Thursday, February 23, 2012

An interview for

In an effort to forge a unified Turkish nation out of a society that was far from homogenous, the Turkish state for decades tried to suppress Kurdish cultural expression (not to mention political expression). But recent years have seen something of a change. Kurdish music, film and theater and now a visible part of the cultural scene in Turkey in a way that they weren’t only a decade ago, while a Kurdish-language national television network (albeit state-run) has been on the air since 2009 and the first-ever undergraduate program in Kurdish was launched last year.
But there has been one aspect of Kurdish culture that’s been conspicuously absent from all this activity: food. In Istanbul, for example, it’s now possible to find films or plays in Kurdish, but good luck finding a restaurant dedicated explicitly to serving Kurdish food. And while bookshops are filled these days with food books that explore Turkish cuisine, you would be hard pressed to find something that deals with Kurdish cooking.
Delal Seven, a 32-year-former food engineer living in Istanbul, hopes to change that. Last September, Seven – who originally hails from eastern Turkey’s Bingol region – launched a tri-lingual (Kurdish, Turkish and English) blog that offers recipes for traditional Kurdish dishes and that very quietly makes the case for the existence of a distinct Kurdish cuisine within Turkey’s larger culinary landscape (the blog has a great short video Seven made in which she goes around Istanbul confounding locals by innocently asking them what they know about Kurdish cooking).
In order to find out more about her blog (, I recently sent Seven a series of questions via email. Our exchange is below:
How did you get the idea for your blog?
It's been ten years since I graduated from university with a food engineering degree and for years and years I worked so hard and didn't get anything in return except staying alive. I wasn't making money and I wasn’t happy so I decided to make a radical change and at least be useful to the world in some way. My husband and I were thinking about opening a Kurdish restaurant, one that openly called itself “Kurdish” (it would have been a first, I think) but all our friends who had run a restaurant said wait, there would be no private time for us, so we should think very carefully before we got ourselves stuck in this business. While we were thinking opening the restaurant, we thought every recipe has to be standardized so we decided to record Kurdish recipes and standardize them. But when we gave up opening the restaurant I thought I could still do the recording and standardization part. So I started doing it and sharing the recipes on the blog.
What's the blog's purpose?
Whenever I wanted to cook a meal from my hometown of course the first thing I had to do was get the recipe from my older relatives, my mom or aunts. But I soon realized everybody has their own way of cooking, plus none of the recipes are written down (like they are for most other cuisines)! It's all oral, and there are no proper standards of measurement either. It’s all “a handful of this, a pinch of that.” So I asked myself what about the urbanized young generation (me, my sisters, my cousins) who wants to cook those great and traditional meals? The recipes have to be written according to scientific measurements and of course according to the kitchen measurements in order to be reproduced. All I am trying to say is the main purpose of the blog is creating a trustworthy and dependable source/address for the people who want to introduce their cuisine to others or preserve it for themselves and families.
As you show in the video on your blog, many Turks don't seem to think there's such a thing as “Kurdish cuisine.” Why is that?
In my opinion in Turkey the word "Kurd" automatically brings politics to mind. And what politics has said so far is “The Kurds don't exist” or “Even if the Kurds exist they don't have a special culture or language or music or cuisine or dance because they are ‘Mountain Turks.’” That mentality started changing but it is not easy to erase that idea from peoples’ brains. But it is not only because they are not familiar with the Kurdish culture, but also they are not aware that a lot of things like songs, dance and food, that are thought of as Turkish but actually belong to the Kurds. It is interesting that in the video most people said “kebab” as an answer to what is Kurdish cuisine when they would have said the same thing as an example of Turkish food if a foreigner has asked.
One thing about the video is that people did not really rebel at the idea of Kurdish food. Most people sincerely tried to think of an answer and a few were even embarrassed if they couldn't. I was happy just to make them think about Kurdish culture, in this case food, outside of politics. Things like this interview make people start considering Kurds as just another normal people with food, dance, and day-to-day lives instead of as political opponents or threats, and thus could help some toward a solution to the so-called “Kurdish problem.” Like the man said at the end of the video, 'What's cooking in a Kurdish kitchen? Food! Just normal food!'
On the other hand, there must be a lot of overlap between Kurdish and Turkish cooking? Can you separate Kurdish food from the other cuisines in the region?
Of course there are similarities in both cuisines. They both were developed by agricultural communities that formed before modern times. I mean, all they had was their animals, their farms and the trees. They obtained bulgur from wheat, yoghurt from milk and so of course, it's normal that you see the yoghurt soup with wheat in both cuisines. The similarities are based on the life style and how they survived. And as communication became easier, the two cultures had influences on each other.
Some of the Kurdish food can be very, very different from Turkish food. But it is not that different from an outsider’s point of view, but there are important differences from a local's point of view.
Are Kurdish culinary traditions being preserved or are you concerned about them being lost?
The traditions are still alive but what I am concerned about is that those can be lost in city life because people prefer pre-made food instead of cooking after they get home from work. So as they get cooked less and less, if no one records the original recipes, with each generation it slowly disappears.
When I look at Kurdish culture, including the cuisine, on the one hand it makes me so happy that there are things that are being done as our ancestors did hundreds of years ago. That proves many things are preserved. But on the other hand a lot of things were lost before they could be recorded just as our wild animals, herbs, songs, stories, etc were lost. So I would be very proud and happy if I could give some of our traditional dishes a modern twist to not only preserve them but also to help them flourish in the modern world.
Can you say a bit more about how you are collecting your recipes?
I thought it would be best and logical if I start compiling recipes from my province. And from the ones that I know the taste of well and from those I know how to cook. And first I put my knowledge on the table and then I confirm my knowledge at least from two different sources (like my mom and aunts). Then I combine them all. And I repeat the recipes over and over. While I am doing it, I use both scientific and kitchen measurements. And I serve them to people, especially to my grandfather who is a sweet 82-year-old man who loves to eat traditional Kurdish food, but is also very picky about such things – his approval is the brass ring. Once, when I made keşke [a kind of bulgur porridge] he said “You can make this over at my house, too,” and I knew I had succeeded. When I get the best results I share the recipe on the blog.
At the same time I am doing research on different cities. I actually did some research on Kurdish food in Beirut when we went there for Christmas holiday. And also while I was in eastern Turkey’s Van. So maybe one day I will be able to enlarge my study.
What's the future of Kurdish cuisine in Turkey? Can you imagine a restaurant that proudly serves "Kurdish Cuisine" opening up in Istanbul in the near future?
Well this a very important and good question. Imagine I am opening a restaurant and can't use, for example, the letters Q, W, X (from Kurdish alphabet) in the name because it's illegal. So the difficulties start just from here. That is why I think the atmosphere must be safer, not only legally but also mentally. But I believe that conditions will be right one day in Istanbul, and in Turkey as a whole.

Here is the link to the full interview. Kebabistan is written by Yigal Schleifer a freelance journalist based in Washington DC and is th co-creator of IstanbulEats which is a site I often visit.

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