Re-thinking a Turkish identity: food as geography and being rooted in mobility
Updated: Apr 2
“We can talk about culinary culture but attributing nationalities to dishes is futile.
Food has geography not nationality,”
- chef Musa Dağdeviren, The Turkish Cookbook
When you sit at a table, adorned with dishes that make your mouth water, you don’t often stop to think of their origins before the satisfaction of that first bite. You follow your stomach and it might be onto something. Through pomegranate, lokma and baklava we get to see how dishes and ingredients are used to enact and perform national identity, but if we look to geography, we can see the interwoven narratives of history, people and innovation. In this way ideas of place and location — of soil and rootedness — gets to be mobile and ever changing. Food doesn’t concern itself with borders, dishes are developed through trade, culture and power. Therefore understanding the geography of food is understanding that just like people, food is mobile. It is exchanged, shared, learned and adapted. At the end of the day, food follows taste — not borders.
Since the end of the Ottoman Empire (after World War I in 1981), the nations that came out of it ended up with a mission to claim dishes as their own as a way to define their post-empire identity. This resulted in many voices rising to form modern nation-states with various cultures and diverse ideologies finding a space to be heard. These diverse ideologies were not fully in favour of the old empire, Ottoman heritage was seen as an “alien intrusion that had held up the progress toward modernity and civilization,” Alejandro Colás, writes in Food, Politics, and Society: Social Theory and the Modern Food System, that in the process of rejecting the past - as is often the case in postcolonial spaces, as national identity is enacted in opposition of the past and its regimes - cuisine becomes ‘nationalize’ and accredited to a specific border bound location. Variations of a dish are claimed and this can create tension between countries. Quinbala Marak, the writer of Food Politics: Studying Food, Identity and Difference Among the Garos states that “food, therefore, is one of the most visible and important symbols of identity and difference, uniting the members of a community and segregating them from other communities (Marak,3)”, This need to claim proves to be a problem, since food cannot be cocooned in borders, it follows taste and travels. Food is rooted in mobility.
Geography allows a connection through trade, politics and transportation, whereas nationalism creates battles over ownership. Geography allows places to share recipes, dishes and ingredients with their neighbours and allows an exchange to take place, whereas nationalism attempts to make food stationary and attach it to borders and limitations.
To insist culinary culture is confined to a country overlooks the reality that food is not static. A nationalist understanding of food is one that believes food can belong to one nation. In his book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, political scientist Benedict Anderson explains how nationalism is founded on the creation of limitations:
“The nation is imagined as limited because even the largest of them encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic boundaries, beyond which lie other nations. No nation imagines itself coterminous with mankind” (Anderson, 6-7).
Nationalists do not want others to join their nation, they do not want to share ownership of culture. Food as a tool of nationalist pride limits an understanding of the people and history that contributed to its creation. Cacık in Turkey; Tzatziki in Greece, tarator in the Balkans, talattouri in Cyprus and jajeek in Iraq are similar with small differences. All parties can claim this dish consisting of garlic, yogurt and cucumbers as their own but in reality it does not belong to one nation, it belongs to a larger culinary tradition that spans Southeast Europe and the Middle East. It’s origins are rooted in the people who eat it, not the soil they build their homes on.
Understanding a Turkish Identity
Cuisine even within a nation’s borders is complex, Turkey has seven regions, each with their own particular traditions. The country’s neighbours include Greece, the Balkans, Bulgaria, Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Syria, Iraq, Cyprus and Iran — meaning the country is well situated to have an exchange of many ingredients and recipes. Turkish cuisine also has a history that predates the Ottoman Empire. The politics, geography and culture that evolved from the around 600-year-long history of the empire has affected what we consider to be Turkish food to this day.
