TURKEY: Black Sea Soul Food

The staff of Emice'nin Yeri, with Nezahat Hanum in the back, photo by Paul Osterlund

The staff of Emice'nin Yeri, with Nezahat Hanum in the back, photo by Paul Osterlund

Everyone seems to feel at ease in Emice’nin Yeri. It’s the kind of place where workers come after their shifts, families and couples dine, single men drink their tea and watch football matches on the TV, and women too are comfortable eating alone. But it’s not just a welcoming place – Emice’nin Yeri also happens to be one of the best Black Sea restaurants around.

The emice part of the name comes from the Laz language and means “uncle,” or amca in Turkish, so can be translated to “Uncle’s Place,” a fitting moniker for the restaurant does have a certain avuncular charm. There are the wooden hamsi, which were hanging from the ceiling when we first started coming here (although they disappeared after a new ceiling was put in), a collection of toy cars, pictures of bucolic Black Sea towns, flags of regional favorite Çaykur Rizespor Football Club on the walls, and gourds hanging in the kitchen – all create a homey feel. Yet the modest, eclectic setting doesn’t quite let on how good the food is.

With its bright red color and neon sign, Emice’nin Yeri cheerfully commandeers a corner in the Fıstıkağacı neighborhood of the Asian side’s Üsküdar district, about a 10-minute walk uphill from the ferry terminal on the Bosphorus. The restaurant is the work of Kemal Teker, who opened it in 2009, though he came to Istanbul much earlier, from Çayeli in the Black Sea region, in 1976. He had a store for some years before turning to the restaurant business because, in his own words, “I like to eat.”

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He is joined in the kitchen by his aunt Nezahat Teker, who takes over in the evenings from the daytime cook, Ayşe Amaç. It’s not a stretch to say that their warm, hearty smiles are what make the food so delicious and taste reliably homecooked.

Chatting between orders, Nezahat Hanım shared with us that in a former life she had been a housewife but had always been known for her desserts. Finally she answered the call to the restaurant because the owner didn’t think anyone else could make her kabak tatlısı (pumpkin dessert) as well. She then spent eight years preparing only desserts but was informally apprenticing as a chef all that time. So, when the former cook left a year ago, she took over in the kitchen.

It’s an inviting kitchen, directly to the right upon entering the door, the food upfront and simmering in pots on the stove. So while there is a menu, there’s usually no need to look at it. We quite literally just see what’s cooking and decide.

Something about the Black Sea’s butter-rich dishes warms the soul.

The fare typically consists of a dozen or so regional classics like muhlama, a cornmeal porridge with melted cheese that’s the culinary equivalent of a warm, fuzzy sweater; karalahana sarması whose spice-infused rice, minced meat, and tangy collard greens are perfectly complemented by the housemade yogurt on the side; Rize kavurmasi, a dish of tender pieces of beef in a savory broth and, of course, at this time of year, hamsi, or Black Sea anchovies.

The arrival of the hamsi seems to trigger a response, as it’s the time of year when the temperature drops, the air turns crisp and golden crackly leaves congress, that a real hankering for Black Sea food sets in. Something about the Black Sea’s butter-rich dishes do not just fill the belly but warm the soul, the perfect counterpoint to cold, drizzly weather.

The hamsi tava are indeed tasty. Breaded and crispy, they are plated in a kind of anchovy-mandala, the cornmeal crust nicely offsetting the briny, savory meat of the fish.

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But the real reason we keep coming back is the Çayeli kurufasulye, the Black Sea kitchen’s take on baked beans. Creamy, thick and oozing flavor, the kurufasulye owes its goodness to two key ingredients, according to Nezahat Hanım: the beans that come from İspir in the Erzurum region, and the smacking-good butter delivered fresh from Rize. Then it must be slow-cooked in a copper pot in the oven.

Whenever we come there’s not even a question about ordering this dish, while we have slowly eaten our way through most of the rest of the menu. During a recent visit, we had just finished spooning down another portion of kurufasulye and were in the middle of a conversation with the owner when he suddenly turned and said, “Oh the bean delivery has arrived.”

Then he went off to heave sacks of beans over his shoulder with two or three other men helping. They went by again and again, in a veritable parade of bean sacks, carrying them to the depot downstairs. Turns out that a full ton of beans was delivered that night, enough for the whole year.

While the beans came in, some butter from the kitchen went out that night. After our raving about the flavor of the kurufasulye and being told about the importance of the butter and then wondering where one might find such butter, the cook wrapped up a half-kilo for us to take home.

