Time is right for munching in the street

A SHAMELESS PLUG. Well, kind of… Lonely Planet has recently published World’s Best Street Food. It includes contributions from notable food writers, including Tom Parker-Bowles, and travel writers. And me.

I wrote about some of my favourite dishes from the usual locations, including İstanbul’s fabulous balık ekmek (fish sandwiches), Bosnian burek (savoury pastries) and Croatian čevapčići (pictured above; actually those pictured are Macedonian, and accompanied by shopska salad).

In fact, both burek and čevapčići can be found in a multitude of different countries and varieties, all of them equally lip-smackingly, deliciously sumptuous. I’ve had burek for both breakfast (spinach variety) and lunch (mince and sweet onions) in a single day in Sarajevo, and have had just as good versions in Preston, Fitzroy and the Victoria Market in my hometown of Melbourne.

The most memorable čevapčići I’ve had were at the Dolac market in Zagreb. They were memorable for being so markedly fantastic (complete with flat bread and bitey raw onions); they were a dish I didn’t anticipate enjoying in a city that I didn’t anticipate liking: very wrong on both counts. But they’re just as sweet hot off the skara (grill) on the shores of Lake Ohrid in Macedonia, accompanied by ayvar (aubergine relish) on the sun-splashed isle of Pag, or at the Croatian Club in downtown Footscray (again in Melbourne).

I can’t help being curious about the fact that the diminutive name (čevap) sounds uncannily like the Turkish and Persian word for “answer” (cevap in Turkish, jevap in Persian), but I guess the root of the word is more likely a derivation of kebap (the ‘k’ softens to become a ‘ch’ or ‘j’, and the ‘b’ becomes a ‘v’).

World’s Best Street Food has received quite a lot of press attention worldwide. There is coverage in The San Francisco Chronicle, and a wrap up in The Guardian in London, which lists several of the book’s recipes, including my one for burek.

One dish that I wish I’d suggested to the editors is Uyghur polo. I first encountered this is Xinjiang last year, after submitting copy for the book. It’s a hearty bowl of stock-infused rice with mutton and vegetables. Like burek and čevaps across the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean, polo (or pilau or pilav, depending on your predilection) comes in various combinations and permutations across several countries (in this instance, Central Asia; apparently it was a signature dish of the Bukhariot Jewish community in Uzbekistan). In some parts it includes dried apricots or slivered almonds, but what is distinctive about the Uyghur version is the inclusion of yellow carrots.

I had polo in Kashgar (one time for breakfast) and sought it out for lunch in Kargilik and Hotan (see picture). It’s not to everyone’s taste: some dismiss it as greasy, but I loved the muttony pungency of it and the sweetness of the braised (yellow) carrot. I’ll be sure to offer as an idea for the second edition of Street Food

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Realising the Turkish tapestry

IT SEEMS THAT IN some circles at least there is increasing acknowledgement of cultural diversity within Turkish society and state. In the last week, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister, Bülent Arınç, has restated the government’s commitment to uphold the rights of minorities, and Ahmet Davutoğlu, the Foreign Minister, has visited Turkey’s non-Muslim leaders.

Such moves will perhaps go some way to reversing the earlier status quo, where Turkey was regarded solely as the domain of Turks, thus shutting out a range of groups – Kurds, Laz, Yezidis, Armenians, Anatolian Greeks, Syriacs – that have for centuries been resident within the bounds of what is now Turkey. Such moves would have been unthinkable not that long ago in Turkey.

There was a time when the very existence of minorities was denied, and the thought of extending rights to any (non-existent) minorities was considered an outrage. I recall reading, during my time living in İzmir in 1994-5, of a politician declaring that the speaking of Kurdish could never be countenanced in the Turkish republic because “that’s separatism”; meanwhile Christopher de Bellaigue in his thought-provoking Rebel Land recounts meeting an army officer who bluntly asserted that there were no such things as minorities in Turkey.

These were the officially sanctioned positions of Turkish nationalists who aimed to stamp out any expression or manifestation of otherness in an effort to reinforce the unsullied, incorruptible, all-encompassing “Turkishness” of Turkey. These were measures aimed at defending Turkey against fragmentation, a result of a mindset that harks back to the twilight of the Ottoman era when Greece and the various Balkan states peeled away to become separate states.

Whether there was ever any likelihood of other states arising out of formerly Ottoman/currently Turkish territory is a moot point, but to my mind, allowing minorities to express themselves within the national framework is a sign that a nation state is vigorous. A robust and open nation should not see ethnic groups other than the dominant one expressing or celebrating their identity as a threat. Diversity within a nation need not automatically lead to fragmentation, indeed it may be seen as an indication of the nation’s strength.

All that aside, there now appears to be a shift from earlier stubbornly held nationalist positions. TRT, the Turkish government broadcasting service, now hosts a Kurdish-language channel; in 2010 officially sanctioned church services were allowed in the Greek Orthodox Sumela Monastery near Trabzon, at the Armenian Cathedral on Akdamar Island in Lake Van and in the Syriac churches near Mardin for the first time in decades.  Even the military, long a bastion of unbending mono-ethnic nationalism, appears to be softening its position, with Chief of General Staff, General İlker Başbuğ, in 2009, talking of “Turkiye halkı” (the people of Turkey), rather than “Turk halkı” (Turkish people).

An exhibition currently running in İstanbul brings to light a wealth of photos that illustrate some of that multi-ethnic fabric. Entitled “Cultural Diversity in old Diyarbakır”, the exhibition was curated by the most admirable Bir Zamanlar (Once Upon a Time) publishing house, who in recent years have published a range of books detailing Turkey’s multicultural history and legacy. The photos document the family lives and civic contributions of Diyarbakır’s non-Muslim communities in the early years of the 20th century.