After the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, there was an increased interaction with the rest of Europe (Dağdeviren, 10). Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Turkish Republic and the first president of Turkey, wanted Turkey to separate itself from its Ottoman roots. He wanted the society to be more modern. His vision of Turkish modernity included changing the way people dressed and the alphabet they used. These were influenced by Europe and also affected the food. With the push for modernization through westernization after 1923, Turkish food served both in restaurants and homes changed, for example, the preparation of French bechamel sauces and Russian olivier salads became common. In “Türk Mutfağının Evreleri – Cumhuriyet Dönemi," Nevin Halıcı, writer and lecturer of Turkish Cuisine, writes that during special occasions or while entertaining, French cuisine was preferred rather than Ottoman Palace cuisine (Halıcı). Turkey as a nation looked to find a sweet spot between a culinary tradition of Ottoman-style cooking dating back to the 13th Century and Western cuisine following the 20th century onwards. Newspapers in the country started creating food columns with famous food writers like Atilla Dorsay and Tuğrul Şavkay writing for them (Halıcı). “It was only in the closing decades of the 19th century that the ‘Turks’ began to cast a curious gaze into the ‘past’, encouraged by the publication of several historical accounts focusing on ancient Turkish history,” (Sofos, and Özkırımlı). This mattered because culturally it was a time of reaccepting the past and a way of immersing their traditional culinary practices into the present — a way of revisiting their culture and recipes.
But of course, the Ottoman Empire does continue to have a huge influence on the every day of Turkish food. It was established in 1298 by the Oghuz Turkish tribal leader Osman I and lasted until the abolition of the Ottoman Monarchy in 1922. The empire’s rule spanned 3 continents. It was also on the Silk Routes (popularly known as The Silk Road), a network of trade routes established around 114 BCE - connecting the West with the Middle East and Asia, and culture, inventions, food and spices - with global reach, making it a culturally rich region.
It is important to note that while the Ottoman Empire can sometimes be used as an umbrella for all food that was created during its long rule, any country that formed after its fall cannot be used alone to properly encapsulate the food that came out of it. So, for example, “Ottoman” and “Turkish” cannot be used interchangeably as the Empire is a mix of a vast variety of cultures and ethnicities. Colás states thar, “much of what developed in the different regions of the empire was the inputs from various regions and communities, many of which had their own distinct adaptation and idiosyncrasy” (Colás, 138). Geography, in a sense, is the interaction of different countries allowing the exchange of culinary traditions and recipes.
The Empire’s capital, Constantinople, reflected the movement of the people under Ottoman reign, (today it is known as Istanbul, the largest city of Turkey) it is literally and figuratively a bridge that connects Europe and Asia, which created - and continues to create - a intersection of crossing culture and trade, demonstrating the idea of geography’s mobility. But other cities also proved to be a hub of power and influence in the Ottoman Empire, of which we still see today in Turkish (and other) cuisine. As Colás states, there is a regional importance that comes with food. “In this context, food styles were often determined by geography more than by ethnicity” (Colás, 149), an example of this can be seen in Ottoman-ruled Aleppo (in modern-day Syria).
According to The Ottoman Census System and Population, I83I-I9I4 the population of Ottoman-ruled Aleppo in 1885 was 787,714 (Shaw, 338). In The Ottoman City Between East and West: Aleppo, Izmir, and Istanbul, Bruce Masters illuminates the importance of Aleppo; after securing Aleppo as an important province with a prominent population that only kept growing, governors invested a lot of money into developing the city’s skyline and commercial infrastructure (Masters, 26). Merchants throughout the empire would therefore come to Aleppo to trade whatever goods they had — be it rice from Egypt, coffee from Yemen, mohair from Ankara — for olive oil (Masters, 35). The city attracted foreign merchants because of its location and talk of its beauty that transcended the borders of the empire.
Food of consequence
As a focus of international and national trade and merchants Aleppo saw ingredients like Iran cultivated pomegranates being sold and finding their way to different cities throughout the Ottoman Empire. This regional upper hand Aleppo held, cultivated an array of culinary staples, such as pomegranate-based sauces. Pomegranate molasses, nar ekşisi, is now a staple choice of flavouring in Turkish cuisine. Gavurdağ salatası, a salad with pomegranate molasses, sumac, parsley, walnuts and brunoise onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, originated in Gaziantep, a region in Turkey 97 kilometres north of Aleppo. Similarly lahmacun, a baked thin piece of dough topped with minced beef or lamb, tomatoes, onions and spices, is usually topped with a drizzle of pomegranate molasses in Turkey. The dish was made in the Eastern region of Turkey, in cities like Antakya, which was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in 1517 and integrated into the Aleppo Eyalet. Lahmacun originated in the Levant and different regions have variations of the dish. It is also known as laham b'ajin in Lebanese. This shows the clear relationship between the ingredients Turkish cuisine was able to integrate into its dishes because of the Ottoman Empire’s geography.
