Preserving Anatolian cuisine 'requires a national policy'
Barçın Yinanç - ISTANBUL
Anatolian cuisine has remained a hidden jewel for years, but in addition to promoting it abroad, Turkey needs to first preserve the traditional culinary culture, says chef Maksut Aşkar. Preserving traditions calls for a national policy, according to Aşkar.
Would it be correct to say that the name of your restaurant, Neolokal, represents your philosophy?
Definitely. Neolokal gives the message we want in both languages, as “neo” and “lokal” are used in Turkish as well. We choose this name because we want to convey our local culinary culture to the world in the most accurate way. Additionally, the name also sounds like an international brand.
Our point of departure is this: I am not an Italian, neither French nor Japanese. I can really cook Italian dishes well. But at the end of the day since I am not an Italian it would end up being a perfect copy. Why should I copy another cuisine when I have my own?
If I am the child of these lands, then I have to first learn our own culinary culture. That’s why we decided to remain loyal to the Turkish cuisine in Neolokal.
So, no spaghetti in your restaurant?
You can have erişte! In short, we are reproducing our culinary culture and tradition with a modern approach and techniques. We are not talking about changing or redefining it. On the contrary we are trying to preserve our traditions. That’s why each dish is cooked in a traditional way; they are just adjusted to present-day conditions.
What has led you towards this philosophy?
I am 43 and I feel very fortunate. My mother used to cook unbelievable dishes. I also lived with my grandmother for two years. I still recall the dishes I ate when I was six.
I feed from my childhood memories. My culinary culture is based on these memories. Unfortunately, present day conditions, globalization; the fact that you prepare a product to provide to large masses drift us away from the tastes of our childhood.
Frankly, I miss missing strawberries in winter. The aubergine I eat in the winter is not the aubergine dish I used to eat in my childhood. Not only do I have to define accurately my eating habits, I also have to define accurately my consumption habits. We have to find out where exactly a product is being grown the best and include it to our menu even if it is for only two weeks.
So, one of your motivations is your fear that Turkey is losing its culinary traditions?
We are worried about it. And especially we are trying not to lose hope of the people that will carry on our profession.
A new generation is coming. Look at Istanbul, it hosts nearly a quarter of the country. There is almost no green left in the city. Young people do not have access to cultivated lands. They have left their homes, families to come to big cities to sustain a livelihood and they do not cook at home. They don’t have access to traditions.
We are trying to be role models to the next generations so that they also try to keep our traditions alive.
In your eyes, what makes Turkish cuisine so rich?
To explain the Anatolian cuisine, we first have to talk about geography. You don’t have to attach an identity to this geography. The culture and traditions of more than 70 civilizations have been carried to our days. These lands have hosted one of the world’s biggest empires. Different identities have been traveling from one corner to another, and while doing that they have carried their culture and traditions.
I, for instance, have Syrian roots. I was born in İskenderun, my parents are from Antakya. Until 70 years ago, we were citizens of Syria. But before that we were for 30 years under French administration. We are coming from lands that hosted Jews, Christians and Muslims from different sects. So, we are from Mesopotamia. The biggest characteristic of Anatolia is that it is a majority of minorities. Everybody is a minority. That’s why we call it Anatolian cuisine:
Because if you call it Turkish cuisine, it would be unfair to an Armenian or Circassian.
Another characteristic of Anatolia is that you can experience different climates at different times of the year. Currently it is 12 degrees Celsius in Istanbul and minus 20 degrees Celsius in Erzurum. Artichoke is harvested in the summer for three weeks in the Mediterranean, then it starts to be cultivated in the Aegean going up north. We are talking about a richness in terms of the number of products that you can reach in different corners of Anatolia. That’s why it is called the “fertile crescent.”
In Anatolia, women cultivate the land, carry the wood home, cook and take care of the children. As she cannot do everything by herself; she teaches how to cook to the eldest daughter and the one after. Then when the daughter gets married, she would learn new things from her mother-in-law. That’s how our culinary culture reached the present day. In order to be aware of this richness all you have to do is to be a guest in a house in Anatolia. As foreigners have no such luxury, Anatolian cuisine has remained a hidden jewel. What we are trying to do is to share this hidden jewel, to bring it to restaurant tables.
It seems Turkey failed to market its cuisine to the world.
But before marketing, if you want these traditions to be preserved you need to first make them sustainable.
Gastronomy schools are opening one after the other. But you have to first raise teachers that can continue our traditions. You have to say “the education should be based on Anatolian type not French or Italian. Priority needs to be given to our culture. This needs to become a national policy.
What should be the roadmap? What would you tell the Culture and Tourism Ministry that declared 2020 as the year of Anatolian cuisine?
Those who do not have traditions cannot have a future. In order to have a sustainable future, you need to render traditions sustainable. The ministry should support researchers and projects.
Any advice on agriculture?
We need a program for traditional products. I dream of using the products of a farmer that cultivates in these lands. If I go to a market and see that a product that can be grown in our lands comes from Canada; this clearly shows that there is problem in our agriculture policy.
If you were to cook at home for a foreign guest and “this is our dried bean stew” and if by accident your guest were to see that the bean is coming from another country, wouldn’t you be ashamed? There is definitely need for reform in our agriculture policy.
Is there anything that differs Anatolian cuisine from the others?
Currently fermentation is extremely popular in the world. This is rather being taken from the Far East. But this technique has been there for centuries in Anatolia. This is absolutely not new for us. But it seems we have never felt the need to promote it. We never had an aim to make our dishes accessible to everybody. What we do in Neolokal is invite foreign cooks and cook together so they can learn our cuisine and share it with the world. Everyone is talking about Peruvian cuisine. Currently the trade attaché of Peru in Istanbul is visiting restaurants, promoting its products and saying we can bring them to you. Is there any such national policy in Turkey?
WHO IS MAKSUT AŞKAR?
Maksut Aşkar is the owner and head chef of Neolokal restaurant.
Born in 1976 in the southeastern province of Hatay, he studied tourism administration at Boğaziçi University. Initially he set out to be an executive rather than a chef in the gastronomy industry.
He defines himself as a “taste designer.” He designed different tastes and work as an advisor for companies like Hillside Beach Club in Fethiye, Sofa Hotel in Istanbul and Maçakızı Hotel in Bodrum.
He worked in several restaurants like Multi and LilBitz In 2012, he became the chef and partner of Sekizistanbul. He started a TV series called “The Art of Taste.”
He has designed foods for the receptions of world giants like Donna Karan and Louis Vuitton. He has invited several foreign chefs and hosted them in Turkey’s different cities.