Stories of Immigrants in Istanbul…Told Through Pastry.

By Cagan Duran (Istanbul). A single simit bakery shows us the importance of relationships and historical tradition in feeding a city. Simit are an important form of bread in Istanbul, yet not many old-fashioned bakeries, like the one Cagan writes about, still exist. Within this bakery, we find a group of men who came to Istanbul for more opportunities, and once there, they found simit. A two part story, this first portion explores the human spirit behind those making the simit. Part two will reveal the bakery’s relationship with their clients.

The old, narrow, hilly streets in Istanbul are like hundreds of capillaries seeking their end—the Bosphorus.

As I walk through the capillaries this particular morning, I see people beginning to awaken, seagulls are upon the water, cats and dogs quarrel, craftsmen open shops. History is alive when you walk through this downhill maze toward the riverbed. I am amazed by a forgotten fountain—probably Ottoman—as I walk onward.

It is 8:30 in the morning on a cool, calm Sunday in March. I’m beginning to smell burning sesame as I pass the fountain. This smell must be coming from the old simit bakery I’m looking for. Old-old-old. Everything is old here. And I wonder: will I be able to find the old taste of simit that I used to know?

The street leading to the bakery and the Bosphorus.

The street leading to the bakery and the Bosphorus.

I find my bakery: Kardeşler Bakery. Four eyes meet me as I enter, silently asking “who are you?” and “what are you doing here half past eight on a Sunday morning?” I asked for Sami Bey, the owner of the bakery. I’m told to wait until he finishes his morning prayer, and then he will show me how simit is produced—the reason for my visit. I feel a bit strange—these guys don’t seem to want to talk much. Sami told me yesterday, when you arrive we will be finishing the third production, and you will catch the fourth one. The bakery bakes four big batches of simit each morning, by 8:30am, they’re already almost done with their third.

Bakery with delivery truck in front.

Bakery with delivery truck in front.

I finally meet Sami as he returns from his prayer. He is energetic, funny, and gives experienced directions to his employees. The third round must go as fast as possible, he says. People want to eat simit hot. It must be çıtır çıtır – the mimicked sound of hot, popping sesame. Everyone begins to rush.

Who are your customers? I ask Sami Bey as we stand in the front of the bakery. Everyone, he says. Everyone eats it, rich or a poor, doesn’t matter.  While I’m talking with Sami, Orhan Abi, one of his employees, finishes loading the delivery truck parked outside, and he rushes off to deliver the third round of simits. Sami Bey puts me at ease, don’t worry you will go with him in the fourth round. Orhan delivers simit to street vendors in Karaköy, Kabataş, and some hotels around Taksim.His delivery route makes a ring around the neighborhood,  resembling the circular simit itself.

Cagan's hand-drawn map of the Bakery, it neighborhood, and the nearby Bosphorus.

Cagan’s hand-drawn map of the Bakery, it neighborhood, and the nearby Bosphorus.

Sami seems like a person who loves his job very much. I could see it in his interactions with his employees. I ask Sami: What is your story, how and when did your life cross with simit?

He explains:

 You know, I was born in a small village in Tokat – middle of Anatolia. My father used to be a shepherd. We had animals, and I spent all my time with them when I wasn’t in school. My family struggled, financially. My two uncles had already left the village, they were living in Istanbul and, guess what, they became simit sellers in the streets of Istanbul. For them, this was one of the easiest entrances into Istanbul. At the same time, the hardest one. When they returned to the village to visit us, we knew that they had some problems with the police and had already lost their simit stalls. I was aware of simit because of my uncle’s bad experiences. When I turned 12, I faced a dilemma. I could either go to Istanbul and study in a school, or I could stay with my father and take care our animals. I called it, ‘to choose either school or the thorn.’ I chose school, and I moved to Istanbul near my uncle’s house. Even though I came to Istanbul to study, I needed to work for my uncle, just as I had already done for my father in the village. The first thing that I remember in Istanbul was the smell of gas. Cars were everywhere. My uncle took me from the bus station in Topkapi and I went directly with him to Karaköy, near Bosphorus, to his simit stall. Since I had last saw them, they had saved enough money to open their own bakery. From that day on, I was in the simit business.
After I listen for a while, Sami  tells me, go upstairs, they’ve already started to make the fourth round.

In the bakery, there are two floors. The second floor is reserved for the production of simit. As I ascended the stairs, I see three bakers, Ahmet Ali and Hoşgeldi. All three of them have different backgrounds, in fact two of them are  from different countries. Ali is from Turkmenistan and Hosgeldi is from Tajikistan. Of course, they all have one thing in common—simit. Making Simit from The Miracle of Feeding Cities on Vimeo.

Making simit dough is like a ritual. The way they connect the dough, and turn it to a twisted ring is very fast and repeated. While two men prepare the dough, Hoşgeldi bathes the doughy rings in pekmez—molasses. He takes the molasses-covered simits and tosses them in sesame seeds. He arranges these seeded simits on a metal tray, where they will wait to be baked. Ahmet remarks, if you don’t bathe them with pekmez, you cannot get a crispy simit.

For Ahmet, baking simits has been a twenty-five year endeavor. He has known Sami for 30 years, and has worked with him for more than ten. For Ali and Hoşgeldi, it has been just two years. They explain, we need to work, it is a bit overwhelming for us, but we have to earn money to study further in a university when we get back home.

Ali passes the tray with simits through an opening  on the lower half of the second floor wall, which opens up to the first floor of the bakery, where Hoşgeldi waits to take the tray from Ali. Hosgeldi lays each simit from the tray upon a long, wooden paddle that pushes each ring into the oven. You can again smell and hear sesame scorching. As the simits finish, Sami says to me, it’s time for the fourth round, haydi haydi haydi – com’on, com’on!”

I get into car with Orhan, who had returned while we were baking the fourth round, and off we go!

Posted in Istanbul