A similar discussion of ownership can be applied for lokma (luqma in Arabic or loukoumádes in Greek), small balls of deep fried dough soaked in syrup. The dessert was made by palace cooks during the Ottoman Empire and has influenced its counterparts to have variations of it after the fall of the empire. In Turkey, lokma can be enjoyed in a small plastic box filled to the brim with golden dough balls sprinkled with cinnamon that sticks to the syrup. In some Arab countries, luqma follows the same process but the syrup has rosewater and they occasionally use saffron or cardamom. It is believed to date back to the 13th century since it was mentioned in the story The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad within the compilation of Middle Eastern folk tales called One Thousand and One Nights. In Greece, loukoumádes or lokmádes are topped with cinnamon, honey syrup and usually sprinkled lightly with powdered sugar. Some Jewish Greeks call them zvingoi and use them as Hanukkah treats. This shared culinary history makes national lines, seemingly, arbitrary but it also ownership claims turn into a performance of nationality. The example of lokma shows how geography has affected these countries' food cultures. This need to claim ownership comes from a strong sense of nationalism that transpires especially after the fall of large empires because food is a large part of nation building.
Havuç dilimi baklava is one of the types of baklavas that is consumed in Turkey. Some places in Turkey put a scoop of Maraş ice-cream — a battered, mastic ice-cream believed to have originated in Maraş — in the middle. Havuç dilimi baklava originates from Gaziantep, a city in the Southeastern Anatolia region of Turkey, famous for its pistachios ( called antepfıstığı). The ingredients include ghee (originated in India), phyllo pastry (used in Greek, Middle Eastern and Balkan cooking), pistachios, sugar and lemon juice. Even in a recipe with a couple ingredients, you can see the influences of different cultures from across the world and more importantly from the Ottoman Empire - the influence of trade. Baklava varies slightly in different cultures. Armenians use spices such as cloves and cardamom; Greeks make sure there are 33 layers of phyllo dough to symbolize Christ’s life; Israelis, Iraqis, Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinians’ baklava is diamond-shaped. These small variations showcase how every region tries to make a dish their own, it is like an identification card to indicate who it might belong to. Gaziantep is famous for its pistachios, therefore if a baklava has pistachios, it can be assumed that it comes from Turkey while if it has notes of cardamom, it is probable that it belongs to the Armenians, who had a strong position in the Silk Road which granted them access to such spices.
Towards a Future
Some people in Turkey like Musa Dağdeviren and Mehmet Gürs are trying to shift the food-ownership narrative by creating recipes that reference the past through traditional methods and ingredients, however, the need to claim ownership still persists. Dağdeviren summarizes the unnecessary nature of compartmentalization in his cookbook; “the world is an open table, we should enjoy it instead of focusing on how to separate flavours and faiths. Instead of praising the Armenians for their skill in olive oil dishes, the Kurds for meat, the Turks for pastries, Ottoman Greeks for their seafood, we could coexist, with mutual respect for each other’s values, faiths and ways of life” (Dagdeviren).
The new Turkish Cuisine movement stems from this understanding of bridging together histories and a contemporary, global outlook. Chefs like Gürs at Mikla restaurant, Yılmaz Öztürk at Mürver, and Dilara Erbay at Abracadabra, are all chefs that try to do something different with the traditions that they grew up with. Erbay served salmon tartar çiğköfte at the ever-so-glamorous Sunset Grill and Bar in Istanbul, Mürver has ciğer with roasted peppers, fresh herbs and chilli jam and Mikla makes an aşure with cereals, pulses, dried fruit and pomegranate flower sorbet on the side. In opposition of nationalism which looks inwards and stays static, Turkish food is a celebration of geography, that looks to neighbours, history, trade, a multiplicity of cultures, a constant shifting of identity - and it is beginning to be talked about in this way.
Yasmin Güleç is a freelance culture, nightlife, politics and food reporter born in Istanbul, Turkey and based in New York. She claims to be Anthony Bourdain's #1 fan and has worked for CNN, National Geographic and Annie Leibovitz Photo Studio. The above film is a short documentary that accompanied her MA thesis, interviewing Turkish restaurants in London and New York.
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Photos curtesy of Yasmin Güleç