“Our business has never been better,” said the man in the small supermarket in a Virginia suburb just outside Washington; he was packing our bags full of familiar food and much-longed-for goodies from Turkey and the Balkans. My Turkish husband and I recently discovered the store and now visit it as often as pandemic grocery shopping demands and allows. “Customers are buying more here than they used to before the pandemic. They are at home, and they want to cook healthier food,” the shopkeeper added. I suppose he was referring primarily to local Americans of Turkish background and other Ottoman cuisine aficionados who enjoy the regional food ingredients sold at the store.
I walked out of the store that day, excitedly heading home to plan a special meal that my younger sister, visiting from New York City, would enjoy with my family, all of us together again. I reminisced about how eagerly I would anticipate each meal that my mom or nena — as I call my maternal grandmother — would affectionately prepare for me when I would fly home to Sarajevo, either from studying abroad in the United States or years later when I’d visit them from Istanbul after getting married in Turkey. I now wanted some of that food, as well as the warmth that would await me every time I reunited with loved ones. Despite some nuances in preparation and taste, the dishes I served during my sister’s visit are renowned both in my husband’s homeland and our own.
Because I am a Bosniak married to a Turk, I am reminded daily how, despite recipe specificities or different variants of names that might be given, the same dishes are cooked in different countries with shared histories. As usual, the food — smoked beef and cheeses for the appetizers, much appreciated börek (filo dough pastries, filled with minced meat in its main Bosnian pie variant), dolma or sarma (stuffed or wrapped vegetables or leaves), ćevapi (grilled mini kebabs), fresh vegetable salad and sweets — ended up as the subject of fun and jokes around our table. Yet, those jokes about “who makes it better, our people or yours?” — let alone the supposed origin of a particular dish — can quickly become politicized fights, both online and offline.
This time, after finishing one of our meals, we continued our conversation about food as I sat with my sister and browsed a thick, red-colored book titled “The Turkish Cookbook” by the acclaimed Istanbul-based chef and creator of the food and culture quarterly Yemek ve Kültür, Musa Dağdeviren. “This book is a culinary introduction to Turkish culture and its regional variations,” writes the author of more than 500 pages of recipes, adding: “Ancient Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and Anatolian Seljuks have all made their unique mark by the reign of the Ottoman Empire for 620 years. Present-day Turkey and its culinary culture is a product of this rich heritage.”
While living in Istanbul for five and a half years, I experienced that culinary magnificence firsthand thanks to my beloved Turkish in-laws. They taught me about the culinary cultures, distinct food rituals, and unique specialties, starting from their family hometown of Yozgat in central Anatolia. Among my favorites is Arabaşı soup — served after dinner and before bedtime on long winter nights. Thus, the original is “in-between soup” (ara aşı), but it changed to arabaşı through repetitive use. Flour, water, and salt are the main ingredients, with chicken or turkey meat, tomato paste, and chili peppers added. My in-laws also introduced me to an incredible variety of seafood and meze appetizers from the Aegean coastal regions and specialties from different regions in Turkey. At first, some of the spices used in those dishes felt excessive or overwhelming to me, as the cuisine I have been familiar with since childhood does not use so many strong, hot spices.
Ultimately, I’ve become a devotee of Ottoman cuisine as my knowledge about it has expanded from the familiar flavors to a whole new palette. I bought “The Turkish Cookbook” because I miss both the dishes and the people I remember learning from and eating with. I also bought the cookbook for my sons, who, in addition to having lived in the United States, have Bosniak and Turkish heritage. Wherever they are, they should know their historical and cultural background and that of their ancestors, not only the food itself but also the stories related to it. For the same reasons, and because I appreciate the inclusive vision of the authors, I also bought “Bosnian Cook” by Lamija Hadžiosmanović, as well as another classic, “Bosnian Cookbook,” on traditional cuisine in Bosnia and Herzegovina, written by Alija Lakišić.
“In the end” Lakišić writes, “one cannot speak of some pure national cuisine … it is very difficult to determine which are the authentic dishes of certain regions and peoples.” Many dishes in Bosnia and Herzegovina have Turkish, Arab, and Persian origins, laden with influences from Italy and Greece. Also notable, of course, is that Bosnia and Herzegovina fell under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a cosmopolitan mix of religions, customs, and cultures.
