I have heard endless stories about Turkish hospitality, and I can’t say if these are Turkish traits or not, but in a very short time we have met people who feel like they represent an archetype – the Turquetype, if you will – albeit in vastly different ways.
Let’s meet a few.
Friends as family
When we lived in DC, we became friends with Janine’s co-worker Judy and Judy’s husband Haluk, who was born and raised in the old neighborhood in Istanbul called Sultanahmet. When Haluk found out we were coming to Istanbul, he insisted on picking us up at the airport. He commutes between DC and Istanbul, and he was planning to leave the day after we arrived so he put us in the care of his childhood friend Oktay and Oktay’s brother Adam. They own a restaurant and a handful of other businesses, and they check in on us daily and make sure that we’re well taken care of. When we are in the neighborhood, we make sure to stop by one of the shops, where we hang out and visit. Sometimes Oktay and I head down to the teahouse in the evening and play backgammon. Oktay says that since we’re Haluk’s friends and Haluk is like family, then we are by extension family, and he seems quite sincere about it. It’s like a Turkish syllogism.
We were at the restaurant the other night and Adam reported that the guy who plays the reed flute for the whirling Dervishes at the restaurant brought a pile of fish he caught off the banks of the Bosphorous into the restaurant. Would we like some? (A brief aside about the whirling Dervishes. I had grown up thinking that a whirling Dervish was a person with uncontrollable restless energy. Far from it. The Dervishes are practicing a form of Sufi religion in which they arrive at a meditative state that allows them to close their eyes and turn around hundreds and hundreds of times without tossing their lunch all over the front row. If it’s a party trick, it’s a great one. I confess I now have an obsession with these guys.)
Of course we want Dervish flautist fish. You don’t get that every day. It’s nice to be family.
The crossroads guy during challenging times
Turkey is the bridge between Europe and Asia. In fact, you can cross a bridge in Istanbul and go from Europe to Asia. The other part of this position as crossroads of the world is that Turkey is in the middle of a mess of problems. The country shares long, tense borders with Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Since the Syrian civil war got going, more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees have poured into the country. We met one the other night at dinner. Over the course of our dinner, Muhammad told us that he fled Syria for Kurdish Iraq two years ago, and slipped across the border into Turkey earlier this year. His family left Aleppo, and he can’t imagine the day when he’ll be able to return, or if he does, what will be left. Muhammad was gracious, kind, and he was obviously very sad. I wish him well, but worry for him and his family. Turkey may find itself hosting Muhammed and his countrymen and women for many many years to come. They can’t go home, so they’ll have to stay.
If you walk ten feet in Istanbul, some guy will try to get you to come into his restaurant, his carpet store, his souvenir stand, or for all I know, his proctology clinic. At Muhammed’s restaurant, where you can get a very nice grilled fish, a friendly, short, stocky fellow in a leather jacket spends his evenings trying to reel in customers. Turns out fishing is in his blood. “In the morning, I fish for fish,” he told me. “In the night, I fish for people!” and pantomimed tossing out his rod and reeling in a couple that was making its way up the hill. He’s not bad at, either. He caught us, after all, and the fish was excellent.
Another fisher of people tried to strike up a conversation, which is simply a pretense to reel you into his business. A young kid named Mehmet wasn’t nearly as skilled as our fisherman friend, but he did his best, even though he didn’t quite have the vocabulary for an extensive conversation. He asked me where I was from, I asked him where he was from, he asked if I wanted to have dinner, I told him I had already eaten. Then I asked his name and he said “Mehmet” and took my hand, shook it, and air kissed me in the direction of both cheeks like he was in the Hamptons, or, it turns out, Istanbul.
Fatima runs our favorite restaurant in Turkey so far, called Shirahne Cave Restaurant, in Goreme, which is in the central Turkey region called Capadoccia. Goreme is one of those cave towns in Capadoccia in which people have hollowed out the volcanic cliffs and outcroppings and turned them into dwellings. In the past several decades, locals have converted their homes into hotels and restaurants. On this night we ate in a cave and we slept in a cave.
The town is almost comically charming. We wandered up one hill and perched ourselves in a bar overlooking the floodlit town, which brings to mind something out of an animated Disney film.
Goreme is a jumping off point for hot air balloon rides and tours of the cave churches and underground cities that dot the region and they’ve done a good job of making the place quite hospitable.
After our sundowner, we were getting peckish and we glanced at the menu in front of Shirahne and were thrilled to finally find a place that didn’t have kebabs, hamburgers, or pizza on the menu.
The first night (we went back again the next evening) we had chicken with chickpeas and a handmade pasta that was a lot like spaetzle all served together in a tomato broth. It was the Turkish red pozole, and just as homey and loving. We also had eggplant stuffed with spiced ground beef and a dandy Capadoccian white wine.
The next night we had tiny handmade pasta squares (which reminded me of the Goodman’s squares that my grandmother used to put in her chicken soup) tossed in homemade yogurt and topped with a tangy tomato sauce. It’s as simple as it sounds, but I can’t wait to make it when we get back home. I’d add a bit of dill and serve it as a side dish to a lamb tagine. sounds good, huh? We also had a local black zucchini (Fatima said that were the last of the season) served in clay pot with tomatoes, beef, onions, and peppers. It was a deep, soulful relief to eat real Turkish food after a week of very simple fare. (Although the simple stuff isn’t all bad – one popular street food is a crazy stuffed baked potato called a kumpir that has everything except camel sashimi in it. Janine tucked into one like she’d never eaten before.)
The real highlight, though, was chatting with Fatima. She feels the pressure of attempting to do real food in a tourist town. Likewise, she is a very modern woman in a place that, by her reckoning, is ambivalent about the role of women these days. She wears jeans and doesn’t cover her head, which in central Turkey has different implications than it may have in Istanbul or on the more European west coast. She told us that she agreed to marry her husband on the condition that he didn’t smoke or drink. The World Health Organization says that 41 percent of Turkish males smoke, but given the astonishing amount of smoking we’ve seen, I find that figure hard to believe. In any case, it’s an audacious requirement here, but Fatima issued it nevertheless. She mostly employs women in the restaurant because they are more reliable and she wants to give them an opportunity to develop marketable skills. She is raising her daughters to be independent, and she has encouraged her first child to delay getting married until she has finished college.
Can you really claim to know something about a person after a brief encounter in a restaurant, or even a week sitting in their shop drinking their tea? Probably not. I’m no more an expert on Turkish people than I am on Turkish taffy. But it’s valuable to try to look just a little bit deeper. The open top bus is fun, but you also have to get off an walk around every once in a while.