I am writing this bulletin on my return flight from Turkey, where Peter has remained this week to visit with his former students. The Turks, like us, are going through political turmoil. In some senses, our political situation is like a funhouse mirror reflection of theirs.
In Turkey, a strongman president recently survived a coup attempt. Much of the country, including the opposition parties, objected to the effort to depose a democratically elected government by undemocratic means. But the president has rewarded their affirmation of democracy by strengthening his hold on power, purging and jailing those he sees as conspiring against him, and closing down critical parts of the press. It makes it hard to see defeat of the coup as a real victory for democracy.
In America, a strongman candidate for president promises, if elected, similarly to purge the bureaucracy, to jail his opponent, and to stifle press criticism. Like his Turkish counterpart, he supports democratic processes, provided they put him in power, but he questions the legitimacy of any vote that does not elect him. Like their Turkish counterparts, all major American parties and their elected officials have affirmed their faith in the democratic process and our capacity to conduct free and fair elections. But here, too, this affirmation may not suffice to secure our democracy. If, as appears likely, we do not elect this strongman as president, his more extreme supporters may form a bitterly disaffected and potentially violent rejectionist opposition that threatens our democratic institutions.
These circumstances are testing the fortitude of Americans as they have that of the Turks, and have affected both national moods. Peter has commented on how Turkey seems uncharacteristically subdued. America, on the other hand, seems to me uncharacteristically anxious.
We should not in such turbulent times ignore our societies’ fundamental strengths. Uncertain what we would find visiting Turkey this year, we were comforted to observe that so many of the positive qualities we have appreciated in the past have been unaffected or even strengthened. First, and maybe most important to traveling Americans,Turkish hospitality and grace continue to be practiced and valued. Despite President Erdogan’s efforts to blame America for the coup, only once in our travels there did we encounter a hostile comment or gesture — from an obnoxious truck driver eating at a primitive kebab house on the south coast. In virtually every other instance, when we responded to “where are you from?” with “New York” the questioner’s response was something like “Ah, America” and a smile. Our status as white haired gents, one walking with a cane, earned us offers of seats from young Turks on virtually every tramway ride we took and every platform we waited on, our American style clothing, speech and accents notwithstanding.
As producers and avid consumers of food, we were also pleased to observe that despite whatever troubles they might be encountering in their political life, the Turks seem not to have lost their knack for joyous creativity in preparing food and in enjoying meals as a social activity.
At one crowded Istanbul fish restaurant on a Friday night, where Peter managed to cadge us a table by mentioning his good friend who was a friend of the owner, we were surrounded by table after table of animated Turks, who had arrived well before us and appeared set to stay long after we left, working their way slowly first through large salad plates, followed by honeydew-type melon (kavun) with white cheese, and then an array of small cold mezze (starter) dishes, such as purslane in yoghurt, seaweed, beans in olive oil, and ezme, a very hot tomato and chili pepper spread. After the cold mezze come hot ones, like grilled octopus and sigara borek (deep fried rolls of fillo dough filled with cheese), and those, in turn, are typically followed by a grilled whole fish. All accompanied by impressive quantities of raki,__ the national anisette drink. One group brought its own band, a kanun (a zither-like instrument), a ney (like a clarinet) and a drum. Their playing and singing animated the whole establishment.
Our relaxed, desultory meal took close to two hours, but most of these groups were clearly there for three hours or more, the food and drink providing the glue for social festivity in bleak times. We Americans, many of whom consume meals in under twenty minutes, often alone, can learn a lot from their example.
We could learn just as much from the apparent burst of creativity going on in Turkish kitchens, which of course helps make the eating experience all the more wonderful. Saturday night we had an almost transcendent meal at a restaurant called Aheste, a short walk from the Tunel (the world’s oldest subway, a funicular built in 1875), in Beyoglu, the former European quarter of the city. Aheste’s chef is half Turkish, half Persian, and the unique mezzes she creates, which draw on the mixing of the two food cultures, were consistently stunning. I recall several with particular fondness: a mixture of shredded beet root with fava paste; a casserole of herbed white cheese with tomatoes; roasted eggplant in yoghurt with hot pepper sauce; marinated strips of levrek (sea bream); and smoked hamsi (Black Sea sardines, just coming into season), tossed with the slightly steamed and marinated leaves of cabbage — not the large leaves that have already become part of the head of the cabbage, but the smaller leaves as they sprout from the stem and that may remain after the head is harvested. I’m a big cabbage fan, and was thrilled to see a new use for another part of the plant, a use which could be replicated with leaves of broccoli or brussels sprout plants. Even the mezzes I did not find entirely successful (such as grilled okra with aioli) were at least interesting and exemplified the theme that pervades Turkish cooking of finding ever more ways to make vegetables exciting.
All this in a lovely stone-walled room with pleasant music and warm assiduous service from a young waitstaff who were true believers in their chef. Was there any wonder that here again groups of Turks, mostly younger this time, were burbling away happily for hours?
The dish I’m most anxious to recreate came from a third restaurant, the Karakoy Lokantasi near the Bosphorus waterfront. The dish was called topik and is apparently a variation of a traditional Armenian preparation. The version we had consisted of a square shell of chickpea paste (similar to what is called socca in Provencal cooking), filled with a mixture of mashed potato, tahini, onion, currant, pine nuts and, we thought but couldn’t be sure, shredded braised chicken. The chicken does not seem to be part of the traditional recipe (as I’ve looked it up), but would be a great use of leftovers one might otherwise put in chicken salad.
Taking my inspiration from the Turks, though, I’d like to create this dish for a social gathering, where we commune over food, celebrate the social bonds that tie us together, and even discuss in a civilized way the differences in political orientation that threaten to drive us apart. This is one way, I am convinced, we can more happily navigate the dark days that may lie ahead.