Nick Ashdown/The Media Line
In Siirt, in Turkey’s Kurdish southeast near the Syrian-Iraqi border, a bride and groom eat a special dish called Perde Pilavi on their wedding day. The bride’s mother-in-law delivers the dish in a closed pan that symbolizes the importance of not letting household secrets out. The rice represents fertility, almonds symbolize a son, pistachios a daughter. Black pepper epitomizes the bad days, and sweet sultana raisins, the good days, while the meat symbolizes peace and happiness.
Perde Pilavi is one example of a unique Kurdish dish that traces its origins back to the Ottoman Empire, which had a rich culinary tradition flavored by its various diverse regions and ethnic groups. Chefs in Istanbul’s imperial kitchens borrowed dishes from the various enclaves of the empire – the Balkans, Greece, the Caucasus, Kurdistan, Arabia – fusing them with their own Central Asian roots and refining them to create their own unique concoctions, such as baklava, dumplings, stuffed vegetables and various types of kebab.
Present-day Turkey has been left with this cosmopolitan culinary legacy. However, the modern republic emphasized its ethnic Turkish identity and oppressed its various minorities. In the case of the largest minority, the Kurds, the state officially denied their very existence.
It may seem strange to outsiders that in Turkey, where Kurds represent 15 to 20 percent of the population and boast a century-old culinary tradition, there is not a single Kurdish restaurant. There are however, restaurants with “southeastern” food, referring to the regions of Turkey with a predominantly Kurdish population.
There’s a small neighborhood known as Kadınlar Pazarı (Lady’s Bazaar), in Istanbul’s conservative Fatih district, that is sometimes referred to as “Little Kurdistan.” It’s full of markets, butcher shops and restaurants offering food from Turkey’s rugged southeast.
“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 expressed apprehension at labeling food according to an ethnic group, explaining that it is better to call it by the region it comes from.
“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, language, dances, music, food, and everything else of the the Kurdish folklore,” she says.
Seven explains that 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 friends advised against it.
“People told us that if we do not want to give up our private lives and marriage, we should not go ahead with the restaurant,” Seven says. “Warning that 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 the southeastern city of Mardin who speaks Turkish with a thick Kurdish accent, says that although Kurdish and Turkish food is similar, the east does have a unique eating culture. For example, people like spicier foods, and prefer to eat sitting together on the floor. “I’ve been in Istanbul for 22 years, but I still don’t own a sofa,” said Koca, with a grin.
Right down the street from the butcher’s shop where Orhan works, 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 “we all come from the same country, so it is generally the same food.”
Avcı, who has served food to the likes of President Recep Tayyep Erdoğan, Martha Stewart, and a number of well-known public figures, resents the nickname “Little Kurdistan.” He fears it may scare people off, since they might associate the word Kurdistan with terrorism. He points out that people in the neighborhood are predominantly from the southeast, but they’re not all Kurdish.
Avcı himself is of Arab descent, hailing from Siirt, a Kurdish-majority city in the southeast with a large Arab minority. He refers to the food he serves in his four generation-old restaurant as “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.
But not everyone is uncomfortable with labeling food according to the culture that produced it. “There is definitely something called Kurdish food,” Seven says with a laugh.
In addition to being influenced by its neighbors, namely Turks, Armenians and Arabs, Kurdish food has been strongly influenced 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 lamb and chicken are raised as a food source. As she puts it: “We are meat experts.” Kurds are exposed to difficult living conditions in their harsh region, working hard and needing a high number of calories in their diet, so the food is mainly high-calorie and quickly prepared.
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.
Kurdish food is also spicier than Turkish food, and relies on hot pepper, herbs such as wild dill, stinging nettles, spinach leaves and an edible plant called kenger.
Seven says labeling 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 their culture, particularly their food. “[Kurds] finally believed that they don’t exist, that their food doesn’t exist [or] isn’t valuable or special,” she added.
When Seven asks Kurdish people about their favorite 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 that there is such a past.”
Seven recalls her childhood memories in Bingöl, a small eastern city wreathed by mountains and lakes.
“I remember the fun parts.” She elaborates, describing how women would make traditional noodles, they would make the dough in containers, roll it out thinly, and then wrap it around a stick to dry. “As children we would compete to be the first to get the stick with noodles. 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.
“In order to represent my house, I go all over the village, tell all the women that tomorrow we’re making a specific dish, and everybody brings their tables and tools to my home,” she explains. “Suddenly, I see close to 30 people in front of my place. We work together all day just to provide noodles for our homes.”
Avcı agrees on the significance of food to a culture. “Siirt’s culture starts with food,” he eagerly explains.
“When you have guests in your house, the first way to show them your culture is with food,” Avcı says. “All the best friendships start with the stomach. Once your stomach is full, conversation starts.”
Seven wants Kurds to talk about their food with as much pride as Avcı does. She says a real Kurdish restaurant would certainly help Kurds acknowledge and take pride in their cuisine. “Once [Kurds] are able to present [their food] to people, they will be able to recognize its value.”