In Turkey, labelling food ‘Kurdish’ still controversial

The Ottoman Empire had a rich culinary tradition flavoured by its various diverse regions and ethnic groups. Chefs in Istanbul’s imperial kitchens borrowed dishes from the different enclaves of the empire – the Balkans, Greece, the Caucasus, Kurdistan, Arabia – fused them with their Central Asian roots, and refined them to create their own unique concoctions, such as baklava, dumplings, stuffed vegetables and various types of kebab.

Present-day Turkey has inherited this cosmopolitan culinary legacy. However, the modern republic defined its identity ethnically, specifically with the Turkish ethnicity. In the past it severely oppressed its various minorities, and in the case of the largest – the Kurds – even denied their very existence, though this repression has largely declined through major reforms in more recent years.

It may seem strange to outsiders that in Turkey, where the Kurds represent 15 – 20 per cent of the population and boast a centuries-old culinary tradition, there is not a single Kurdish restaurant. There are however, restaurants with “southeastern” food, referring to the regions of Turkey with majority Kurdish populations.

There’s a small neighbourhood known as Kadınlar Pazarı (Lady’s Bazaar) in Istanbul’s conservative Fatih district, that’s sometimes referred to as “Little Kurdistan.” It’s full of markets, butchers and restaurants offering food from Turkey’s rugged southeast.

Kadınlar Pazarı

Kadınlar Pazarı

“All around here is Kurdish food,” says Orhan, a Kurd working in a butcher’s shop in Kadınlar Pazarı named after the Kurdish city Diyarbakır. Orhan asks to not have his last name used, and soon expresses apprehension at labeling food according to an ethnic group. He says it’s better to call it by the region it comes from.

Butcher's in Kadınlar Pazarı

A butcher’s shop in Kadınlar Pazarı

“This is a way of escaping from trouble,” says Delal Seven, a food expert and writer of a Kurdish food blog. Despite recent progress towards minority rights in Turkey, Seven says the legacy of oppression has left behind an environment where opening a “Kurdish restaurant” is still almost unthinkable.

“[Turkish nationalists] purposefully choose to ignore the existence of Kurds altogether, including their culture, their language, their dance, their music, their food, their everything,” she says.

Seven says if you find Kurdish food in a restaurant, everyone will simply refer to it, like Orhan does, as “southeastern.” She once thought about opening a Kurdish restaurant herself, but her friends advised against it.

“People told us if you don’t want to give up your private life and marriage, don’t do it,” Seven says. “We would definitely be attacked or targeted,” by racists, nationalists, or perhaps even the so-called ‘deep state,’ a shadowy network of ultranationalists seeking to preserve Turkey’s artificial ethnic purity.

Orhan’s colleague Murşit Koca, a cheerful young man from Mardin speaking Turkish with a throaty Kurdish accent, says that though Kurdish and Turkish food are similar, the east does have a unique eating culture. For example, people like spicier food and prefer to eat sitting together on the floor. “I’ve been in Istanbul for 22 years, and I still don’t even have a sofa,” Koca says with a big grin.

Orhan working in a butcher's in Kadınlar Pazarı

Murşit working in a butcher’s in Kadınlar Pazarı

A little down the street from the butcher’s, Levent Avcı, owner of a well-known restaurant called Büryan Kebap Salonu, offers his opinion: “There’s no such thing as Kurdish food.” But he seems to be referring to high cuisine, since he later concedes that Kurds may cook their own food in their kitchens at home, but “because we grow up in the same country, it’s generally the same food.”

Avcı, who has served food to the likes of President Erdoğan, Martha Stewart, and a host of other impressive guests, resents the nickname “Little Kurdistan.” He fears it may scare off people who associate the word Kurdistan with terrorism. He points out that people in the neighbourhood are predominantly from the southeast, but they’re not all Kurds.

Avcı himself is of Arab descent, hailing from Siirt, a Kurdish-majority city in the southeast with a large Arab minority. He says if anything, the food he serves at his four generation-old restaurant is Ottoman, pointing out that the signature dish after which the restaurant is named was invented by his great-grandfather during the twilight years of the empire.

Levent Avcı (right) with his father Şerafettin.

Levent Avcı (right) with his father Şerafettin, who cuts the meat for their signature dish.

But not everyone is uncomfortable with labeling food according to the culture that produced it. “Definitely there is something called Kurdish food!” Seven says with a laugh.

In addition to being influenced by its neighbours, namely Turks, Armenians and Arabs, Kurdish food has been shaped by the severe weather and mountainous, largely infertile geography of Kurdistan, the regions of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran where Kurds live.

“The land decides what kind of food there will be,” Seven explains. Because food in the region is hard to grow, animals such as lambs and chickens are raised as a food source. As she puts it: “We are kind of meat experts.” Kurds have lived difficult lives in their harsh region, working hard and needing a lot of calories fast, so the food is mainly high-calorie and prepared quickly.

Kurdish cuisine shares much in common with Turkish, as well as Arab, Armenian, Assyrian and Persian. Meat and wild mountain herbs assume a more prominent role in Kurdish food when compared to Turkish, and olive oil, a pillar of Turkish cuisine, is used much less in Kurdish food. Typical Kurdish dishes include dolma (stuffed grape leaves), stuffed vegetables, meat dumplings and lamb stew, all of which are served with sweetened black tea.

Seven says labelling a food by ethnicity is vital for cultural reasons. Cuisine is an incredibly important aspect of culture, and Kurds have historically been conditioned to undervalue theirs, including their food. “[Kurds] finally believed that they don’t exist, that their food doesn’t exist [or] isn’t valuable, isn’t special,” she says.

When Seven asks other Kurds about their favourite dishes, “a flash of happiness crosses their faces,” she says. “When you remind people of these dishes, it refreshes their identity, their past, and it kind of confirms there is such a past.”

Seven recalls her own memories from her childhood in Bingöl, a small eastern city wrapped in mountains and lakes.

“I remember the fun parts,” she says. When women would make tradition noodles, they would make the dough in containers, roll it out thinly, and then wrap it around a stick to dry. “As a kid we were all in completion to be the first to get the stick from this woman’s hand. We were like eagles on the hunt.”

Seven says there’s an important communal aspect to Kurdish food culture. She gives an example of making noodles for Erişte Soup in a Kurdish village.

“I, to represent my house, go all over the village, tell all the women that tomorrow we’re making this, and everybody brings their tables and tools and they come over,” she explains. “You suddenly see maybe 30 people in front of your place […] They work together all day just to provide your house’s noodles.”

Avcı agrees on the significant of food to a culture. “Siirt’s culture starts with food,” he eagerly explains, his eyes glowing.

“When you have a guest in your house, the first way you show them your culture is with your food,” Avcı says. “All the best friendships start with the stomach. Once your stomach is full, conversation starts.”

The rice for Perde Pilavı.

The rice for Perde Pilavı.

He talks about a particularly important dish in Siirt, Perde Pilavı, which is eaten by a bride and groom on their wedding day. The bride’s mother-in-law delivers the dish in a closed pan, which symbolizes the importance of not letting out household secrets. The rice symbolizes fertility, almonds symbolize a son, pistachios a daughter. Black pepper represents the bad days, and sweet sultana raisins the good days, while the meat inside symbolizes peace and happiness.

Seven wants Kurds to talk about their food with as much pride as Avcı. She says a real Kurdish restaurant would certainly help Kurds to recognize and be proud of their cuisine. “Once [Kurds] are able to present [their food] to people, then they’ll recognize its value.”

A version of this story appeared in The Media Line.

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