 

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This article originally appeared in Culinary Backstreets, which covers the neighborhood food scene and offers small group culinary walks in a dozen cities around the world.

AUTHOR

ZAMIRA SKALKOTTAS

PHOTOGRAPHER

PAUL BENJAMIN OSTERLUND

Paul, one of Culinary Backstreets' Istanbul correspondents, is a freelance journalist and writer who has called Istanbul home for over 5 years. He completed an MA in Turkish Studies at Sabancı University, and has written for Al Jazeera, The National, The Atlantic's City Lab, Middle East Eye, Roads and Kingdoms, Deutsche Welle, and others. He loves exploring the far-flung reaches of Istanbul and plays guitar in the band Foton Kuşağı.

 

The Restaurant Where Grandmas Cook to Share Their Cultures

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A New York City restaurant does more than serve home cooking from around the world. It prepares each dish with the love that only a grandmother can provide.

After losing his mother and sister within the same year, Jody Scaravella was struggling to figure out life without the matriarchs of his family. His grandmother had died seven years before, and he was desperate for an outlet to transform his pain into healing.

Scaravella was raised in an Italian American household in Brooklyn, where his mother, Maria, and his grandmother, Dominica, made sure to sprinkle a dash of love into everything they cooked. In the same kitchen where they prepared traditional meals, Maria and Dominica also passed down their Italian heritage.

Scaravella turned back to his upbringing for solace, and nearly 11 years ago opened restaurant Enoteca Maria in the heart of St. George, Staten Island’s historic district. His intention was not just to serve up hearty Italian meals passed down from previous generations, but to bring together the Italian grandmothers of New York to cook them. Each dish is prepared with the love that only a grandmother can give.

“It was all grief-driven, really. I guess I was just trying to recreate that comfort,” Scaravella says.

Since then, Italian grandmothers with little to no professional training have come into Enoteca Maria to cook their own menus on a rotating schedule. The next logical step, Scaravella says, was to expand the restaurant’s concept and invite grandmothers from different cultures.

“So many of the people who came and celebrated our Italian nonnas were not themselves Italian,” he says. “I wanted this to be inclusive.”

Since expanding the concept in 2015, Enoteca Maria has attracted grandmothers from Brazil, Japan, Argentina, Syria, and more.

“These women really represent their culture. They are the vessels that carry this culture forward,” Scaravella says.

The restaurant is divided into two kitchens: The downstairs kitchen is reserved for Italian grandmothers, while upstairs is for grandmothers with other heritage.

“On the first day that the new nonna cooks, we have one of the other nonnas that’s already cooked come in as an advocate to walk her through,” the process, Scaravella explains. “The advocate acts as the go-between and shows her how this all happens.”

Despite language barriers, the grandmothers always manage to create a truly unique and special experience.

“It’s obvious where all the knowledge is. Food is definitely part of it, but it’s more about culture being brought forward.”

“I’ve seen situations where they didn’t understand any words but they had a great time and connected,” he says. “Everyone is just cooking together in the kitchen and sharing culture.”

Like Scaravella, many of the grandmothers who come into Enoteca Maria share a similar desire to connect and nurture their own loss, whether it is a loved one or leaving behind their homeland.

After losing her husband, Greek grandmother Ploumitsa Zimnis was introduced to the restaurant by her daughter, Maria, in an effort to help her through her grief.

“I was on the internet one day and saw an ad looking for grandmothers from different cultures. I saw that Jody was using this as a way to connect to his culture and the love that he felt when he was young,” says Maria Zimnis.

With assistance from her daughter, Ploumitsa has made it a tradition to come in at least once a month and cook for guests.

“I make moussaka first day. Sometimes calamari salad. Octopus with wine and onions. Baklava for dessert,” Ploumitsa says.

Ploumitsa and her daughter may have stumbled upon Enoteca Maria online, but it seems more like fate.

“On our first day we coincidentally noticed that the restaurant was located in the town of St. George. My mother and father were both born in St. George Sikousis village on the island of Chios in Greece,” Maria says. “So we thought it was definitely a sign from above, from my father. We were meant to cross this path.”

The memories of home-cooked meals made by women who have passed down their heritage generation to generation evoke a nostalgic feeling that awakens a desire to connect to our roots, Scaravella says.

“It’s that moment when the grandparent is passing down this knowledge about how to prepare a traditional dish, and she’s passing it forward to the next generation. You’re really watching history,” Scaravella says.

