Turkish-Israeli ties to revive with taste of nostalgia
The Food for Diplomacy event hosted by Kadir Has University offers a series of culinary/diplomatic brainstorming dinners.The Israeli young woman in the commercial can fix a car and let her boyfriend go on vacation to Thailand without her. Yet neither these nor her other qualities are enough to qualify as a woman ready for marriage until she orders “Turkish coffee.” The commercial on Israeli TV has been seen proof of the deep connection between the Turkish and Israeli nations despite the strains in political ties.
Turkish-Israeli relations are currently like dried vegetables; according to a prominent Israeli journalist. “Their taste is awful when they are dry. But they are still full of potential. When the cook decides that the time has come, it will be no time before they are resuscitated and become a succulent, tasty, dish,” said Arad Nir.
Talking at the event, Food for Diplomacy, a series of culinary/diplomatic brainstorming dinners organized by Kadir Has University, Nir proved an impeccable choice to talk at such an occasion, since he is not only well-informed about Turkish-Israeli ties, but also Turkish cuisine. The author of a book about Istanbul’s culinary culture, “The biggest restaurant on Earth,” Nir admitted to being – culinary-wise – a devoted neo-Ottoman.
As he talked about Turkish-Israeli relations using culinary metaphors, the guests enjoyed Israeli dishes prepared by Ruthie Russo. Born in the United States and raised in Israel, Russo is currently the executive chef of a stylish Tel Aviv coffee brand. Russo is half-Turkish, as her grandparents emigrated from Gaziantep to the U.S. On her first visit to Turkey, Russo prepared a menu that started with chicken soup, followed by Israeli meze.
“I wanted to prepare something different; since we have so much in common, it was a bit of a challenge,” she said. Fish fillet cooked with tomatoes was followed by sirloin with muscat grape marinade.
Nir, introduced by former Turkish ambassador Özdem Sanberk, gave an overview of the current state of affairs in bilateral ties with culinary metaphors.
Below is an excerpt of his speech:
“Food and diplomacy seem the perfect title for my own personal love affair with Turkey. I have been covering Turkey for many years. I developed an uncontrollable affection for Turkish food in this vast country and in this vast city, and I cannot stop cooking it at home. I was so overwhelmed by the Turkish culinary tradition that I wrote a book about Turkish culinary culture and Istanbul as its shrine.
“I think that a working relationship between our two governments will improve the situation all over the Middle East and probably over the whole world, and I am doing whatever I can to convince decision-makers and the public alike that normalization is essential. Whenever an issue that involves Turkey erupts, I am called in and since there is a void in the Turkish embassy in Tel Aviv, when I walk the streets some are confused and refer to me as the ambassador of Turkey in Israel.
“The relations are tense and complicated. Many people are trying to cook a solution, even at this very moment. Each and every one of them is convinced that he has the recipe – that he knows how to do it deus ex machina. But the ingredients for this dish seem to be obvious and one does not have to look for them in exotic places. I will try to explain the Israeli perception and attitude toward Turkey, the Turkish government and the crisis by using my love and affection to Turkish cuisine and culinary culture. I hope it will be easier to digest.
“Some years ago, I was sitting with a few other colleagues in the office of Professor İlber Ortaylı in Topkapı Palace, funnily enough discussing Armenian issues. The conversation heated up to a point that Professor Ortaylı raised his hand, silencing us all; he opened his drawer, got a box of chocolates and offered it to us while citing the Turkish idiom, “Tatlı yiyelim tatlı konuşalım” (Eat sweet, talk sweet). In the current state of the bilateral relations, if you ask the Israelis, they will claim that if one of the parties did try to [offer] sweets, he had the wrong kind. And in excess.
“Well, if we are to discuss the Israel-Turkey relationship from a culinary aspect, it seems that we need all sorts of sweets, which the Turkish cuisine has … to offer, and yet it will take time before the parties will start to talk sweet. I like to compare it to Ayva Tatlısı. It takes lots of cooking before the raw yellowish green quince, which is so tannic – it bites your tongue – gets this amber color and soft-yet-resistant texture that enables us to top it with Kaymak and enjoy the complexity of this spiced fruity sweet taste. The way we serve ayva testifies to the different nature of our nations.
“You Turks, you take your time, you are not in a hurry. You cook Ayva slowly until you get to the desirable product. We Israelis – a startup nation – have no time! The big exit is just around the corner, so we have the Ayva in Kompot which is much quicker to prepare and faster to eat. And because we are in such a hurry, most of the time you will have to spit out the stony remnants of the inner hard part.
“Meanwhile, it seems that even though once in a while the Turkish side does try to talk sweet toward the Israelis, events on the ground quickly turn the attitude and the atmosphere upside-down and the talk is no longer sweet, to say the least. ‘He is very emotional, try to understand,’ his aides tell me [of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan]. And with few exceptions, I tend to understand. After all, what would you expect from a nation that drinks ‘Tavşan Kanı’ [“blood of rabbit,” i.e., tea] all day and ‘Aslan Sütü’ [“lion’s milk, i.e., rakı] at night even though Aslan Sütü is not [Erdoğan’s] cup of tea.
