Gastronomy bridges gap between Greece, Turkey

11/03/2014

Culinary arts have helped to close the political gap between Turkey and Greece.

By Menekse Tokyay and H.K. Tzanis for Southeast European Times in Istanbul and Athens -- 11/03/14

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Maria Ekmekcioglu, a Greek native of Istanbul, hosts two cooking shows, one in Greece and the other in Turkey. [Facebook/Maria Ekmekcioglu]

Rich moussaka enjoyed on a picturesque island is one memory a growing number of Turkish tourists take home from holidays in Greece. Meanwhile, Istanbul increasingly draws Greek visitors seeking the tastes, smells and ambiance of Anatolia, recounted by generations before them.

Food is just one way that people-to-people ties are overcoming divides created by political differences between Athens and Ankara. Through tourism, social networks, booming trade and exposure to each society's mass culture, citizens of Turkey and Greece are building a more harmonious future.

In Greece, a milestone in sparking interest in east-of-the-border cuisine was the 2003 box office hit "A Touch of Spice," which weaved together images of Istanbul, a family's tradition of cooking and Greek-Turkish relations, on both a personal level and in terms of past political upheavals.

Turkish-born director Tassos Boulmetis said he wrote the screenplay in 1994, "at a time when I didn't know anything about so-called 'lifestyle cuisine.'"

Nevertheless, he said, the film's success at the box office appears to have influenced Greek moviegoers' appetites.

"I believe that the film did, in fact, create a trend. I've been told that after seeing the film many people would leave the movie theatre and seek out [Greek] politika restaurants. The film apparently increased their appetite," Boulmetis told SETimes, using the term that age-old Istanbul cuisine is known by in Greece.

On the small screen, Maria Ekmekcioglu, a Greek native of Istanbul, is making a name for herself as the host of two cooking shows, one in Greece and the other in Turkey, as well as the author of a best-selling cookbook.

Using Istanbul's famous monuments and quaint corners as backdrops, Ekmekcioglu prepares a variety of dishes on the show. Off-screen, she owns a restaurant in the Etiler district of Istanbul, called Maria's, and teaches gourmet cooking at the city's Halic University. She returned to Istanbul after running a patisserie and raising three sons in Thessaloniki.

"I've loved cooking from a young age. Both Greek and Turkish families have a tradition of cooking, whether out of happiness or sadness. Our cuisine is common, and it derives from similar Ottoman and Byzantine roots," she told SETimes.

Last year Ekmekcioglu, with several Turkish and ethnic Greek friends, established the Association of Lost Tastes at the Turkish resort of Cesme, with an inaugural festival set for this year to showcase the gastronomical history of Anatolia.

"I'm a kind of a volunteer cultural ambassador for Turkey. Wherever I go, I explain to people that both countries share such a deep and common culinary culture," Ekmekcioglu said.

"By emphasising common recipes like vegetable dishes or fish meals, I am trying to give people insights and tools to see the minority communities living in Turkey and Greece as neighbours. Cooking is a magic formula for boosting friendship and interaction between peoples," she added.

Engin Akin, one of Turkey's best-known culinary experts, agreed, saying there is an interaction in the cooking styles of Turks and Greeks that has been taking place over centuries.

"People know each other better by tasting their respective cuisine. The necessity of eating offers a shared opportunity for people across cultures," Akin told SETimes.

A corner of Athens in the coastal district of Paleo Faliro is home to the largest number of ethnic Greeks from Istanbul in the world, estimated at several thousand.

A neighbourhood landmark, Benito delicatessen has grown into a full-scale wholesale importer since Istanbul native Benito Sanzoni arrived in Athens in 1980 with his family.

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"We see a growing demand for Turkish products, something that wasn't the case in the past. It could be the effect of television or a better promotion of such products, which again emanates from television and film," Apostolos Sanzoni, Benito's son and co-successor, told SETimes.

Sanzoni noted that "polites," as the ethnic Greeks of Istanbul are known, have always been connoisseurs of Turkish products. Native Athenians have recently acquired a greater taste for the products and the cuisine associated with the "Polis," short for Constantinoupolis, as the Byzantine capital was known in Greek for a millennium.

"It's not entirely Turkish or Greek or even Italian; it's not exactly eastern or predominately Armenian. It's a combination of all the cultures that existed and exist in the city. There's a good deal of Lebanese influence, Armenian and Levantine influences as well. It's definitely a combined cuisine," Sanzoni said, defining the centuries-old cuisine or gastronomic culture exuded by the Bosporus metropolis.

Does your family have a favourite dish that is inspired by Greek or Turkish culture? Share it in the comments.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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