A Mediterranean food odyssey

A Mediterranean food odyssey

A Mediterranean food odyssey

The Mediterranean is all about motion. The motion in the sense of human movement, be it for trade, voluntary or involuntary migration, adventure, or displacement in all senses, the peoples of the Mediterranean have been in motion; throughout history, countless cultures have come and gone. Human movements across the shores of the Mediterranean are like the never-ending waves of the mighty sea. With this constant movement, ideas, objects, things and documents traveled, changed hands and influenced one another. The past 500 years, in particular, have greatly shaped our cultures. The EU funded Project titled “People in Motion: Entangled Histories of Displacement across the Mediterranean [1492-1923]” or shortly PIMo, led by Professor Giovanni Tarantino of the University of Florence, aims at exploring forms of displacement and dispossession across the Mediterranean from the 15th century to the present. This week, on Friday, July 7, Özyeğin University Gastronomy and Culinary Arts Department will host a workgroup under the PIMo, focusing on foodways across the Mediterranean countries.

The description and objective of the four-year global multidisciplinary research project are explained as: “The project provides a critical historical context and understanding for the current migration crisis in Europe in terms of the intensity of emotional responses of displaced peoples and the communities they orbit and join. It investigates multiple historical case studies of the movement of people through religious persecution, slavery and indentured labour, trade, exploration, and imperialism, curiosity, and environmental and social catastrophe. Within the deeply entangled or intertwined history and cultures of the Mediterranean, the project introduces the term ‘displacement’ as a way to reconceptualise the movement of people with awareness, historical acuity, and compassion. Attending to the phenomenon of displacement as a connective tissue of human experience does not presume [or judge] the conditions of movement [voluntary or involuntary], but seeks to recover and understand individuals and communities in light of their particular experiences of re/location. By tracing the entangled movement of people–and the objects, writing, and ideas that accompany them–this project understands displacement and dislocation as shared human experience, while remaining attentive to its geographical, political, and historical specificities.”

Mediterranean, obility

The PIMo project involves four workgroups focusing on things, ideas, paper and people in motion. When the latter, the movement of people, is concerned, food inevitably comes into focus. All the countries around the Mediterranean have countless intersection points on the axis of food. Trade and cultural relations have influenced this mobility as much as wars, conquests and migrations. After the discovery of America and the opening of new sea routes around the African continent, novel foods came to the Mediterranean basin, and thanks to the increasingly vibrant trade, many commonalities have emerged between Mediterranean countries, especially in terms of food. This culinary commonality stems not only from sharing a similar climate and a common sea but also from the inevitable reflection of the cultural influences of sovereign countries on each other.

Even the food journey of the last 500 years in this constantly in motion geography is mind-boggling, especially when we think of the period between two critical dates, 1492 marking both the expulsion of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, and the start of the voyage towards America, and 1923, signing of the Lausanne Treaty resulting in the traumatic population exchange between Greece and Türkiye. It is not easy to imagine the cuisines of the Mediterranean countries before the Colombian exchange; today. It is almost impossible to imagine Mediterranean cuisine without tomatoes, not to mention peppers, beans and even corn and potatoes, which are very popular in Mediterranean islands such as Crete and Cyprus, where the best potatoes are grown due to the quality of the soil.

When we think of Istanbul, many flavors also came to us by the seaway. We called the spice bazaar, whose initial name was Yeni Çarşı (New Bazaar), the Egyptian Bazaar because it was thought that everything that came to the shores of the Golden Horn came from Egypt. We called corn, which originally came to the Mediterranean from the Americas, “Dane-i Mısr” (Egyptian grain) thinking that it came from Egypt. Same way, the Venetians called maize, “Grano Turco” meaning Turkish grain, as anything that came from the sea was supposedly brought by Ottoman merchants.

Exciting topics

The forthcoming workshop at Özyeğin University, titled “Emotions, Food and Mobility in the Mediterranean (1492-1923),” is totally centered around foodways. Organized by the head of the Gastronomy and Culinary Arts Department, Özge Samancı, and Rosita D’Amora from the University of Salento, the number of speakers is small but concise. Professor Edhem Eldem from Boğazici University will be giving the keynote speech titled “Food as [yet another] dimension of Orientalism.”

Although the speakers are mostly academic (except for me), the topics will appeal to everyone interested in food. One very interesting speaker for me is undoubtedly Bulgarian historian Stefan Detchev. I had the chance to listen to him previously at a symposium at Giessen University. He gave the most entertaining, yet historically enlightening speech I have ever heard on Šopska salad, which is similar to our shepherd’s salad, inspired by Bulgaria’s flag colors and considered the utmost national dish. This time his topic is about a cookbook on Istanbul Cuisine, published in Bulgarian in 1870. Albena Shkodrova, also from Bulgaria, had previously given a very interesting talk on the tripe soup, an Ottoman legacy in Bulgaria, at the Dublin Gastronomy Symposium.

This time her topic title is enough to intrigue interest: “Meet Yani the Little Greek, Ivan the Kazak and the Viennese Floozy: Ethnos and Food in the Urban Centers of Bulgaria by the Start of the 20th century.” Rosita D’Amora will speak on “Butter for the Envoy: Food and Diplomacy between Naples and the Ottoman Empire,” which will open a window on Italian and Ottoman relations. Marie-Hélène Sauner-Leroy from Galatasaray University will focus on the Balkans and discuss food through memory and emotions with her title “Foods, Memory and Senses: Remembering Balkans by the Body” while Özge Samancı will talk on Istanbul cuisine in the 19th century: The Reproduction of Multiple Food Identities.”

Lastly, the topic I will be presenting starts in 1492, with the title “A Sephardic Culinary Journey Across the Mediterranean” scrutinizing the Iberian roots of Sephardic cuisine in the Ottoman lands, especially in today’s Türkiye. The talks are open not only to gastronomy and history students but also to anyone interested in food culture and history. An event not to miss!

Aylin Öney Tan,