Why Turkish Food Is So Much More Than Kebabs and Baklava

London-based chef and researcher Irem Aksu wants to champion the hidden Greek, Armenian, and Kurdish food cultures of Istanbul.

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May 3 2017, 4:57pm

Main image shows hunkar begendi, an Ottoman Palace dish. Photo courtesy Kaan Diskaya.

The food of Istanbul has ancient roots spanning through the Roman Empire and the Byzantine period, and the Ottoman era. This was an important time for the city and its food culture, from when it was known as Constantinople right through to the beginnings of modern day Istanbul.

As a result, you have Istanbul Greeks, Istanbul Armenians, Jewish, and Kurdish communities living together in one city but with very different food cultures.

Topik London is a supper club project I founded to promote food without borders. It mainly draws on Istanbul's culinary history and is about bringing the whole cultural journey of Istanbul together—before the borders went up.

The culinary journey of the city is shaped by the minorities who lived there and still live there, including their different languages and cultures. Topik is actually an Istanbul Armenian mezze dish. You can't find it in restaurants, it's really only cooked by the minority Armenian families living in the city. I only came across it when I was living in Istanbul (I'm originally from Bursa, a city near Istanbul) and went over to my friend's once for Easter.

Topik, an Istanbul Armenian mezze dish. Photo courtesy Irem Aksu.

Topik started when I took part in an exhibition of migrant and refugee artists called Dis/placed, which was shown at Shoreditch Town Hall in East London. I started to think about displacement and food, and looked back at the years that I spent in Istanbul. The people I met there were mostly Istanbul Greeks and Armenians, and cooked dishes that were "hidden" from what most people think of when you mention Turkish food. I always thought it would be great if I could make these foods a bit more visible. I've found myself in the kitchen ever since then!

My research mainly consists of getting the family recipes from people in Istanbul and then trying to translate them into English and using ingredients you can find in the UK. It's easy to get a kebab or chicken shish in London but you can't find these Turkish minority dishes.

Irem Aksu, founder of Topik London, at the Dis/placed exhibition. Photo by Sebnem Ugural.

Many people also don't realise that there's a really rich seafood culture in Istanbul. Armenian cuisine has many dishes using mussels and mackerel, flavoured with nice spices like cinnamon. In Istanbul Greek cuisine, it's more olive oil-based. And then Anatolian Turks brought techniques like slow-cooking.

Domestic migrants from modern day Turkey to Istanbul have also shaped the cuisine. There's a dish called midye dolma, which is stuffed mussels. It's an Istanbul Greek dish but it became a really famous street food in Istanbul. It's cheap and when people go out for a drink, they eat it. You get a plate of stuffed mussels and keep ordering another round and another round as you drink more! It's delicious.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that we should only be championing historic dishes. There is also a new generation of Istanbul chefs making really innovative dishes. They're drawing from the culinary heritage of modern day Turkey and old Istanbul.

Istanbul is dynamic, so its culinary culture and cuisine is always going to be dynamic too.

As told to Daisy Meager.

Irem Aksu is a Turkish-born, London-based chef and founder of Topik London, a series of supper clubs and food events that showcase the dishes of minority groups in Turkey.