The Tragedy of Turkish Food
How might Turkey’s relations with Europe be different if it had engaged in food diplomacy?
May 12, 2012
Europeans’ collective waist lines and coronary health might have benefited tremendously from the early adoption of a healthy snack like Turkey’s doner. Unlike the hamburger, it contains only some shavings of roast meat (mostly thrown in for additional flavor), a little bread, plenty of vegetables (French crudités style), and a yogurt dressing to bind it all together.
Altogether, it’s an Asian-style experience, where the meat is an add-in rather than the centerpiece. Healthy, healthy, healthy.
Turkey’s failure to lead its campaign into Europe with its cuisine, and to rely on undereducated masses from inner Anatolia instead, was bound to create a mutual culture clash. Even a half-century later, Turkish-EU relations have yet to overcome this head-on collision of different worlds.
Too bad the Turks did not have the wisdom of the Greeks. They, too, came to Western Europe in large numbers in the 1960s. However, they brought along a most convincing charm offensive, one which allowed them to fraternize with critical audiences such as the Germans.
The way to a man’s heart leads through the kitchen, says the old tale about successful marriage strategies. While that advice is somewhat dated and relies on a gender stereotype, it still has its relevance when it comes to international relations.
The Germans, for example, from the 1970s onwards were by and large very skeptical of all those foreign workers who were not only working the assembly lines in German plants but, because of their large numbers, were ever more visible on the streets.
When the post-war “economic miracle” had subsided and unemployment rose, there was a natural tendency to blame the “other” — the immigrants — for the difficult economic situation. Fearful for their own economic futures, even well-to-do Germans developed a dislike of those foreign workers.
How to combat this growing anti-foreigner spirit? By far the best way to ameliorate that simmering animosity was to take those doubtful German families to, say, a Greek restaurant. Enjoying good food and wine, the Germans could not help but profess how much they liked the hospitality of their Greek hosts, not to mention the grilled and roasted meats, the olives, the filo, the baklava.
Wasn’t it amazing how much good food the Greeks could put on the table, and for how little money? Never mind that the restaurant owner would invariably throw in an extra glass of dessert wine from Samos to make his guests feel treated well enough to come back again. Meal by meal, table by table, Greek-German relations improved, all on a gastronomic basis.
The Turks, for decades to come, never employed such a strategy. They stayed by themselves and never offered any practical touch points and real-life cultural embassies such as restaurants. And even if they tried today, that market has largely been taken by … the Greeks.
From Istanbul to Bodrum
It has taken decades of tourism mismanagement by the Greeks on their islands, and the mass discovery by European tourists of the “Greece for the new millennium” (a.k.a. Turkey’s shores, from Istanbul to Bodrum) for an awareness of the excellence of Turkish cuisine — and of Turkish hospitality in general — to become more widespread.
But it is not just the amazing fish and the vegetables with their deep flavors (you have never had red peppers until you’ve consumed them here) that make Turkish cuisine such a natural, heart-healthy standout. (It is also healthy in comparison with Greek cuisine, which relies more on heavy dishes like moussaka.)
And salt? They use it sparingly, once again focusing on heart healthiness — not in response to contemporary health concerns, but out of tradition going back centuries. Tasted the olives here? Unlike anywhere else, you will only find a faint salt flavor, and more hints of lemon brine.
What is spellbinding to experience is the degree to which cuisines transcend supposedly vast cultural and religious barriers. On a recent visit to Istanbul, for example, I went to the Eyuep neighborhood, home to many very religious and conservative Turks. Right next to the Sultan Eyuep Mosque, I had a soup for lunch in a little locanta. It was a simple dish, with potatoes, carrots, a few meat balls and a wonderful broth, full of great flavors.
For a long moment, I was tempted to pull out my cell phone and call my grandmother. I wanted to tell her about this meal, which reminded me immediately of her own home cooking, which I had enjoyed so much when I lived with her as a young boy in Germany some decades ago. In an ideal world, I would have had her come over right away to taste the soup and attest to the stunning parallels.
She would have been utterly perplexed at how this supposedly remote world of Turkey, to her generation essentially another planet, featured dishes that were so remarkably similar to ones she cooked. More amazing yet, that dish has probably been cooked for centuries in that very location.
Sadly, the dialogue was entirely an imagined one, for my grandmother would have reached the superhuman age of 108 years by now. But, imaginary though it was, this dialogue about how the world really shrinks once we get to know more practical stuff about the presumed “other” warmed my heart just as much as the soup I ate near the mosque in Istanbul.
Meal by meal, table by table, Greek-German relations improved, all on a gastronomic basis.
Enjoying good food and wine, the Germans could not help but profess how much they liked the hospitality of their Greek hosts.
It has taken decades of tourism mismanagement by the Greeks for Europeans to develop an awareness of the excellence of Turkish cuisine.