You can read more about the exhibition here, and can click through to some of the images. It is a melancholy irony that with their fezzes and dark brows the Armenians and others captured in the photographs are nigh-on indistinguishable from Turks (or indeed of French dandies at the time when you see some of the twirled and waxed moustachios on exhibition). This somehow makes the internecine massacres of the 1910s, where horrors were visited on various populations of Anatolia, all the more poignant – and pointless.

There is still a tiny Armenian community in Diyarbakır, or at least there still was when I visited in 1992. I was led by local youths through the back streets to meet someone they called “Father Joseph”, a wizened man, with a moustache and a key to a church. In a dark corridor he opened a heavy iron door and revealed an ill-lit, rather sombre chamber. It was down at heel and neglected but somehow pulsating with spirituality; it was apparent that those who attended the church – the few remaining Armenians – drew incredible strength from their faith.

Finding an Armenian church here was a revelation to me, as indeed had been a visit some weeks earlier to Nemrut Dağı. Passing through several mountain villages en route to see the monumental stone heads the bus driver had gestured at local people and casually remarked, “Kurdish”. In fact, it was Kurdish youths who led the way to “Father Joseph” and to other churches in Diyarbakır.

It was these experiences that illuminated Turkey for me, making it not just another country, but somewhere with richness and depth, somewhere with so much to be discovered. It’s easy to say as an outside observer, but for me part of the appeal of Turkey is that it is *not* solely Turkish. The very fact that a diversity of peoples have contributed to the fabric of modern Turkey makes it all the more fascinating.

And it makes the country pertinent to or relevant to – indeed part of the family histories of – many peoples other than just the Turks. In 2008, en route to Iran, I visited the Armenian cathedral at Akdamar in Lake Van. I was the sole “Westerner” there; I was surrounded by a crowd of visitors from Iran. I can’t help but wonder if some of them were Armenians resident in Iran who were coming to investigate their own history. (Tellingly, amongst them were several families of Iranian Azeris, too.)

Whether the Armenians I met in 1992 still remain in Diyarbakır I don’t know, but the very fact that politicians, an exhibition and a publishing house can call to the attention of modern Turks an aspect of a previously overlooked, forgotten, repudiated or denied intercommunal history has to be a good thing.

The Golden Road to Yarkand

YARKAND IS a city on the southern Silk Road in Xinjiang, China. Earlier this week, Today’s Zaman, the English-language daily in Turkey, ran a piece of mine on Yarkand (Yarkent in Turkish). You can read the story here.

Compared to other Silk Road cities like Kashgar or Samarkand and Bukhara, Yarkand lacks buildings of architectural note and is not particularly well known. Nonetheless, like countless other places across the expanse of Eurasia it has a lively history.

Marco Polo passed through in the late 13th century, apparently claiming that Yarkand locals suffered inordinately from goitres and had one foot bigger than the other, but noting that they could still walk perfectly well. At the time Yarkand was controlled by the Chagatai (Çağatay) khans, being the descendants of Genghis Khan. In 1514 Said Khan came to power, establishing the Saidiye line that ruled Yarkand as part of the Altışehir confederacy (literally “Six Cities”, also including Kashgar, Hotan, Uç Turpan, Yengisar and Aksu), lasting until 1680.

The Saidiye khans are interred in the royal cemetery in the old town of Yarkand. Honey-coloured, decorated with elaborate floral motifs and Arabic script, the tombs don’t appear as old as you’d expect of something created in the 16th century, yet they attract solemn family groups of Uyghurs coming to pay their respects, and to take photographs of one another doing so. Clearly this is an attempt at some form of pilgrimage, to pay heed to a Uyghur historical legacy, which links back through various dynasties and eras, all with a Turkic blush.

Peter Fleming passed through in the 1930s while writing his fabulous News from Tartary. He noted that the city had been the scene of intense fighting during the civil war. He encountered parts of the bazaar in ruins and the bastion of the new city pockmarked with bullet holes. In a glimpse of the Silk Road of old he saw a professional story teller in the bazaar attracting a sizable crowd.

Today, aside from the royal cemetery there is very little of historical significance left in the city. Apparently, much of the old town was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Today the historical core, or what’s left of it, is surrounded by sprawling developments populated by Han Chinese. The bazaar bullet-riddled in the 1930s now appears quite dishevelled. Looking carefully in several streets of the old town you can spy some examples of traditional Uyghur urban architecture, distinctive with their balconies, ornate balustrades and carved pillars, but these are few and far between and those that remain are looking dust-blown and neglected.

Colin Thubron in his similarly fabulous Shadow of the Silk Road remarked that in Yarkand he felt “drowned in Uyghur boisterousness”, but then after a momentary encounter with abrupt Chinese traders felt himself longing again for the Uyghurs’ “warmth and generosity”. During my visit to Yarkand I saw no goitres and no individuals with one foot bigger than the other, nor was I subjected to any “boisterousness”. My own experience was of a Uyghur people being welcoming in an unprepossessing way, much like the Turks with whom, to my eye they share so many characteristics, uncannily so considering that the two populations became separated during the great Turkic westward lilt that began over 1000 years ago. Now there’s a subject I could return to…

One thing that didn’t make it into my Today’s Zaman story is a local culinary delight: pigeon kebabs. These can be procured at a specialty restaurant on the main street along from the royal cemetery. Local Uyghurs (although no Chinese that I spied) line up for dismembered pigeons on long skewers, or pigeon meat cooked with vegetables and pulled noodles. It’s a lucrative business. The Uyghur fellow I was travelling with chastised me for tipping the restaurant owner saying that he had grown rich serving up pigeons to all comers and didn’t need further cash injections from well-meaning Western travellers.