“Talking about drinks, it is interesting to note that regardless of the disputes and slander between the politicians, which takes its toll in the public attitude toward Turkey, a properly cooked coffee in Israel is still Turkish coffee. The Israeli government claims to have found substitutes to all kind of lost cooperation with Turkey. Military, intelligence gathering, regional politics and recreational vacations. Israel uses Greek air space and waters for military exercises and its islands as a substitute for the Antalya Riviera holiday sites. Nevertheless, there is no substitute for Turkish coffee. And we don’t even have automatic Telve in Israel. Properly cooked Turkish coffee is a mark of excellence for the connoisseur.
“We eat lots of börek in Israel. Our börekçi looks different to the Börek Salonu we see around here. From the Ladino Jews, we inherited the habit of eating it with boiled egg but even the Bulgarian-, Moroccan- or Polish-Israeli börekçi will claim that his is the best Turkish börek around. And the high end will offer Aslı Turk böreği.
“The background for the development of the culinary culture of Israel is very similar to that of Turkey. True, we did not rule over Austria, the Balkans, Libya, Yemen and Iraq, at least not yet, but we have Jews that came from all corners of the world, brought their culinary culture with them and fused it over the years to have a local distinct taste. Ottoman Turks who brought Pul Biber from Persia assimilated it in Anatolia and then introduced it to the Hungarians … who made it into the famous paprika.
“In my first Turkish text book there is a story about the Ottomans who introduced Yemeni coffee to the Viennese.
“So let me state open and clear that, culinary-wise, I am a devoted Neo-Ottoman.
“During more than a decade that I have been exploring this wonderful city’s culinary gems, lots has changed here. It took the Israelis a long time to realize that Turkey is a different country. Much different. Turkey had fundamentally changed much before they introduced the term ‘New Turkey.’
Similar in food and diplomacy
“One of my first stops on İstiklal [Avenue] used to be İnci Pastanesi. Two years ago the profiterole place disappeared. Pando the Kaymakçı in Beşiktaş is no longer there, and I found no replacement yet. This is the same with the old relationship between Israel and Turkey. I found and will find new culinary gems here in Istanbul, and Israel must understand that things will never become like they used to be and the basis for normalization must be a new one. Nostalgia is bad.
“[Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu sees the potential and he wants to be an accepted guest in this huge, diverse restaurant named Turkey, one of the biggest establishments in the region. He even prepared the cash in his pocket to pay the bill. But he is uneasy with service. He doesn’t want the waiters to deliberately spill food on him and most of all, he worries that the owner will burst out at him. And he does.
“Similar yet slightly different: The most typical Jewish dish would be chicken soup – highly evaluated for its medicinal qualities to the extent that it is also being referred to as Jewish penicillin, and funny enough, it was scientifically proven to have medical value. In Turkish cuisine, they also use the chicken for medicinal purposes, although in a totally different method that is considered awkward by most Israelis – Tavukgöğsü. Why awkward? Let alone the cooking of the chicken breast in milk but adding sugar to it so it becomes a pudding? The fundamental concept of making dessert out of the chicken breast which is hard for us to apprehend; that’s awkward! But nevertheless tasty.
“Talking about Kosher cooking, there are some in Israel that follow this codex, some who do not and depending on the ruling coalition, the government uses its tools to try convince more people to follow it – just like the Turkish government tries to eliminate alcohol consumption.
“So we are similar more than both sides are willing to admit.
“In the food, in diplomacy and in the diplomatic kitchen as well.
“And meanwhile, all … in Israel and in Turkey too are watching the bilateral relations like the cook watches the dried vegetables and fruits in the markets. These fruits and vegetables were picked in the best of season when they were succulent and nutritious and dried in the sun. They cannot be used as they are because they are dehydrated and hard. They look as if they have wilted. Their taste is awful while they are dry. But still they are full of potential. The vitamins are inside and the complex layers of taste are just waiting to burst. When the cook decides that the time has come and the conditions are right, it will be no time before they are resuscitated, rehydrated and become a succulent, tasty, mouthwatering dish across the Mediterranean Sea. So is the relationship between Israel and Turkey. Like these dehydrated vegetables, they hang there on the wall, reminiscent of the good-old days. The potential is there within, waiting to burst out when the right time will come and then … the sky will be the limit again.
“And last week, as I walked down İstiklal Avenue I saw this sign – İnci is back. I followed it and found my beloved profiterole in a new location. It’s proof that the chance for a comeback and reconstitution is there. Smaller, less visible on a side street, less glamorous in its look, but the profiteroles are as tasty as before! So with this good taste, let’s hope that İnci is a fable for Turkey and Israel.”