Travel throughout southeastern Turkey in the height of summer and you’re likely to see rooftops, courtyards and gardens blanketed with color — row after row of peppers, eggplant and other vegetables drying in the sun.
Later rehydrated to be stuffed or stewed, dried vegetables are an essential ingredient in the traditional Turkish kitchen, but one that can be difficult to replicate for urban dwellers without a balcony or even a sunny window to call their own.
How to reconnect residents of Turkey’s large cities with the rich culinary culture of their rural roots is just one of the questions being posed by a new Istanbul-based group seeking to re-envision and rebrand Turkish cuisine, in much the same way as the New Nordic culinary movement has both celebrated and changed Scandinavian cooking.
“There are great raw materials in Anatolia and we’re eager to bring them to Istanbul and use them,” says Engin Önder, a cofounder of Gastronomika. (“Anatolia” refers to the westernmost part of Asia that comprises the majority of the land within Turkey’s borders.) This loose collective of young chefs, designers, historians and other interested parties has come together over the past year to operate an experimental kitchen and carry out various culinary research and design projects.
Önder describes one of these projects, “Hacking the Modern Kitchen,” as an effort to “find solutions for applying traditional techniques in small urban kitchens.” Its first “hack,” currently being exhibited as part of the 2nd Istanbul Design Biennial, is an ingeniously simple, space-saving system for drying herbs: paper cones hung with string from an ordinary household curtain or radiator. The cones shield the herbs from direct sunlight to best preserve their color and scent while they soak up the heat needed to dry them, explains a broadsheet printed with instructions and lines for folding the pamphlet itself into one of these paper “herbsacks.”
Confronting an urban revolution
The challenge of reacquainting young, urban people with skills like drying, canning, pickling and even growing their own food is not unique to Istanbul, of course. But it is perhaps particularly difficult, and important, in a country that has seen its urban population swell from 25% of the total in 1950 to 75% today. During that time, Istanbul alone has grown from 1 million residents to about 15 million, squeezing out urban gardens and other green space.
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Gastronomika’s team faces the additional hurdle of getting people to rethink a food culture that, although rich with centuries of history and intermingled influences, has often been taken for granted by young Turks and misperceived internationally as amounting to little more than kebabs and baklava.
Istanbul is experiencing something of a renaissance of interest in Anatolian culinary heritage, with chefs like Musa Dağdeviren of the popular Çiya and Mehmet Gürs of the top-ranked Mikla scouring the countryside for local ingredients and traditional tastes to be incorporated into their menus. Though Gastronomika is in many ways part of this trend, it stands apart as a noncommercial, collaborative endeavor.
“Our kitchen is an experimental one and a community one,” Önder says. “It’s not about opening restaurants or creating menus, and no money changes hands.”
Members of the all-volunteer team keep busy with research trips around Anatolia (to “meet producers, learn techniques, talk to grandmothers,” Önder says). Talks and cooking events focus on the distinctive cuisines of Turkey’s Black Sea, southeast and other regions, and include in-depth, weeks-long explorations of single topics such as the vast array of ways to cook pilav (rice). They visit farmers markets in Istanbul and track what’s in season, and tend a gardening plot and organize mushroom-hunting expeditions on the edges of the city, where bits of open space can still be found amid the concrete.
Though the initiative is deeply rooted in Turkish terroir, its founders take a global approach to their mission. Turkish food needs ambassadors like those in Spain, says chef Semi Hakim, another Gastronomika cofounder, describing a program in which “Spanish chefs are sent abroad by their government to promote Spanish food, so tapas bars can become as ubiquitous as pizza places.”
Other international influences on the team members’ work include the investigative approach of the Nordic Food Lab, to which they’ve reached out for mentorship and advice; and star chef Ferran Adrià’s ambitious Bullipedia project, a Wikipedia-style culinary encyclopedia. Gastronomika’s own take on this concept is its online “karatahta” (blackboard), a digital archive of recipes gathered, techniques tried and ingredients sourced.
Like everything else Gastronomika does, the archive is participatory and open source, Önder explains.
“We share our notes, our presentations, our photos, our sources — all the knowledge we have,” he says. “The main thing is for everything to be public, even our failures. Experimentation always involves failures.”
The project’s members are “shamelessly energetic and fast learners,” says Vasıf Kortun, director of research and programs at SALT, a cultural institution in central Istanbul that hosts Gastronomika’s experimental kitchen in lieu of a traditional, profit-making museum cafe.
“The needs of Turkey’s research and food culture can’t be solved by one group, but if Gastronomika can tie into the bigger picture, they can be a big part of the conversation that’s beginning now,” Kortun says.
Main photo: Strings of dried peppers, eggplant, okra and other vegetables for sale in a market in Gaziantep, Turkey. Credit: Jennifer Hattam