In 2015, publishing company Simon and Schuster partnered with Enoteca Maria to launch Nonna’s House: Cooking and Reminiscing with the Italian Grandmothers of Enoteca Maria, a collection of recipes and stories. Scaravella is now working on a follow-up, Nonnas of the World, which will feature an extensive collection of recipes from grandmothers around the world.

“It’s obvious where all the knowledge is. Food is definitely part of it, but it’s more about culture being brought forward,” Scaravella says. “It’s really all that we are, and it’s so basic. It’s like breathing.”

 

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON YES! MAGAZINE.

 

SHAIMA SHAMDEEN

Shaima is a solutions reporting intern for YES! She is passionate about cross-cultural and interfaith dialogue. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

 

A Refugee-Run Restaurant in Lisbon's Mercardo de Arroios

Mezze: Rebuilding, with Food

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In a market as diverse as Lisbon’s Mercado de Arroios, where people from all over the world shop, Mezze doesn’t seem out of the ordinary. But the small restaurant deserves a closer look: it’s not only one of Lisbon’s few Middle Eastern restaurants, but, more importantly, its staff is almost entirely made up of recently arrived Syrian refugees. For them Mezze represents both a link back to the country they left behind and a crucial aid for putting down roots in their new home.

The idea behind Mezze is one that’s being tried out in other countries. Refugees, particularly those fleeing the war in Syria, are given the chance to earn a living and get established by sharing their culinary heritage, either by opening or working at a restaurant or catering business. The benefit is not just for the refugees, who are able to earn some money while at the same time preserving a taste of home, but also for their new communities, who can support those displaced by war and gain insight into their cultural heritage through the universal language of food.

Mezze’s start, though, was motivated by something simpler – the desire for bread. Alaa Alhariri, a 24-year-old Syrian woman who came to Portugal to study architecture in 2014 after a brief time spent studying in Egypt and Istanbul, was missing the flatbread she used to buy back home. “Bread is the beginning of everything, it exists in every culture,” she says. “In the Middle East it means family, it means sharing. Syrians open bakeries as soon as they arrive in Turkey and in other countries as well.”

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Alaa is one of the four founders of the non-profit Pão a Pão, which means “Bread by Bread,” a name inspired by the Portuguese saying “Grão a Grão” (“Grain by Grain,” which has a similar meaning to “step by step”). The organization was the brainchild of Alaa and Francisca Gorjão Henriques, another cofounder and Pão a Pão’s current president. Francisca and Alaa met by chance – Alaa was living with Francisca’s aunt. Pão a Pão was originally created with the intention of opening a bakery.

“Refugees [from Syria] started to arrive in Portugal in 2015 under the European Union program to relocate them,” explains Alaa, whose eyes shine with enthusiasm when talking about the project (while she’s heavily involved in behind-the-scenes work, she doesn’t work at the restaurant). “They only receive state assistance for two years, after which the funds stop.” The aim of Pão a Pão is to help young people and women, in particular, integrate into the work force. “Some of these women have never worked before,” says Alaa. “They’ve been housewives all their lives.”

But the team at Pão a Pão began to think bigger; the bakery plan was scrapped and their new aim was to open a restaurant. They organized a series of successful test dinners in December 2016, which took place in an old covered market that had been converted into an events space. Buoyed by the positive response, Pão a Pão felt confident in taking the plunge. They were able to crowdfund just over 23,000 euros (around $30,000) – almost 10,000 euros more than the initial goal – over the course of 2017, with the restaurant finally opening its doors in September, serving such classic Syrian dishes as moussakakibbeh (fried balls made of bulgur, minced meat and walnuts), kabseh (rice with vegetables and chicken) and baba ganoush.

“The people working here feel like they’re doing something useful. So the more people we can help feel this way, the better.”

“People’s reactions have been amazing, it is better than we could expect, we’re always busy,” says Francisca, who recently left her job as a journalist at the Público newspaper to concentrate on her work with the organization. “We have improved a lot since our first test dinners, especially considering that 90 percent of the team had no prior experience.”

Mezze has also been extremely well received by the Mercado de Arroios’s neighboring shops and stalls, which supply the restaurant with its ingredients. Everything Mezze cooks with comes from the market except the meat, which is sourced from a halal butcher in Almada, south of Lisbon.

Perhaps more significantly, the refugees employed by Mezze take pride in their work. Serena, a 24-year-old from Palestine who has been living in Lisbon for one year now, loves the atmosphere at the restaurant. But, more importantly for her, she values the chance to show that refugees are the same as everyone else: “We work hard, we love life and want to be part of society as much as anyone.”

