-sourced cookbook of soup recipes and use the proceeds to build and stock a communal pop-up kitchen in the Bekaa Valley, a part of Lebanon that has become home to more than 300,000 Syrian refugees.
“Entire families — of up to 25 people — live in tents where the cold, water and mud seep through,” says Massaad, who visits a Bekaa refugee camp weekly, bringing donated clothing and vats of soup. “Some families have grains and pulses [beans], but people eat lots of potato chips and bread. Meat, vegetables and fruit are scarce. I would like to give parents [in the camp] a tool to feed their children healthy meals.”
According to a World Food Program report last year, 73% of refugees surveyed in Lebanon said they did not have enough money to buy food; about half of the displaced Syrian families residing in the country have cut down their daily number of meals from three to two. UNICEF estimates that 5.9% of Syrian refugee children in Lebanon and 4% of those in Jordan are malnourished.
Massaad says she hopes to inspire other people to help Syrian refugees as the conflict in their country enters its fourth year. Indeed, hers is not the only initiative trying to tap culinary know-how and skills to make a difference.
Elsewhere in Beirut, a group of refugee women have established a catering company dedicated to regional Syrian cooking, with the help of the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, the Lebanese branch of the Caritas charity, and the acclaimed local restaurant Tawlet – Souk al-Tayeb. Trained in professional cooking skills, food safety, and presentation, the women now serve up their culinary history at the Souk al-Tayeb farmer’s market, food fairs and other events.
“I am trying to prepare and sell … traditional dishes to generate an income that my family and I can live on, instead of waiting for the aid that is given to us,” one participant, Samira Ismail, told the regional news portal Al-Shorfa.com.
Before the conflict broke out in spring 2011, Syria — particularly its ancient cities of Aleppo and Damascus — was being touted as the next hot culinary tourism destination. Its fertile soil yielded flavorful ingredients and spices for a cuisine incorporating influences from around the greater Middle East, the historic Silk Road trading caravans and the diverse communities of Ottoman times. In 2005, the International Academy of Gastronomy in France awarded Aleppo its Grand Prix de la Culture Gastronomique for “having achieved distinction in the field of gastronomic culture.” Today, though, even staple food products are difficult to find and hard to afford in Syria.
As displaced Syrians in Lebanon and around the region struggle to survive, cooking dishes from home provides additional sustenance and a way to stay connected to their beleaguered country. It also helps to keep alive a once-thriving food culture — one that is at risk in their devastated homeland.
Addas bi Hosrom
A Syrian man from Aleppo named Omar Abdulaziz Hallaj shared this lentil soup recipe with “Soup for Syria” founder Barbara Massaad. “Hosrom,” also known as “verjuice,” is a concentrated sour liquid made from unripe grapes. Fresh lemon juice in season can be substituted for the verjuice.
Serves 4 to 6
2 cups red lentils
10 cloves garlic
1 cup vegetable oil
1½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoon ground Lebanese seven-spice mix*
2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon paprika
½ to 1 cup verjuice (depending on how sour it is)
1. Boil the lentils in a large pot with 6 cups water until the lentils dissolve into a homogeneous soup. Remove foam from top of liquid as it emerges. Cook the lentils for about 30 to 40 minutes, or until tender.
2. During the last 10 minutes of cooking, add the spices and verjuice to the soup.
3. In a skillet, fry the garlic in the oil until it is browned, but not blackened. Add the oil-and-garlic mixture to the soup while still hot. Mix well, then boil on low heat for a few minutes.
4. Serve hot with toasted-bread croutons. Garnish with a sprinkle of hot red paprika.
* Lebanese seven-spice mix is a blend of equal parts powdered nutmeg, ginger, allspice, fenugreek, cloves, cinnamon and black pepper.
Main photo: Barbara Massaad with Syrian children at a Bekaa Valley refugee camp. Credit: Courtesy of Barbara Massaad
Sara moves around the large kitchen with laser-like focus, filling a tea glass of water to add to a heaping pot of saffron rice with one hand while sautéing a pan of tart, red dried berries, walnuts, raisins and slivered almonds with the other. The resulting dish, zereshk polow (barberry rice), is a popular one in Sara’s home country of Iran, but not so easy to make in neighboring Turkey, where she is living as a refugee.
