I am writing a book on something no one else deigns to touch on...Simits

I am writing a book on something
   no one else deigns to touch on...Simits

October 24, 2010, Sunday/ 11:32:00/ ÜLKÜ ÖZEL AKAGÜNDÜZ
A new criterion to consider for those who assert that a country’s development can be judged by the state of its sidewalks and roofs: how about the in-depth books published on topics that many would describe as tiny details from the larger picture of life?

Well, Turkey now has many of these sorts of books from which to choose, though the one we are interested in today is brand new, a book about simits called “Susamlı Halkanın Tılsım,” which translates as “The Magical Spell of the Sesame-Seed Ring.” The subtitle is also very illuminating: “İstanbul’da Kara Fırından Simit Saraylarına Simit, Peynir ve Çayın Türküsü” or “From Wood-Oven Bakeries to Simit Palaces, a Folk Song about Simits, Cheese and Tea.”

Before asking how it is that the simit could, on its own, be the subject of a large book, let’s first find the answer to how it is that a professor of political science decided to write such a book. Although actually, when you discover that the author of this book is in fact Artun Ünsal, your response may well be “well, if anyone was going to write a book on the simit, it would have been him anyway.” After all, Ünsal is also the author of books on milk “Süt Uyuyunca,” olives “Ölmez Ağacın Peşinde,” bread “Nimet Geldi Ekine” and yoghurt “Silivrim Kaymak.” Still though, why would a professor of political science spend two whole years writing this book? Here’s what he has to say in response: “Sometimes we become so accustomed to the small bits of life that we experience on a daily basis that we no longer even feel the need to hear the stories and history that lie behind them. The simit is an example of this, and it is a part of our culture. In 200 years, you will be able to find the answer to the question ‘How was the İstanbul simit made?’ in this book.”

Politics and cooking courses at university

Professor Ünsal also looks at the topic from another perspective: “I write these books because I have confidence in myself. I believe I have had a great education and been a good teacher, but I realized very early on in life that it was the basic things that were very important.” And for those curious about why Ünsal is writing about simits rather than politics here is his answer: “For the past 30 years, at every opportunity I got, I said the election laws needed to be changed. I said the Constitution needed to be changed, and the laws governing political parties needed to be changed. In fact, one of my very first books was on the relationship between the Constitution and politics. But these topics are really only beginning to be discussed in depth now. Anyway, if all I had done was repeat myself for the past 30 years and had I not chosen a fulfilling hobby for myself, I would have definitely been crushed by life.” Ünsal, who offers courses at Galatasaray University on topics such as politics and poetry or politics and food, has probably more friends amongst the sellers and producers of cheese and olives than he does amongst fellow university colleagues. He believes that his books help people who don’t realize the importance of the day-to-day details of their own lives. He explains: “I think these books might play a great role in helping us lose that dismissive feeling we sometimes have for items that are actually unique to our culture. When I was writing my book on cheese, there was just so much praise in Turkey for French cheeses and German bread, and Italian olives oils were all the rage. But after my book came out, there were lots of people that started producing olive oil and cheese in Turkey anew. I think that to have confidence in ourselves, it is enough simply to know İstanbul and be familiar with Anatolia.”

The İstanbul simit needs a standard

So what does this simit book contain? Everything from information about the roots of the word “simit” itself, to details about daily İstanbul life, the place of the simit in folklore and literature, the “friendship” that ties together tea, cheese and simits, to the tradition and history of the İstanbul street simit. In writing this book, Ünsal did a great amount of research, turning to old documents and records, poems and recipes from master chefs. One result is that Ünsal now believes that the İstanbul simit needs to be made in a more standardized fashion. As he sees it, this includes everything from the flour used to make it, to the quality of the sesame seeds and the amount of time the simit is baked. Currently, this sort of standardization in simit-making is nowhere to be seen. The second important topic for him is the larger sort of “simit palaces” seen all over İstanbul these days; he acknowledges that these “simit palaces” are actually contributing to the tradition that started with the street simit. He notes that while there is a certain indescribable pleasure from buying a simit from a seller that comes right up to your window, special simits boasting olives, cheese, sucuk and various grains are also a wonderful, if newer, aspect to the classic simit. Simits are both delicious and cheap, and the worst that can happen if you stick one in your pocket is that the sesame seeds might come off; if that happens though, toss the seeds on the ground for the birds to eat! In the end, for Turks, life without the simit is simply unthinkable.

The cheese book went into a 5th printing, and the olive book to a 7th

How many people can we find that both want to eat simits and read about them? For his part, Ünsal has observed that these sorts of books have many faithful readers. A sign of this is the fact that his book on cheese went into a fifth printing, and his book on olives went to a seventh. While some collectors are always looking for large-size books to add to their troves, Ünsal is extra pleased that his new book on simits has been printed in a pocket-sized format. After all, the important point is that people actually get a chance to read it. Though one detail displeases him: at a time when so many countries are busy documenting their own cultural treasures, this book on simits has not been published in English.

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