The New Flavor of Istanbul: Sapor

The New Flavor of Istanbul: Sapor

Sapor-Istanbul is the name of a new food conference that describes itself as an old school symposium. In an age when everything is about entertainment, or being cool, hip and trendy, when everything is consumed rapidly and even the much-needed cultural content is expected to be delivered only like a miracle instant pill, I call this a courageous act.

In our contemporary times, food studies are on the rise. That is for sure. It is an age of celebrity chefs, and chefs need stories. The more their stories have reference to geography, history and tradition, the better. But do they have the basics for such story building? That I find quite doubtful, especially when that miracle pill is not digested properly, it is bound to end in sewage, the ultimate wasteland of once seemingly brilliant ideas. I have my own delete button when a chef blabbers words about Göbeklitepe as the start of all civilizations, or what they call the epic history of tribal migrations. To me, it sounds like a desperate try to market a product that has no relation whatsoever with that history. I think nobody without basic knowledge of historical facts should try to use history to sell food. That is my verdict.

But of course, history sells. People like to talk about the past. Perhaps it is because there is a universal belief that history repeats itself.

History is a reminder that allows us to understand ourselves better, especially when we delve deeper into the daily life of our ancestors. There is always a curiosity factor in history, which catches the interest of people. Like an archaeologist digging a trench, a historian browses through pages of a manuscript to find that hidden morsel of knowledge that will illuminate unrevealed secrets of the past.

That curiosity factor is what led food writer and photographer, known for her blog, “istanbulfood,” Tuba Şatana, the creator and founder of Sapor Istanbul to initiate such an event to create a medium to reach more serious knowledge in history. Her story begins with a few symposium proceedings she had in her library. She says, “The more I browsed through the pages, the more I felt that gap. It was the proceedings of a food symposium organized in Istanbul by Feyzi Halıcı back in 1986, the first one of a series. They had been in my library for more than 20 years. The pages were worn out being revisited countless times. They had become even more beautiful by age. I was missing that very first congress as if I were there. I was actually yearning for the good old times when such congresses were the norm.”

Sapor Istanbul emerged from this aspiration. Şatana’s quest for learning led her to create a medium for like-minded people, a medium for the curious where subjects would be presented by experts to an audience sharing the same desire for learning. She adds with enthusiasm that this first meeting will hopefully initiate a base where the symposium proceedings will inspire many others to follow, deepening their knowledge and leading to further studies.

Sapor Istanbul will be organized every year with a new theme. Of course, the first year’s theme had to be Istanbul itself, the giant megacity that has been home to many civilizations throughout history, a gargantuan belly hard to feed.

When the theme is Istanbul, two big names had to be present, one for the Byzantine period and one for the Ottoman period. The first is Andrew Dalby, known for his studies on Byzantine period cooking, the author of “Flavours of Byzantium” and “Tastes of Byzantium: The Cuisine of a Legendary Empire.” He was kind enough to accept Şatana’s invitation and traveled all the way from France to Istanbul by train.

Ottoman period scholars studying food are numerous, but it was Soraiya Faroqhi that had to present as a leading authority on Ottoman history. She is also known for her extensive studies on Ottoman culture and daily life. Earlier periods of the city before the Byzantine era were covered by Oğuz Tekin, a professor of archaeology and history who specializes in ancient numismatics and commercial weights. When one delves into the Ottoman court kitchen, the topics seem endless. Gastronomy historian Özge Samancı who specializes in the late Ottoman period gave an enlightening talk on the hierarchy at the Ottoman court table. Of course, history was not always glorious, said researcher Aylin Doğan who opened a totally new perspective for the audience talking about the short but troublesome post-World War I period when Istanbul was occupied by British, French and Italian forces, the times of scarcity.

Feeding this giant city had always been a major issue. Arif Bilgin, a leading scholar who is known for his studies on how provisioning was organized in Ottoman times, gave a thorough framework that can guide today’s food research studies in many ways.

There were many other researchers, food writers and old school tradesmen who participated in the conference. Finally, this information-packed event, what Şatana calls as an “old school symposium,” was held in an old school, Fener Rum Lisesi, in one of the most iconic historic buildings of Istanbul.

Istanbul is our home, our table, our flavor of life, our taste. I hope Sapor Istanbul will be as flavorful as its name suggests, places itself in our yearly circles and becomes a tasty ingredient in our lives.