“Iranian basmati rice is longer than Turkish rice and the grains stay separate better,” Sara says through a translator. (She did not want her last name used while her application for asylum is pending.) The rice has been imported from Iran, along with the barberries, saffron, lentils, dried lemons (limoo amani), dried mint and other ingredients for the traditional Iranian feast she’s preparing for a few hundred curious Istanbul residents.
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The meal, co-hosted recently by the International Organization for Migration’s Turkey office and the food website Culinary Backstreets, was organized as part of an annual event celebrating the culture and cuisine of migrant communities in Turkey.
Food is “a way of [creating] communication among communities and understanding of each other,” says Nil Delahaye, a project assistant at IOM-Turkey, which works on emergency refugee assistance, resettlement programs and other aspects of migration management. While raising awareness about the challenges facing migrants, the organization also hopes to help create a more “positive image of migration for both hosting countries and migrants,” she adds.
According to Ansel Mullins, co-founder of Culinary Backstreets and a longtime Istanbul expat himself, “Refugee communities in Turkey are almost invisible even though some have been here for years. Organizing these events with migrant cooks is a statement, a way to say that migrants are here and have something to offer.”
‘Migant Kitchen’ events
Before the Iranian feast in November, Culinary Backstreets had organized “Migrant Kitchen” events with IOM last year that brought unfamiliar tastes from Cameroon, Liberia, Ethiopia and the Philippines to Istanbul palates. They have also exported the concept to Athens, Greece, where Nicolas Nicolaides, an Istanbul-born Greek who’s working on a Ph.D. in history at the University of Athens, has helped organize a lunch series of free meals cooked by Ghanaian, Congolese and Egyptian migrants.
The financial crisis and high levels of unemployment in Greece have “created new tensions; racist incidents and xenophobic extremism have been steadily increasing recently,” Nicolaides says. “We felt that at a difficult time like this, these [lunch] events provide a strong bridge between the immigrant communities and Greeks.”
Though both Greece and Turkey see large inflows of migrants, foreign cuisines — other than increasingly global foods such as pizza and sushi — are not well known in either country. But for the migrants themselves, foods from home are a lifeline.
“We talk to members of migrant communities about what they do when they get together and it’s always about food,” Mullins says. African migrants in Istanbul’s Kurtuluş and Feriköy neighborhoods have created informal restaurants and supply chains in order to enjoy foods they couldn’t otherwise get in Turkey. “It’s amazing how well organized the food connections are here,” Mullins notes. “When we were putting together the Ethiopian meal last year, the cook made a call and 15 minutes later we were off to buy seasoned, clarified butter [niter kibbeh] and other key ingredients from a mysterious spice vendor who had carried them to Turkey in a suitcase and sold them to us through the window of a taxi cab.”
Sara adds slivered almonds from Iran to the zereshk mixture. Credit: Jennifer Hattam
Sara bought many of the ingredients for her Istanbul meal at an Iranian supermarket in the city’s Aksaray neighborhood where, she says, “the prices are twice what they are in Iran, but you can find anything.” The pickings are slim, however, in the southern Turkish city of Adana, where she and her husband, brother and two young sons must live while waiting for their asylum request to be processed. (Turkey requires refugees and asylum seekers to live in “satellite cities” spread around the country, rather than in major hubs such as Istanbul.)
There are no places to buy Iranian food in Adana, and little if any support or opportunities for refugees, Sara says. A group of 20 to 30 Iranian families — all Christians like Sara, who says she left Iran because of her religion — meet each Wednesday for a prayer service that rotates among members’ homes. Afterward, that week’s host serves an Iranian meal for everyone. “I cook different things every time, whatever I have the ingredients for,” says Sara, who hopes someday to open a restaurant and write a book about Iranian food.
Asked what foods she most misses from home, Sara rattles off a long list — reshteh (thin noodles), kashk (a drained and dried yogurt), and the coriander, leek chives and fenugreek harvested in Iran’s mountains and used to make ghormeh sabzi, an herb stew. When her parents came to visit her in Turkey last year, she says, they brought along two bags of hard-to-find ingredients.
“People can be eating on newspapers on the floor, but they’ve got to have those preserved lemons that give the dish its kick,” Mullins says. “Even for migrants in desperate circumstances, some things just can’t be replaced or sacrificed.”
Top photo: Sara prepares zereshk polow (barberry rice) in Istanbul. Credit: Jennifer Hattam
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