Having lived in Turkey for the past nine years, there are many special foods that are made during Ramadan that I look forward to. First and foremost on my list is the special bread called Ramazan pidesi. It’s circular shaped bread that is flat but still spongy. In İstanbul, people start waiting in line at local bakeries as iftar (the fast-breaking meal) draws near in order to get the freshest pide to have with this highly anticipated post-sunset meal.
When I was a university student back in the US, I would take a lot of my Turkish friends grocery shopping. They would bemoan the lack of quality beyaz peynir (white cheese) in the US, trying to make due with the French or Bulgarian feta cheese on the market. They would practically cry when tasting the plain yogurt available, which is a totally different texture and taste than what is a staple at most Turkish tables. They would take a long time making meals, experimenting with different ways to make the rice found in the US taste as close as possible to the pilaf “anne” (mom) used to make. As a student of Middle Eastern studies, I would watch in awe as Arabs, Turks, Armenians, Pakistanis and even some Israelis would amicably crowd into the small Middle Eastern grocery store near our university to pay exorbitant prices for precious ingredients from home. No fights. Abroad, there was peace -- everyone unified in his or her desire to have some type of food from “home.”
The many different people I have met in my nine years of living here have enriched my life in İstanbul. Everyone is from somewhere else, including my Turkish friends. Very few Turks in İstanbul are İstanbullu (from İstanbul); rather, they hail from cities and towns throughout Turkey. Each different region and town has its own way of preparing certain dishes. I know when I am visiting someone from the Aegean side of Turkey that we will most likely have fish and several small dishes of appetizers common from that area. My husband Can’s family is from this region of Turkey, even though his father’s family moved to İstanbul when my father-in-law was a small child. Still he clings to the dishes his mother used to make, and goes back to his village to buy olive oil that is produced by the locals. No store-bought olive oil for our family! Our neighbors hail from the Gaziantep region of Turkey, although they, too, have lived in İstanbul for most of their lives. On visits back to Gaziantep in the spring, they brought back several fragrant herbs and showed me how to make them into a tasty dish served with yogurt. In my nine years of living here, I had never seen these types of herbs before. Just when I think I have tasted all that Turkish cuisine has to offer, something like this happens.
For us foreigners, we revel in the goodness of Turkish food. However, the novelty can soon wear off and we find ourselves craving those homemade staples from our native lands. İstanbul is a unique metropolis in that it doesn’t offer a great deal in international cuisine. Nine years ago, when I moved to İstanbul, there were only three Chinese restaurants in the entire city. To me, that was very surprising. Even today, although there are a lot more international food options, it is still not adequate in relation to the size of İstanbul. Anytime there is a gathering of expats, the hot topic of conversation is about another unique food find in İstanbul. My French and Italian friends whisper a lot about the latest cheese finds. My British friends plan pork runs to Bulgaria. Iranians and Mexicans band together to search for real limes, not those deceptively different bitter lemons. At lunch last week, some American expats were talking about finding fresh blueberries at a local gourmet store. This past spring, we were all excited to see fresh, affordable asparagus for sale at most supermarkets.
We Americans have a tougher road as far as cooking goes. So used to meals that can be made easily, we are challenged by not only the lack of ingredients we are used to but also the preparation time required to make a good meal. For me personally, this has been a big adjustment. I basically had to learn how to cook all over again. Over the years, I have learned how to modify or create similar tastes using the ingredients here in Turkey. I now make my own chicken stock, and know what proportion to use when an American recipe calls for a can of cream of chicken soup.
Whenever I would get homesick, I would want to make up a batch of chocolate chip cookies, banana bread or zucchini bread just like my mom used to make. Although I would follow the recipes exactly, and all of the ingredients listed were readily available here in Turkey, the cookies would come out as hard as rocks and the bread would be dry. My unscientific guess is that the flour and sugar here in Turkey are a bit different. Another American expat advised me to add a spoonful of plain yogurt for every cup of flour in a baked goods recipe from the US. Although the taste of the end product is slightly different, this trick has made all of my mom’s recipes come out as close as possible to the real thing.
Like most expats who have been here for many years, I now make a mixture of Turkish food and food common to my Midwestern American hometown. Both types are modified slightly, creating a cuisine probably unique to our household. When I go back to the US for lengthy visits home, I try to make some simple Turkish dishes for my son Eren while there. I run up against the same hurdles my Turkish friends faced when trying to recreate their dishes in the US. The red lentils available in my hometown are tinier and thinner than what I normally use in Turkey, and my soup comes out tasteless. Eren spits out the plain yogurt, which he normally happily eats a lot of here in Turkey. The past few visits home I have started to bring some dry, vacuum-packed staples with me such as dried red lentils and chickpeas. I now consider two places home and when in one place try to make the cuisine of the other. This has been an interesting but at times frustrating journey. No matter how full my bags are when flying back to Turkey, there is one ingredient I always make room for: maple syrup. Whenever I am homesick, sometimes even just a sniff from this bottle will remind me of home. More precious to me than gold, I ration it out until my next visit home. Most expats probably do this with a similar ingredient. What ingredient reminds you of home?
*Elle Loftis is an American expat, writer and mother living in İstanbul. Reach her at email@example.com for comments or questions.