There are some dishes you can identify by their region, and not their nationality. Bourek is one of these dishes. People say if you cannot see bourek in the shops around you, it means you are not in the Balkans. It is a dish shared by all the ethnic and religious groups. Although the Balkans is today associated with conflict, its food culture transcends its diversity and has helped to bring communities together, in the way it’s said the ancient Romans used to do in the past.*
Wouldn’t it be great if the Balkan people could have resolved conflict with a shared dish of bourek rolls?Unfortunately this didn’t happen, and the conflict led to an influx of Balkan people into Turkey; this reinforced the existing tradition of Balkan foods in the country, dating from the times when it was part of the Ottoman Empire.
For example, I remember many families with Balkan heritage in the town in which I grew up in the 80s and 90s, in north west Anatolia in the Marmara region. Their typical dish was bourek, which I always looked forward to having when our Albanian, Bulgarian and Bosniak* neighbours were baking it. Bourek is a baked filo pastry composed of sheets of filo dough made with flour, water, salt and oil. The layers are often brushed with a mixture of milk (or yogurt), eggs, and sunflower or vegetable oil, and filled in the middle with vegetables such as leeks, courgettes, onions, spinach, potatoes, as well as cheese and meat. Bourek pastry dishes are also commonly found in Jewish cuisine as well as Balkan and Turkish ones. I always preferred the Albanian version of the bourek, which had leeks in it and slightly different dough to the Turkish ones my mother used to make.
In contrast to the common bourek, the long and extensive food traditions of other cultures like the Armenian, Greek, and Jewish have left almost no visible heritage in modern Turkish cuisine under their own names (though they played a big role in the multicultural foods of the Ottoman Empire). Most of these dishes still exist but have been given a Turkish identity and name as part of the process of creating a nation state. For example, stuffed mussels is one of the most popular street foods in Istanbul – often eaten at the end of a night out – and is always labeled a Turkish food when, in fact, it derives from Istanbul Armenian and Greek cuisines. I use the names of both these cuisines though another influence on the fish culture of Istanbul and the islands dates from Byzantine or even Roman times. Armenian food is well known for its deliciously stuffed vegetables with rice, as well as the famous dish “Uskumru Dolmasi”: stuffed mackerel with onion, pine nuts, blackcurrants, parsley, cinnamon and Allspice.
Sadly, many Armenian dishes are not known by Turks who live outside of Istanbul, or even by the many who live in Istanbul. The ethnic cleansing of Armenians from Turkey during and after World War One meant that as the Armenians were expelled or killed, their food traditions were lost or hidden. A little remains in Istanbul but it’s not visible to most people. Armenian author Takuhi Tovmasyan, in her book Sofranız Şen Olsun (Cheer to Your Table), explains that cooking certain dishes is a way of sharing the Armenian cultural legacy with the world. Her book captures the past through her childhood memories of her two grandmothers, who moved to Istanbul from Çorlu (A Thracian city in current day Turkey) during the genocide.
“Both were cheerful to enter the kitchen and left it with much praise. Their source of praise was that they were from Çorlu because coming from Çorlu was a privilege in their opinion. Unfortunately, they could not live as much as they wanted in Çorlu and were forced to leave due to the imposed conditions during the First World War. However, they lived forever as people from Çorlu and we as their grandchildren wanted to share this legacy with you. How? By preparing these Armenian dishes together: Lentil- Dolma, Kapama, Bohça, Petaluda, Kocagörmez , Pintikarı, Çullama, Çılbır, Havidz, Jamkapısı, Cizleme, Fasulye Paçası, and Topik…”
Food is a vital part of multiculturalism; when different communities live together, share the same space, towns and cities. They grow up with and know each other’s cooking traditions so well that the food helps build cultural harmony. That’s why I still remember not only my Mum’s bourek from my childhood, but also that of our neighbours, who helped me build my memories. When other communities are driven away, denied or ethnically cleansed from an area and a monoculture is imposed, it inhibits not only the food but the whole experience and culture of a country.
That’s why I don’t remember any Armenian food from my childhood: it’s a lost gem of the Ottoman Empire… But the legacy is still there, along with the other communities of Turkey. Its contribution to Turkish culinary culture can become more visible when we acknowledge the past, not deny it.
* Ancient Romans enjoyed long meals to gather their enemies in one place, and to negotiate and destroy a hostile environment.
*Bosniaks are Bosnian Muslims, who follow Islam since the 15th century when the Ottoman Empire conquered the region.