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Saving Turkey's lost cultures, forgotten tastes and abandoned people

Culinary Anthropologist Musa Dagdeviren On Giving Hope To The Vulnerable

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Turkish chef Musa Dagdeviren joins local women in Senkoy, a town in Hatay province in Turkey's southeast, who bake bread similar to pita in a tandoor. (Photo by Engin Tokur)

TOKYO -- As a nine-year-old boy in the 1960s in the Kurdish quarter of Nizip, an Anatolian town 157 kilometers from the Turkish-Syrian border, Musa Dagdeviren was mesmerized by the eccentric food traditions of the Turkoman, Arab, Kurdish, Armenian and Turkish communities living, feasting, laughing, and crying side by side in his hometown.

One custom even involved some kind of black magic. "In large gatherings of women cooking, the wife would spit in the cig kofte (raw meatballs) that she had prepared for her husband so that he wouldn't turn his eyes to other women," chuckles Musa.

Today, Musa is the owner-chef of the highly acclaimed Ciya Sofrasi, a homestyle local restaurant on the Asian side of Istanbul, and the editor of a semi-academic quarterly magazine called "Yemek ve Kultur" (Food and Culture).

A culinary incarnation of the biblical Noah -- he's always busy preparing special dishes using rescued ingredients in his ark's kitchen to celebrate humanity's salvation from a calamity -- the soft-spoken 61-year-old with a salt-and-pepper beard and circular eyeglasses is best known for his relentless passion for collecting old folk recipes. And for giving new life to uncommon ingredients, reviving traditional cooking techniques, and cherishing obscure rituals.

People who taste the results of these culinary experiments at Ciya report feeling as if they were transported back to their childhood. It's like they've had a "slap on the face," Musa told me. "They run back in tears to call their mothers and grandmothers whom they have neglected for a long time," he adds with a twinkle in his eye.

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Top: Musa Dagdeviren often goes to the Northern Forests of Istanbul to forage for mushrooms and chestnuts in autumn. Black chanterelle mushrooms, right, are used in the onion and mushroom salad featured on Ciya's menu. (Photos courtesy of Musa Dagdeviren) Bottom: Chef Musa joins local townspeople to cook on an open fire in the Amanos Mountains overlooking the Gulf of Iskenderun. (Photo credit: Engin Tokur)

Having tasted Musa's food at Ciya many years ago with my then four-year-old daughter and a dear friend, I can happily attest to this observation of his customers' whiplash experiences.

Profiled in Netflix's Emmy Award-winning series "Chef's Table," Musa is well versed in cultural nuances across a vast geography and has long been at the forefront of Turkey's local food movement.

He believes that food, much like language, religion, music, architecture, is a part of humanity's collective memory and cultural heritage. And in the case of the food he grew up eating, he sees it as a unifier of people of different backgrounds and geographies from Central Asia, India, and the Middle East, to the Balkans.

As such, he often finds himself launching tirades against people who use food to divide communities by defining it in ethnic and national terms, rather than cherishing similarities in proximate geographies. Musa calls them "headhunters" -- those who claim to have discovered or invented certain foods or techniques they want to brand as their own.

Tzatziki, the dip made from yogurt, garlic and cucumber, is cherished by the people at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. Known mainly as a Greek meze dish, the word comes from the Persian and Kurdish word jaji, and is known as cacik (pronounced jajik) in Turkish and cacix in Armenian.

According to Musa, Turkish, Greek and Armenian "headhunters" have been accusing each other for too long of taking ownership of the word, and setting communities against each other who already share a sorrowful history.

He thinks it is time to make amends through the healing power of food, which is why, in an increasingly populist world, his motto "Food has no ethnicity, only geography" makes him a unique voice worth listening to.

On a Saturday night in December, Musa cooked an inspirational menu for an online charity event organized by Refugee Empowerment International (REI) Japan, an independent nonprofit organization based in Japan and Australia that assists people displaced by war and conflict.

Speaking from Ciya's upper floor in Istanbul -- what he calls his food laboratory -- to an international audience joining online from locations as diverse as Canada, Rwanda and Japan, Musa began cooking the first dish on the menu, an onion and mushroom salad called haram mantari piyazi (sinners' mushroom piyaz") from northern Turkey's Black Sea region.

Lighting up a maltiz, a traditional coal-fired brazier, he stir-fried black chanterelle mushrooms known in French as trompette de la mort (trumpet of death) due to their black color while explaining how "migration cuisines" help create cities and give them their unique identity.

Take the doner kebab (known as gyro in Greece and shawarma in the Middle East), made famous by Turkish immigrants in Germany, and the chicken tikka masala made by ethnic Indians in Britain -- perhaps the two most popular street foods in both countries. Some German and British natives even consider them to be national symbols, perfectly illustrating how both countries can absorb and adapt external influences.

Or the mushrooms that Musa gathered for the REI event, which he gathered from the Belgrade Forest north of Istanbul, named after the village founded there in the 1800s by Serbs transported there from the Serbian capital by Suleyman the Magnificent.

