Popular Turkish food writer Refika Birgül slams country’s ‘shameful’ importing of pulses
Ayşe Arman - ISTANBUL
Prominent Turkish chef and food writer Refika Birgül has criticized the country’s importing of food products as “shameful,” which she says stems from higher prices for domestic goods due to structural problems in the agricultural sector.
Birgül told daily Hürriyet in an interview on Dec. 29 that the cultivation of pulses on Turkish soil is possible but many big supermarkets still prefer to buy them from abroad.
“Eating black-eyed peas imported from Peru is like treason [to Turkey] … The most painful thing is that Turkey is the native land of these beauties [pulses]. Everything started with big markets’ demand for granting sensational price discounts,” Birgül said.
She noted that certain foreign countries’ effective harvesting made imports cheaper. This leads local farmers to sell their own goods at break-even prices, as a result of which many farmers have been driven out of the pulses market.
“What happens then? [Farmers] are forced to cultivate something else, taking out loans or debts for this. So from being a world number one producer we get to a point where we can no longer produce lentils,” Birgül said.
She criticized the state’s misguided policies “for the last 50 years” in terms of incentives and support given to agriculture and animal husbandry.
“If countries establish a system to suffice for themselves, they can continue their existence ... But today nuts, tea, what, rice, sugar beet, whatever you can think of, are under threat,” Birgül said.
She also said she sees domestic production “as a mission” for herself, as countries become “slaves” to others if they cannot produce enough.
“With no production, the dominant culture comes and forces itself onto you. Information that you have in your blood, in your soul, coming from your ancestors, simply flies away. Think of just a single stuffed vine leaf now and assume you bite it. You have split the leaf and there is a moisture between your lips; there is also the softness of the rice, the complicated feelings of the spices, the sour sweetness of the onion, and then you reach the black currants that you crack open with your teeth. There is so much wisdom in that stuffed vine leaf, so many stories behind it. But now think about biting into a cheap pizza sold by a street vendor. What kind of story, life experience, or taste could it have? This is not just valid for food, it is also true in clothing, music, and family relationships,” Birgül said.
Asked about how Turkey became a tea-producing country in the 20th century, Birgül pointed to agronomist and agriculturalist Zihni Derin.
“Years ago, the country brought over a man called Prof. Tengwall from Sweden to ask him whether banana and tea can be produced in Turkey. He said they could not, after which all allocated funds were shut down and research was ended. But for tea Zihni Derin continued to persevere. The result is that today we are a serious producer of tea. And we are number one in tea consumption. Teapots boil in every house. So now if the smell of tea makes us experience many feelings it is thanks to that wonderful man Zihni Derin,” she said.
She also said many people disagree with her view that production of many agricultural products, currently nonexistent in Turkey, is in fact possible in the country.
“There are some who threaten me and many more who lecture me! But I just tell them about the story of the ‘siyez einkorn,’” Birgül said.
“Siyez einkorn” is the oldest type of wheat still in existence and is only cultivated in the northern Turkish province of Kastamonu. Birgül said it rose to global prominence thanks to wheat producer Mustafa Afacan, after which the production of siyez einkorn expanded in many more farms in Kastamonu.
“Today menus in London cafés often refer to ‘Turkish siyez bulgur.’ What can be more pleasing than this? Production has increased very much and we have now a very valuable, healthy product. Another example is İlhan Koçulu, who has made Kars gruyere world famous; so why shouldn’t the blue cheese of [the Central province of] Konya also be so lucky?” she added.