Why you should care
The heart of a country can often be found in its kitchens.
Just fifteen minutes away from Gezi Park, Istanbul, 30 young volunteer chefs are brewing up their own Turkish revolution — a foodie one, that is.
For 60 hours a week, 22-year-old Engin Önder and his cooking colleagues toil over pots and pots at Gastronomika, which bills itself as the one and only community kitchen in Turkey. They hope to revamp the perception abroad of Anatolian cuisine to show that it’s much more than greasy kebabs and sugary Turkish delights, Önder says as he sits down at Gastronomika’s 40-foot kitchen counter. “Why can’t höşmerim be as cool as cheesecake?” he asks.
Salty goose meat from Kars, fresh pickled peaches from Bursa and creamy horse milk from Istanbul …
According to Önder, one of the kitchen’s three co-founders, something is always steaming at Gastronomika. Salty goose meat from Kars, fresh pickled peaches from Bursa and creamy horse milk from Istanbul are plentiful in this experimental kitchen. Here, all the volunteers wear their white chef coats, working diligently to re-create long-lost Turkish, Armenian and Cypriot recipes that have become trapped in the backwaters of Anatolia, Önder says.
The most delectable part, though, is probably the price: Food is given away free of charge to anyone who walks in. Gastronomika’s doors are always open; volunteer chefs are usually there from morning until night, re-re-creating, researching and sometimes reinventing Anatolian recipes. Moreover, the state-of-the-art kitchen is open to any Istanbulites who want to whip up their own three-course Anatolian menu — free ingredients and cooking utensils included. They’re donated by Gastronomika’s loose network of chefs, food historians, nonprofit organizations and community members. A few months ago, a group of tiny 7-year-olds reserved the kitchen to make grandma’s lokma, a traditional dough that is fried in hot oil and covered in honey.
All culinary concoctions made at Gastronomika are recorded in the kitchen’s digital archive, what Önder calls the “Wikipedia for Anatolian food.” The meals are entered into the archive in the form of videos, photos and Web links that are stored in an online database. So far, Önder has amassed thousands of recipes and cooking techniques this way, through “the contribution of people,” he says.
With seasonal ingredients and traditional Anatolian fare, Önder hopes to slowly chip away at the blight of cheap Turkish food that has taken over Istanbul and beyond. But Ansel Mullins, a food writer in Istanbul, is not sold on Gastronomika’s big plan to popularize Anatolian cuisine around the world. He sees the efforts to bring these traditional food products and recipes into a contemporary context as a kind of rebranding. “It’s just a matter of presentation,” Mullins says. Such gastronomic goals are lofty and it feels a bit “think tanky,” he adds.
Önder wants to position Gastronomika above all other culinary institutions in Turkey. It’s unclear where the project will end up, but as the famous Turkish proverb goes, “Free vinegar is sweeter than honey.” And if that free dinner comes with homemade Turkish wine and rustic buffalo cheese, all the better for putting Anatolian cuisine back on the map.