Musa quickly reels off a list of signature Istanbul dishes brought to Turkey by people from other places: Bosnak boregi (Bosnian pastry); Adana kebap (pieces of meat cooked on a skewer from Adana region in the south of Turkey); Cerkez tavasi (Circassian stir-fry); and, perhaps the most fitting of all given the characterization of Musa as a foodie version of Noah, asure (Noah's pudding), a dessert porridge mixture consisting of grains, fresh and dry fruits, and nuts made by Sufi Muslims in Turkey, Iran, and the Balkans during the holy month of Muharram.

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Members of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees deliver food to migrants at Turkey's Pazarkule border crossing with Greece's Kastanies, in Edirne, Turkey. The UNCHR estimates that there are currently around four million refugees living in Turkey.   © Reuters

Jane Best, REI Japan's Executive Director, who hosted the online event, agrees on the unifying power of food, calling it "a great leveler."

A British citizen who lived and worked in Zambia and other parts of Africa before arriving in Japan nearly 30 years ago, Best is a semiprofessional chef who once ran a British restaurant in Tokyo with her husband, and has one cookbook to her name.

"Yeah, I know what you're thinking," Best says of her home country's lackluster reputation when it comes to food, recalling the constant eye-rolling she faced when people heard she was serving British food. Yet the restaurant was hugely successful and, for a time, was the only one of its kind in Tokyo showcasing honest, homestyle British cooking.

In addition to their shared love of food, what connects Musa and Best is their desire to do something to help the world's refugees. 

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are currently around 80 million displaced people around the world today, only 4.3% of whom are considered asylum-seekers. "Nobody wants to leave their country unless they absolutely have to," says Best, and affirmed by Musa.

Of the nearly four million refugees living in Turkey today, some of whom were forced to flee their homes due to war, natural disaster, political persecution or even blood feud, many are not necessarily driven by the need to seek refuge but the simple desire to set up a new life.

"It's better to teach them how to stand on their own feet," says Musa, who set up a foundation with his wife Zeynep a decade ago to provide a measure of support for refugee communities. "When they become part of the production process, [refugees] can make their own life plan."

According to Best, that shared vision of sustainable aid, providing funding to community-based groups, and supporting people as they rebuild their lives and work toward returning home is exactly what REI set out to do. Founded in 1979 as Refugee International Japan by a group of foreigners living in Tokyo, it was renamed Refugee Empowerment International last year.

In Thailand, the organization runs training courses set up by leaders of the Karenni ethnic minority from neighboring Myanmar. Last week 30 Karenni, including women and children, were murdered in the eastern Myanmar state of Kayah along with two staff members of Save the Children, another non-profit organization in the region. In Kenya, REI supports a program for inner-city refugees. 

As far as Musa can tell, the biggest threat to a community's collective memory and cultural heritage, something that he has vowed to preserve and try to hand down to future generations, comes from within -- not from outside.

When a member of the online audience, a woman from Rwanda, asks him about fusion cooking, the blending of food cultures that may not be complementary with the other, Musa -- a traditionalist at heart -- answers by saying that he blames fusion cuisine, in part, for the commoditization of food, robbing it of its rich cultural heritage distinct identity and leaving behind something bland.

As a result, Musa believes, people fail to preserve their traditional values and "we become a society alienated from its own geography's culture and easily leaning toward other cultures."

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Top: Musa Dagdeviren prepares topac kavurmasi in Turkey's eastern Black Sea region. Bottom: Chef Musa is preparing to cook an onion and mushroom salad called haram mantari piyazi ("sinners' mushroom piyaz") on the top floor of his home-style restaurant Ciya on the Asian side of Istanbul. (Photos by Engin Tokur)

He cites the example of city people increasingly disdaining traditional dishes like kelle paca corbasi (soup made from sheep's head and feet) as vulgar, or chefs who insist on coming up with local names for foreign ingredients and foods.

"Who would want to name something as ayi mantari (bear mushroom, the Turkish name for porcini mushrooms) when 'porcini' sounds so much more fancy?," says Musa, pointing to the mushrooms in the haram mantari piyazi he is just finishing cooking.

Halwa (helva in Turkish), he adds, a toasted semolina dessert and the second dish Musa starts cooking for his audience, has an equally interesting story.

According to the local Nizip folklore, if anyone sees in their dreams someone dear to them who died, it is thought that the dead person must be sad that he or she is being forgotten. The next day that person's relative cooks something, usually halwa, and brings it to the mausoleum of a local saint.

Loved by Muslims, Jews, Kurds, and Arabs, halwa is actually a general name for a versatile local dessert made using a myriad techniques drawn from a vast landscape: Western; Central and South Asia; the Balkans; the Caucasus; Eastern Europe; and North Africa.

Musa's own version of halwa is called olu helvasi ("halwa of the dead") and is made by melting the butter and toasting the flour instead. Just like this fearsome savior of lost cultures, forgotten tastes and abandoned people would have wanted, Musa calls its distinct fragrance the 'soul of the deceased', and a reminder to the living so they are not forgotten.