Illegal Food Systems: Street Mussels in Istanbul

By Iris Anliamater (Istanbul). Iris becomes acquainted with a family that migrated hundreds of miles to sell mussels–a food they had never tasted before. Through this family, she learns more about how the illegal sale of mussels on the streets of Istanbul and how it is a major source of food and livelihood in the city.

Stuffed mussels are a way of life in Istanbul. Usually consumed by young people after parties, they are a prevalent night-life food. My friend Seda points out, “They are an endless habit. It is not possible to stop once you start eating stuffed mussels.” Seda, in fact, has no idea how many stuffed mussels she’s eaten.

Istanbul’s Stuffed Mussels from The Miracle of Feeding Cities on Vimeo.

Stuffed mussels are usually prepared differently across cultures. Armenians have the best and the oldest recipe according to most people. Usually the mussels are stuffed with boiled rice, black pepper, oil, and a hint of cinnamon. Lemon juice is usually added right before being eaten. Although there are a few establishments that sell good mussels, these bits of seafood are usually a street food. In general, street food is incredibly common in Istanbul.

Ironically, however, much of the city’s street food—particularly the sale of mussels—is illegal. A recent article described the “cat and mouse” game that occurs day to day between city police and street vendors. Regulations are rigid: no licenses are permitted to mussel vendors. At all. Period. Vendors stay on the look out for municipal police and will quickly break down their operation if they see an official coming. If the municipality catches an illegal street vendor, the seller’s cart is confiscated and they will have to pay a fine to regain their equipment back from the city.

Despite the dodgy behavior and lack of safety certifications, however, many people still eat street shellfish. “He has the best mussels! And I’ve known him for 10 years. Me and my friends eat from here and nothing has happened to us yet. So why should I go looking for a certificate or something ?” said Zeynep, 27, who is an “addict” of mussels sold on the street by Serkan, 40, who has been a vendor for 20 years. Trust trumps regulation, so it seems.

But, where do these street vendors come from? Why do they choose a livelihood with such risk? One answer is that these vendors are largely immigrant populations, some from within Turkey itself. The article previously sited as well as this article in the Atlantic describes the tendency for immigrants of certain origins to enter the same trade as those that migrated to Istanbul before them.

I got to know one such family that broke their way into Istanbul’s world of street food for a better life. I wanted to learn more about the people who make part, if not all, of their living selling mussels to loyal customers, albeit, on the sly. Trust, and immense leaps of faith, and resilience, I found, were important to become an Istanbul street food vendor.

A Leap of Faith for “A Nice Looking Stone”

The story starts several years ago in Muş, one of the eastern cities in Turkey. There, a young boy named Kemal struggled with a heart condition. Kemal’s mother and father, Ayse and Mehmet, know that their son needs better medical care and they begin considering moving to a larger city. Ayse has a friend who started selling mussels in Izmir–a city to the west of Mus–who became successful from the venture. After some convincing from her friend, Ayse and her husband decide to follow suit and move to Izmir to begin selling mussels.

Ironically, Ayse was astonished not only to learn that selling mussels is lucrative, but that they are even edible. Living in a land-locked city, neither Ayse nor the other members of her family had ever seen a mussel in person. Of course they had heard of mussels, ” It was just a nice looking stone or something that we had seen maybe a couple of times on TV,” says Kemal, but they never imagined the shellfish would be the eventual basis for their livelihood.

Kemal’s father, Mehmet, was convinced migration was the right choice for his son, but he feared for his family’s cultural and moral compass. A conservative man, migrating to a new city and selling mussels, which aren’t a part of his culture, made Mehmet quite uneasy. “I felt like I was betraying my own culture. I wanted my kids to grow up with my culture, in the way I was raised. I was taking them to a city that we didn’t know. It made me feel like I was a bad father,” Mehmet explained. “I also kept wondering: What are these mussels? I hope they are not illegal or something against our religion!”

After finally moving to Izmir, Mehmet began working with a family friend who was already a mussel vendor. Over time, Kemal–who had improved since moving to Izmir–and his two brothers began working with their father at the mussel stand. Ayse was left at home, but not for long. Ayse decided she also wanted to sell mussels, but it is highly unusual for women to become mussel vendors. She had to be creative.

