Stuffed mussels: Turkey’s favorite food on beaches
Nazlan Ertan - ÇEŞME/İZMİROne of my earlier memories of childhood on Boyalık beach, a popular coast near the Aegean city of İzmir, is my mother leaning from the balcony and shouting, her voice dominating the sound of the waves and the wind: “Nazlan, you get away from that man right away.”
So I would helplessly walk away, dark as a gypsy in my bathing suit, casting longing looks over my shoulder to the promises the man held before him - midye dolma, or stuffed mussels, Turkey’s favorite street and beach food.
Three decades and about several thousand midye dolmas later, I am sitting in front of Hüseyin Akagündüz, a.k.a. “The mussel man,” who opens one earthly delight after the other, squeezes some lemon drops on it and offers it to me to gobble it up. I am already on my 15th. Hüseyin himself is wearing the same outfit that I have seen him in the last three decades – black bermudas and a white polo. Only now, the t-shirt has a logo “Midyeci Şakir- founded in 1970.”
“See if you can eat more than Ebru Gündeş,” he tells me, referring to the gaudy-but-skinny singer, wife of Reza Zarrab, currently on trial in the United States. “She can easily put away two packs of 50.” I admit that while I love stuffed mussels, particularly with his own mix of spice and rice, I would have difficulty eating 100 mussels in a single go.
Over the course of years Akagündüz, now the proud owner of a family company called “Midyeci Şakir” which boasts of 46 years of service and some 20 employees, has got himself a list of celebrity clients. Ms. Gündeş, who calls him from the airport as soon as she sets foot in İzmir and orders stuffed mussels all year around, has a special place among mussel fans. Other celebrity clients include Eda Taşpınar, Turkey’s style icon, and a good number of members of the media, showbiz and business worlds. All sorts of people reach him through his website and place special offers: Mussels with shrimp or raisins, to be used at parties, weddings, bride’s henna nights or circumcision ceremonies. Given that shelled seafood is not something that strict Muslims prefer to eat, I am somewhat amazed that mussels stuffed with shrimp can become a favorite circumcision party food, but in the eclectic world of Turkey, anything goes. “I prefer the classic mix,” Akagündüz volunteers.
Akagündüz, a native or southeastern Mardin, came to İzmir in the 1960’s via Adana, the southern province where he worked as a construction worker. In Izmir he learned how to make mussels. He married the daughter of another “mussel man” and they established their own business – his wife Rahime cooking the mussels and Akagündüz selling them on the beach.
“They say that all the mussel men are from Mardin,” he says. “The majority probably does, but the man who taught me the art of mussels was from Hatay [another southeastern province]. He was good, but lazy. I was doing everything, so I decided to go into business for myself.”
When asked whether he thinks that stuffed mussels were Armenian or Greek, he shrugs. “Some of my clients claim it is Armenian, others say it is Greek. Some say, because there are spices in, it must be Middle Eastern. I do not know, nor do I care – as long as people enjoy it.”
Gourmets trace stuffed mussels to 19th century Istanbul and the pioneers as Armenian cooks. But, in the last half century, the popular street food is almost entirely carried out by the people of Mardin – and it is possibly them who introduced less cinnamon and more herbs.
“Mussels which are illegally gathered in Istanbul are brought to İzmir and made into stuffed mussels by people who are neither from Istanbul nor İzmir. Isn’t that an amazing twist of mobility and change of demographics?” asks Nedim Atilla, an İzmir -based gourmet and man of culture. “The culture around food is fascinating – and brings us to essentially political questions on migration and food safety. Here they are, the people of Mardin, who dive into water to gather mussels, without knowing how to swim…”
One of Akagündüz’s sons died in the sea, regulars on the beach tell me. That is why the family would never dive for their own mussels but buy them, to be cleaned by the women in the family the same day that they are sold on the beach.
More summer houses, more mussels
The mussel man says his business grew in parallel to the mushrooming residences on the now-cramped Boyalik beach. “In the beginning, we produced about 200 mussels a day, trying to see if I could sell them on the public beach and the German and Dutch tourists of Altın Yunus, a huge holiday resort,” he says.
Since then, the virgin beach has become a place of hundreds of holiday homes which see into each other’s porches and balconies; not to mention even more cramped beach clubs. A chic holiday resort, 7800, controversially towers over the beach, where most of his “celebrity customers” stay. The one-man-show has become a family production; the women in the family do the cooking and the men – Akagündüz, his sons, his nephews and grandchildren – sell them on the beach. He has chosen to name the business after his older son, Şakir, rather than give his name.
Their day starts at dawn, when the mussels, delivered at their home the previous evening, are cleaned out. Then Rahime starts preparing the filling – rice and spices. Then a half-cooked rice filling is put in the mussels, to be recooked. Once prepared, these are put into bags of 50. Huseyin and the other men in the family will sell them until 5:30 p.m. on the beach.
“I am 62 now, but people still ask for me,” he said with a touch of pride. “Besides, I like seeing old clients – many of the children who were on the beach have now kids of their own.” He pointed out a young woman with a child. “She is a doctor now.”
Although many doctors warn that mussels on an open tray on the street or on the beach may not be the highest standard, Akagündüz assures that the mussels are kept in a cold refrigerator by the beach and only are in the sun for half an hour. “The consumption is too fast,” he said. “My top consumer once ate 400 in an afternoon.”
I hear the warning of my mother from the balcony and feel a moment of teenage rebellion as I down my
50th stuffed mussel. I may end up beating Ebru Gündeş after all.