While we talk, she welcomes people to the restaurant and explains the menu. “The Portuguese ask a lot of questions because they don’t know these dishes but everyone loves the food,” she says. Although she finds the language difficult, she considers Portugal to be her home now. “It’s my home, where I find myself,” she explains. “It still has traditional a family structure, family bonds, and at the same time, more freedom of movement and speech.”

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Rafat Dabah, 21 years old, has been in Portugal for just under two years, after being relocated with his family from Egypt, where they first moved after leaving Syria. “My father had a restaurant in Syria and in the school holidays I would work there with him,” he tells us. “Here in Portugal I worked in a kebab place in a shopping center.” This experience seems to have served him well. He began working as a waiter at Mezze, but is now the restaurant’s manager – he eagerly explains the improvements they have made at the restaurant and the positive feedback they’ve received from diners.

Originally from Damascus, he lives in Lisbon with his younger brother and his mother, who also works at Mezze. His older brother, 24, lives in Turkey. His father died in the war. Living in Loures, a suburb north of Lisbon, Rafat can’t image going back home to Damascus anytime soon. “It’s tough there. Sadly things are still dangerous.”

As for life in Portugal, he doesn’t feel quite at home yet, although it’s getting better. He tells us how he’s enjoying learning so much, including the Portuguese language. “To integrate you need to learn the language, I’ve learned a lot and I’m practicing more now,” he says. “Once I could communicate, life became much easier.”

This isn’t the first time refugees have made Portugal their home. Because of its neutrality during the Second World War, the country saw a large influx of exiles from other European countries as well as North Africa. Likewise, hundreds of thousands fled to Lisbon after the independence of Angola and Mozambique in 1975. More recently, 1,659 refugees took shelter in the country as a result of the Balkan wars in the early 1990s.

In the last two years, 1,507 refugees (mostly Syrians but also some from Iraq and Eritrea) were relocated to Portugal from Greece and Italy, according to the Portuguese Council for Refugees. The Portuguese Government announced recently that they would receive 1,000 more currently residing in Turkey (again, mostly Syrians but also some from other Middle Eastern countries). Although small in number compared to the massive number of refugees being sheltered in the countries bordering Syria, they are being welcomed warmly. The extraordinary success of Mezze speaks to that.

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The support of the Portuguese people has been fundamental to the realization of this project, which leads us to wonder if this openness would have been possible, say, even 20 years ago. “Maybe 20 years ago, without social media amplifying this disaster at the gates of Europe, this wouldn’t be possible,” admits Francisca. “At the same time, today’s Lisbon is much more cosmopolitan than it was 20 years ago. Diversity is now a prime feature in some parts of the city, like in the Arroios neighborhood.”

The ongoing support of Lisboetas, many of whom felt a wave of solidarity with the refugees after Europe initially bungled the refugee crisis, has inspired Alaa and her colleagues to think bigger. “We’re thinking of opening another location. The Portuguese love to eat and we’re lucky that they love our food,” says Alaa.

Francisca confirms the plans to open another place. “We’ve developed this project with the hope of replicating it in Lisbon and other cities in the country. We’re still starting out and we want to improve, but we think we might be able to open in other locations in a year. We also hope to expand our current Mezze to include a take-away and catering service.” They also have plans for debates and workshops, with Pão a Pão hosting a conference on integration at Mezze on Friday, January 26.

According to Alaa, the people working at the restaurant “feel happy, they feel like they’re doing something useful. So the more people we can help feel this way, the better.”

 

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This article originally appeared in Culinary Backstreets, which covers the neighborhood food scene and offers small group culinary walks in a dozen cities around the world.

 

AUTHOR

CÉLIA PEDROSO

Célia, CB’s Lisbon bureau chief, is a freelance journalist, writing mostly about travel and food, and is the co-author of the book "Eat Portugal", winner of a Gourmand World Cookbook Award. Her work can be seen in such publications as The Guardian, Eater, and DestinAsian. In 2014 she started leading food tours in Lisbon through Eat Portugal Food Tours and now does the same with CB. She wrote the Portuguese entries for the book "1001 Restaurants you Must Experience Before you Die" and keeps searching for the best pastéis de nata so you don't have to.

PHOTOGRAPHER

RODRIGO CABRITA

Photographer Rodrigo Cabrita was born in Oeiras, Portugal in 1977. He started his career at the daily newspaper Diário de Notícias in 2001 and has worked at a variety of publications since then. He is now a freelance photographer and takes part regularly in exhibitions. Rodrigo has won several photojournalism awards, most notably the Portuguese Gazeta award. You can see more of his work at his website and his Instagram page.