Secretly, Ayse began talking with other mussel suppliers. She learned all about supplying mussels, how to prepare them and how to sell them. Although Mehmet was initially unhappy when he discovered what Ayse had been scheming, she now works with her family and oversees five employees.

After working in İzmir for 5 years, Kemal’s brother, Erdem, decided to move to İstanbul as a vendor. Erden calculated he could make three times more money in a month selling mussels in Istanbul than in Izmir.

Erdem’s decision caused a dilemma–everyone in the family also wanted to move to Istanbul, but Ayşe had made it big in Izmir and no one wanted to lose all that she had accomplished.

The family decided to branch apart. Ayse keeps her business running in Izmir while Mehmet and his sons live and work in Istanbul. Of course, Mehmet comes and goes between the cities often. Although a difficult choice, Kemal has successfully managed his heart condition and is now attending school to become an accountant in Istanbul.

Today, the three sons of Mehmet and Ayse are well known and beloved in Taksim, the neighborhood in Istanbul where they sell their mussels. Mussel enthusiasts know that the three brothers make up a family business, and their customers are happy to support them. “It is like a tradition to eat from this vendor. Who cares if they don’t have a certificate? Their mother prepares the mussels and it is very trustworthy. Much more trustworthy than some big seller, who has a bunch of paper work,” says Seda, an avid supporter of the brothers.

Map showing important points in Istanbul. At proper zoom, the map will show Ankara, Istanbul, Izmir, Manisa and Mus. Click the drop pins for descriptions.

One of Many

The story of how Kemal’s family entered the mussel trade is likely representative of many who migrate to sell street food in Istanbul.

But how does the supply chain of this below-the-radar operation compare with establishments that do sell mussels legally? In short, it’s difficult to say.

When it comes to restaurants or corner stores, it’s not too hard to wrangle where their supplies come from. Most source their mussels from bigger companies in Istanbul. Interestingly enough, there is one company in Manisa, over 300 miles from Istanbul, that has earned many of the restaurants’ trust as a supplier. The company is called Midye Dünyası (Mussel World) and although the distributor isn’t part of the Istanbul community, many buyers still want to work with them. One buyer remarked, ” It does not matter if the product is from Istanbul or not, it only matters if it is safe and good enough to serve. Trust is the most important issue here, we trust them and we buy from them.” Since 2012, Midye Dünyası has maintained a website from which you can order mussels. Trust and ease.

Kemal and many street vendors, on the other hand, are hesitant just to be photographed, let alone disclose their supply chain. Therefore, it’s difficult to know where exactly their mussels come from, other than “local fisherman.”

With all this skirting around the law among street vendors, is there reason to be wary of street mussels? Because the vendors operate outside the sanctioned food system, there is no accountability that their mussels don’t contain heavy metals or carry E. Coli. There is one National Institute of Health (NIH) study about the safety of street mussels in Ankara, Turkey (note that the street mussel industry in Turkey is prevalent enough to have a U.S. NIH study). In Ankara, the study found, almost half of the mussels could have posed a risk for food borne illness. Yet, the study was only about Ankara, a city located over 250 miles further inland than coastal Istanbul. Otherwise, it is difficult to turn up any reports of food poisoning from street food in Istanbul.

On the streets of Istanbul, however, passers-by aren’t thinking about NIH studies or paperwork. The taste of street vendor’s mussels and the trust customers feel toward the people running these stalls are determining factors. “The taste is never the same [in supermarkets] since they are not fresh and not from street sellers” said Murat, 21.

Considering all the enthusiasm from customers, it is curious why the municipality has a zero tolerance policy for mussel street vendors. Could it perhaps be that many of the foods so strictly regulated are pedaled by immigrants of other origins?

Why or however the policies came to be, the phenomenon nonetheless stands. Within relatively short periods of time, entire families, like Kemal’s, are adopting unknown foods and diving into an illegal food industry in order to lift themselves out of hard times. The families are resilient against the constant threat of fines and confiscations and in turn are greeted by trusting and willing customers. These vendors are the unsung heros that feed the undocumented, yet overwhelmingly popular and trusted industry of street mussels in Istanbul. It’s might cause you to wonder how many other black market food industries support migrants or otherwise entrepreneurially spirited people.

Posted in Istanbul