During my last few visits to Sarajevo, I couldn’t wait to visit the Kaiser Knedle shop selling the dessert variety of “knödel” dumplings, based on popular recipes from Austria. My favorite kind is traditionally made of potato dough and then stuffed with a pitted plum (though dumplings can contain many other sweet or salty fillings), then coated with breadcrumbs. While walking around Baščaršija, the historical and cultural center in Sarajevo’s Old Town where Kaiser Knedle is located, I’d admire aščinicas (“aşçı” means “cook” in Turkish), traditional Bosnian restaurants that have existed since the end of the 15th century. Here, the sound of the adhan prayer emanated from mosques and, depending on the time of the day, commingled with the chiming bells from nearby Catholic or Orthodox churches.
Not everyone agrees with the multicultural interpretations of multinational cuisine. In many places around the world, food has been used to advance chauvinistic political agendas. Sociologist Michaela DeSoucey defined this problem as “gastronationalism” in 2010, though the connection between food and nationalism has been studied for far longer. We have to go back to the 18th and 19th centuries to understand how food nationalism started: with the formation of nation states and the breakup of empires. Historians note that during those two centuries, cuisine, like political borders, became an effective tool for marking new distinctions.
In Turkey, not much was published on Ottoman culinary culture before 1999. In the early days of the Turkish Republic, the government did not use cuisine as an instrument for nation-building. The diversity of “Turkish” cuisine became officially recognized only when Turkey also began to admit that besides ethnic Turks, the country was also home to Kurds, Arabs, Armenians, Jews, Greeks, Bosniaks, Albanians, and various other ethnic groups. Hence, some food writers or chefs today prefer to use the term “Anatolian cuisine,” and many choose to say, “cuisine of Turkey.”
People were told that eating “their” food would somehow make “us” impure.
In the Balkans, it was in the 19th century that food started to matter ideologically. Anything that served to oppose, if not erase, the influences from the Ottoman past was widely accepted as part of forging new national identities. Food was one tool used in this way, despite the enduring presence of similar dishes and serving styles. Cookbooks published in the 1980s for local audiences in Yugoslavia started pushing gastronationalist narratives. People were told that eating “their” food would somehow make “us” impure.
In the 1990s, this gastronationalism went through a much darker episode: the Bosnian genocide. The trauma of the genocide committed against the Bosniaks between 1992 and 1995 by Serbian nationalists continues through denial and triumphalism. While they implemented many specific policies aimed at eradicating “the Turk” (the historically familiar racialization of Balkan Muslims), in 1995 some Bosnian Serb soldiers also invented a popular song: “Remove Kebab.” It then served as praise of wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić, one of the main orchestrators of the genocide. That particular phrase became a slogan for murdering all “kebab-eaters,” or Muslims.
The song went viral in 2006, turning into a meme that, today, one comes across among Islam-haters and genocide cheerers worldwide. The white supremacists and neo-Nazis gladly embraced this “gastronomic racism.” One of those who carried it with pride was the terrorist who massacred 51 innocent worshippers in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019. He had “kebab remover” (among other racist slurs) on his guns and referred to himself as a “kebab removalist” in his online manifesto. He also played the song “Remove Kebab” before committing that horrific human slaughter, as heard in parts of the shooter’s livestreamed atrocity.
The global far-right, white supremacist, and populist movements have adopted such offensive metaphors. Lega Nord in Italy, Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, Vox in Spain, and Front National in France have all used different foods to promote their own alleged “authentic” cuisine as a way of mainstreaming xenophobic and particularly anti-Muslim bigotry in those countries. Crackdowns on kebab street vendors with slogans like, “Neither kebab nor burger, long live the ham and butter sandwich,” are used to describe the rise of kebab shops as part of a “kebabization” of France and oppose the widespread supply of halal meat. These sentiments have been woven into political discourse, with French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin alleging that ethnic food aisles at local supermarkets pose a national security risk.
While it may be futile to stop the evolution of a “national” cuisine, particularly in an era of revivified chauvinism and authoritarian politics, it’s equally impossible to ignore the macédoine of influences that have gone into many of the dishes that even the prideful traditionalists of Europe consume. An honest and open palate, it turns out, is a historical bulwark against the worst contemporary hate-mongers.