Food, fads and the future: Is siyez saved?
Nowadays, every celebrity chef in Turkey worth their salt uses “siyez” wheat bulgur.
It is almost an obligatory, must-use ingredient – not necessarily for its taste, which is amazing anyway, but to pay homage to the culinary heritage of this land and demonstrate the care for heirloom seeds, the drive to save the past for the future, the need to safeguard biodiversity and so on.
Saving siyez must be the biggest food fad in Turkey in recent years, but will it be enough to secure the bulgur’s future?
Turkey is home to the oldest varieties of wheat; in fact, some are still cultivated on a small scale by rural farmers, while others grow wild in the remote landscapes of Anatolia.
Siyez (Triticum monococcum) is an ancient wheat variety that was little recognized until a few decades ago, when it was on the verge of extinction. In the northern province of Kastamonu, it was mostly grown as fodder, with a little portion kept aside for the peasants’ own consumption, mainly in the form of bulgur.
It was not deemed to be of commercial value, as other subsequent industrial wheat varieties dominated the market, mostly because they yielded a higher crop. Siyez was also not in vogue because it wasn’t considered suitable for bread making as it was hard to hull by traditional methods and had very low gluten levels that precluded it from rising much.
Despite this, it was ideal for making bulgur, which is parboiled and dried cracked wheat, a staple of Anatolian cuisine. Siyez makes an incredibly wholesome tasty bulgur pilaf that is satisfying with its rich nutty flavor, which is probably the reason why peasants continued to sow it for their own consumption.
In recent years, siyez has become a fad, emerging almost instantly as the most sought-after wheat variety in the Turkish market. The reason mostly stemmed from dietary concerns; it was the new functional food that was miraculously low in gluten and high in protein.
Quickly, it was discovered by doctors and dieticians who kept appearing on TV shows, bragging about the virtues of siyez. Suddenly, there was not a single dietician in the whole country that would not suggest eating siyez flour bread, as if they were giving a lifesaving drug prescription to a desperate patient.
Every bakery felt obliged to offer siyez breads, at times suspiciously fluffy and well risen, despite the lack of gluten in the so-called miracle grain. We all know that siyez is pretty much like rye bread, meaning it often has a dense, brick-like texture. Industrial biscuits joined the fashion; supermarket shelves were occupied with fiber-rich siyez diet biscuits, galettes, grissinis, biscottis, spaghettis and the like.
Chefs were even more eager to join the siyez fad. All of a sudden, it was the star dish on the menus of high-end restaurants, appearing with trendy hybrid names like “siyez risotto.”
The rise of siyez from rags to riches seems to be a success story that will secure its sustainability for the future, but is that really so? Some recent findings reveal that the reality might be the opposite. I had my suspicions during a recent visit to Kastamonu, while leading a gastronomy tour.
We ate a lot of siyez-based dishes and wheaten-baked goods, but there was a strange sense of dubiousness in the air. Every single bread-maker insistently repeated that theirs were made of 100 percent siyez flour. Obviously, there was something wrong.
When I probed further, Mustafa Afacan, a friend who actually facilitated siyez’s road to stardom, angrily spat out his frustration. For decades, he had tried to introduce the public to siyez in the hopes that it would aid its survival, presenting it at all fairs and gastronomy events, talking about it at all levels, getting the product a Slow Food Presidia listing and obtaining a Geographical Indication Certificate. He succeeded in making a name for the bulgur, so what could be wrong?
He mentioned a recent study by Kastamonu University. One professor tested various siyez bulgur varieties in the market to compare their protein content and gluten levels. To his surprise, the results were very questionable. Fearing that he had done something wrong, he repeated all the tests, only to obtain the same results.
It appears that most siyez products on the market are not actually made from the original grain, but from other wheat varieties with a similar appearance that are grown elsewhere from their native land but marketed as siyez. Further research reveals that even imported Ukrainian wheat grain can pass themselves off as so-called local siyez products.
Afacan, sadly, added that no big buyer actually buys siyez from local growers. Despite the rising interest in siyez products, not much has changed for the peasants who initially safeguarded its existence.
Kastamonu farmers still get just a pittance for the grain, instead of the profit they deserve. Peasants have only small parcels of lands, and big industry wants big farming.
Cooperatives are weak in Turkey, if they exist at all, and no big dealer wants to deal with a group of locals who can only deliver by the bucket-load in comparison to their standards.
What’s more, there are no effective control systems that can control the labeling systems in the market to ensure that the word “siyez” can only be used for the authentic, local grain. So it seems that a battle has been won and lost at the same time.
We need to scrutinize cases like siyez, their status today and whether this rising popularity in superhero crops actually safeguards their future. Will siyez wheat be sustainable in the future or will we be eating another new, transformed, “neo-ancient” grain tomorrow?