One of the best parts of journeying – of which I do a lot – is the unexpected, fascinating and often inspiring encounters that you have along the way.
Anyone who knows me knows that I like to talk and whilst not all cab drivers like to chat, many do. I met Aydin on my way to Paddington station to catch a train and then a plane to Manila – of which more later. Conversation started, as it often does in the UK, with the weather, before quickly moving to Aydin’s work – initially as a breakfast chef, now as a cab driver – and within 20 minutes I had a recipe for mercimekli kofte, a vegetarian dish from Turkey which I never even knew existed.
Aydin explained that he was originally from the Anatolia region of South Eastern Turkey, an area with which I’m familiar through my research but have never had the opportunity to visit. His home town of Gaziantep, close to the Syrian border, has long been regarded as centre for creative gastronomy and is famous for its pistachios. Over recent years I’ve learnt about Gaziantep through its role in hosting more that half a million refugees displaced by the conflict in Syria who, despite the challenges, have been integrated in ways that have not been seen in the rest of Europe.
But I first learnt about Gaziantep more than 20 years ago when I was carrying out interviews with Kurdish refugee women living in and around the Green Lanes area of London.
In between interviews I would often be taken to one of the small Turkish cafes that had sprung up in the area for a strong dark Turkish coffee typically served with sweet sticky baklava, stuffed with pistachios and dripping with honey. If I was very lucky one of the women, or sometimes even a small group, would cook lunch for me. A cloth with be laid on the floor and small plates of delicious food would suddenly appear from nowhere…piles of dolma (vegetables stuffed in grape leaves, otherwise known by their Greek name dolmada), kofta (spiced meatballs or meatloaf), flatbreads, bulgur wheat salad with mint and pomegranate, cheeses served with more delicious honey and plenty of black tea.
Even as a young researcher in my twenties, the symbolism of this ritual was not lost on me.
For decades the Turkish authorities have tried to suppress Kurdish cultural identity – not to mention political expression. That includes a refusal to acknowledge the particularities of Kurdish food which, as in so many contexts, is central to personal and group identity. Fortunately that is starting to change, at least in some of the larger cities, and there are now some great blogs promoting Kurdish cuisine, many of which provide recipes whilst also explaining the geographical and political context within which the dishes have evolved. The community in Green Lanes meanswhile has become more established and the area now a growing reputation for the quality of its Turkish, Kurdish, Greek and Cypriot cuisine
Anyway back to Aydin and our journey together.
Gaziantep, Aydin told me, serves the best food in the whole of Turkey. The city is the birthplace of the baklava that I adore and home to a number of dishes often seen as ‘Turkish’ but served with a local twist. among them lahmacun (Turkish pizza) and kofte (meatballs), typically made from ground lamb seasoned with onion, tomatoes and herbs. When I explained to Aydin that I don’t eat meat he told me that there are three kinds of kofte in Turkey: the meat kofte with which most of us are familiar; a vegetarian kofte made from bulgur wheat and sometime lentils; and a third version which combines the two. For those like his 10 year old daughter unable to eat wheat, the bulgur can be substituted with polenta which, of course, is a favourite dish in the north of Italy where I live.
So it was that by the time I reached Paddington our conversation had come full circle. Food had been at the heart of our discussion- as indeed it so often is in life – constituting a powerful symbol of identity and of both continuity and change. I am writing this on my flight to the Philippines but when I get back to Italy in a few weeks time I intend to make my own vegetarian kofte based on the recipe that Aydin shared with me. Watch this space! I also intend to return to Green Lanes, see the changes for myself and of course try the food. Gaziantep meanwhile has been added to my ever-expanding travel bucket list…