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The Syrian influence
A hotly debated election issue – and their impact on culinary Istanbul.
In Postcards from Istanbul, I share my experiences of living in this wonderful city – from discoveries to experiences at the markets or an on-the-ground view on current events.
If there’s one word that describes Turks, resilient might just be it.
I’ve been reminded of this over the last week or so, as we’ve all tried to figure out what to make of the result of the recent elections, dubbed the most important of at least a generation. In the end, it appears it was all fuss for nothing. President Erdoğan got re-elected with roughly the same vote share as five years ago. On the surface, it seems nothing much has changed at all.
The outcome will surely test the resilience of the 48% who voted for the losing side, many of whom were desperate for change. Having taken previous election losses in stride, this one hit differently. Many are devastated. Even on the winning side, some discontent is apparent, with the president’s AK Party scoring its worst result since coming to power in 2002.
The election, of course, comes on top of a devastating earthquake and a long unfolding economic crisis. Not to mention all of the other issues the country has been through over the past decade or so, including a coup attempt and subsequent purges.
You’d be forgiven for allowing the resilience to start to crack. And perhaps it just has.
“The Syrian issue”
The only parties who gained traction at this election were smaller islamist and ultranationalist groupings. An ultranationalist presidential contender got 5% of the vote, much higher than expected. This was not lost on the opposition’s presidential candidate, who littered the country with posters saying “Time to decide! The Syrians will G-O!” in the two weeks between the first and second round of presidential elections.
Turkey has been host to millions of refugees since the onset of the Syrian war more than a decade ago. More recently, refugees and poor migrants from other countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan have also made their way. For any country, let alone a middle income one, that’s an enormous challenge for local services and communities.
It’s a common misconception in the West (or perhaps it’s self-serving wishful thinking) that it’s easier for Turkey to absorb this population, given the countries are neighbours and both are predominantly Muslim.
Quite on the contrary, the language and cultural barriers are gigantic. Interactions between Turks and Syrians are few and far between. Yet the local population never made much of a fuss of the issue. Sure, discontent has been brewing for some time – particularly since the fighting in most of Syria has ceased. But mostly, Turks have accepted the Syrians’ presence here.
Since the early days, many Syrians have gathered in parts of Fatih, Istanbul’s historical old town. I could say many things about the enormous cultural differences, or other issues brought about by their presence (I also live in Fatih). Instead, I want to say a couple of words on a rather more positive aspect. One which brings people together more than perhaps anything else I know.
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The culinary Syrian impact
When I moved here in 2015, a few Syrian restaurants had already opened. Some of them were apparently famous in Aleppo before they were forced to close shop and relocate to Turkey. Once here, they immediately picked up their trade, serving their fellow refugees and curious locals. The food – not least the meze – was delicious. Hummus, tabbouleh and fattoush like you’d not get anywhere else in Istanbul.
Conditions weren’t easy for them, however. Our favourite Syrian restaurant soon changed locations, and then again, until we lost track of it. But visit the area north of Aksaray in Fatih, and you’ll find a plethora of Syrian, Yemenite and Uyghur restaurants, among many others.
Their arrival also left a mark on the local markets and commerce. When I came to Istanbul, coriander (cilantro) and basmati rice, for example, were all but impossible to find. And when you did, they were of such low quality as to be essentially useless. For some reason, Turks share a collective distaste for coriander, so there simply wasn’t any local demand until the Syrians came along. When it comes to rice, the local short-grain baldo variety has been the standard bearer, probably a result of attempting to keep food imports at a minimum.
Before long, however, bunches of full-flavour and fragrant coriander were plentiful at the weekly markets in areas with a sizeable Syrian population. Local shopkeepers, meanwhile, soon started stocking basmati rice produced by Syrian farmers in Turkey, as well as importing better quality ones from India.
A dessert like no other
The bigger revelation for me, though, were the Syrian dessert shops. As someone who doesn’t have a particularly sweet tooth, that’s saying something. Aleppo was known for its incredible desserts, including the best baklava you’ll ever eat – nuttier and less overwhelmingly sweet than their Turkish counterparts (sorry, Turks). Künefe, on the other hand, is better done the Antakyan way, if you ask me (sorry, Syrians).
My favourite, however, is a cheesy affair. Halawet el-jibn quickly became a favourite of mine. The bakeries’ decision to name it peynir tatlısı in Turkish (meaning “cheese dessert”) was actually a source of some confusion, as there is already another, and rather different, dish by the same name in Turkish cuisine.
But I digress – let me tell you about this unassuming yet beautiful dessert. It’s basically a large, stuffed semolina and cheese “sausage” (in shape, not taste or texture!). This is then cut into bite size pieces, pretty much like maki rolls (again, in shape, not taste or texture). Finally, it’s drenched in a delightful rose water scented syrup and topped with a scattering of crushed pistachios. Bliss!
Needless to say, whenever we went for dinner in Fatih, be it for Syrian mezes, Uyghur lagman og Turkish kebabs (all of which were great here), I always hoped my dining compatriots would be up for a subsequent visit to Saniora, a tiny bakery with lots of options. Their baklava, doughnuts and cakes are meh and the seating uncomfortable. But the halawet el-jibn is the best in town.
It wasn’t long, of course, until I started doing some more research on this dish. What was actually in it? I’ve described it above, but when I first ate it, I had no idea what it was made of. Luckily, it turned out to be quite easy to make at home (though I admit the rolling up of the sausage and finding the perfect balance between dough and filling takes a little practice). Since then, I’ve made it many times in the comfort of my own home. The recipe even made its way into my second cookbook.
If that sounds like something for you, you’ll be pleased to hear about the next newsletter, coming your way on Friday.
🔜 Coming Friday: Halawet el-jibn (new recipe)
In the next newsletter, I’ll share the recipe I use to make halawet el-jibn, a unique Syrian sweet made from semolina, cheese, ashta or clotted cream and a fragrant rose water syrup. In my humble opinion, it’s as good as the one at Saniora. The recipe will hit your inbox on Friday.