In Turkey, it’s börek; in Israel, burekas, flaky layers of phyllo dough stuffed most commonly with cheese, spinach or minced meat. And the savory pastry isn’t the only thing the two cuisines have in common.
“You find a vast use of fresh vegetables, greens, spinach, olive oil, light fresh cheese, goat’s milk, and black pepper [in both countries],” says Tel Aviv-based chef Ruthie Rousso. Like Turkey, she noted, “Israel gets most of its fish from the Mediterranean, and enjoys the [same] climate and the produce which comes with it.”
Turks and Israelis have few opportunities to revel in their shared gastronomic heritage, however. Political tensions between the two erstwhile allies have been running high over the past six years, with reconciliation attempts thus far unsuccessful.
Judge from Israel’s version of ‘Iron Chef’ sees connection
“Many Israelis wouldn’t dare go to Turkey these days. And I believe it’s [true] the other way around as well. What a loss,” says Rousso, who served as a judge on Israel’s version of the “Iron Chef” cooking show.
But Rousso and others believe culinary similarities might just be a way to bring people back together — not only from Turkey and Israel, but from other countries with strained relationships as well.
The Food for Diplomacy project, for which Rousso served as a guest chef in November, was initiated at Kadir Has University in Istanbul to test this theory.
“Turkey has so much in common with other countries in the region in terms of our history and culture, the food we make and the ingredients we use,” says project coordinator Eylem Yanardağoğlu. “We wanted to use food as a bridge, to create an atmosphere where even difficult issues can be discussed.”
Since the project’s initiation last fall, Kadir Has University has hosted chefs from Armenia, Israel, Syria and Ukraine, who cook with students from the school’s culinary institute and then prepare a meal of their country’s cuisine for a mixed group of diplomats, businesspeople, journalists, artists and other community members.
Through tensions, a focus on common themes — and tastes
The first event focused on the Republic of Armenia, a country with which Turkey has no formal diplomatic relations as a result of ongoing historical and political disputes. Award-winning Armenian chef Grigori K. Antinyan prepared traditional dishes ranging from putuk, a thick mutton-and-vegetable stew cooked in individual clay pots, to klondrak, a dessert of dried apricots stuffed with cracked wheat. A keynote speaker encouraged dialogue among the diners about how diplomatic challenges might be overcome.
“We’re not claiming we’ll be able to solve the Turkey-Armenia issue through food, but this type of cultural diplomacy can help us see the common themes we have with other countries rather than just the problems,” says Yanardağoğlu. She notes that active efforts are being made by NGOs and other universities in Turkey and Armenia to increase communication and interaction between the feuding countries’ peoples.
Chef Mohamad Nizar Bitar says he wanted to participate in Food for Diplomacy to raise awareness of Syria’s rich cultural heritage among people in Turkey, where more than 1.7 million Syrians have taken refuge from their country’s civil war. Bitar, who has established a successful chain of Syrian restaurants and bakeries in Istanbul, also wanted to cast a more positive light on the refugees whose ongoing presence is causing increasing tension in Turkey. Once Turkish people try Syrian food, he says, they particularly love falafel, hummus and fattoush, a flatbread salad.
Plating up diplomacy with Greece
The most recent Food for Diplomacy event, held April 14, focused on Greece, Turkey’s Mediterranean neighbor and frequent political rival. In the future, Yanardağoğlu hopes to send Turkish chefs to Armenia and Ukraine to continue the cultural and culinary exchange, and to create a booklet of regional recipes featured at the dinners.
Chef Rousso, who has traveled to countries from Ethiopia to Vietnam to cook and talk about Israeli food as part of what she calls her own “culinary ambassadoring,” says Turkey was her biggest challenge yet.
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“The tension between the two countries made it an adventurous task,” she says. But her signature “Israeli-style” roast beef served with hot green chili oil, cherry tomato seeds, olive oil, coarse salt and tahini on the side was a hit with Kadir Has’ culinary students, and Yanardağoğlu says the dinner discussion was a success as well.
“I think everyone was a bit tense at the beginning of the [Israel] event, but as dinner went on, they started to relax and bring their guard down,” she says about the evening’s guests, who included members of the Israeli diplomatic mission and Istanbul’s dwindling Jewish community, as well as Turkish journalists and a former ambassador.
“Unfortunately there were no Turkish officials who participated in my event, but I had the chance to work with Turkish students and meet the local media, and I was so impressed,” says Rousso. “These kinds of meetings open people’s eyes on both sides; if we can agree about food, maybe we can agree about other matters as well.”
Main photo: Armenian chef Grigori Karleni Antinyan, center, with culinary students at Kadir Has University in Istanbul. Credit: Copyright Courtesy of Food for Diplomacy