Traditional food ways in cosmopolitan Istanbul
A peddler’s cry on a chilly Istanbul night, the pungent smell of vinegar hanging in the air of a family-run pickling shop, freshly-picked fruits and vegetables from Anatolia’s rich soil. These are the common sights, sounds and smells of Turkey’s traditional food retailers, which remain important to the contemporary food system.
In the United States supermarkets became the name of the game–particularly after the meteoric rise of the A&P in the 1930s–when it came to buying food. Without a doubt, supermarkets are also a popular form of retail in Turkey especially for the ease and convenience they offer–some even offer online grocery shopping–but surprisingly Turkey’s neighborhood bakkal (small corner shops selling only the essentials) make up almost 1/2 of all grocery store sales, a figure that has only recently started to decline. This industry make up is a significant contrast to the US where traditional supermarkets account for 48% of the grocery market, supercenters 23%, and convenience stores–the closest equivalent to Turkey’s bakkals–just 14%.
Yet, even with chain retail becoming more common in Istanbul, the city’s food patterns are not altogether different from what they were decades ago. In Midnight at the Pera Palace, Charles King writes, “A traveler today can go from a morning simit, a pretzel-like bread covered in sesame seeds, to a grilled fish or stew at midday, to a sludge-bottomed coffee in the afternoon and still approximate the food ways-and caloric intake-of average Istanbullus of the past.”
As an expat in Turkey, I found the traditional feel of Istanbul’s food retailers incredibly different compared to the large, stream-lined supermarkets I grew up with.
I encounter my food from three distinct retailers all of which are a far cry from a supermarket: Neighborhood markets, local bazaars, and wandering peddlers. I’ve explored my favorite ones and the human beings–picklers, porters and peddlers–that continue these traditions.
The Kadıköy neighborhood market
Istanbul has a vibrant neighborhood culture, and the çarsı area, or neighborhood market, forms the nucleus of many Istanbul neighborhoods, particularly in the older districts. One of the most well-known neighborhood markets is the Kadıköy çarşı located on Istanbul’s Asian side. Like other çarsı areas, each shop is specialized in a particular good: a green grocer for fruits and vegetables, butchers and fishmongers for meat, as well as bakeries, delicatessens, spice shops, herbalists, and other speciality stores, including one of the most iconic, a third generation family-run pickling store.
In Turkey, pickling is an art passed down through generations, and anything is fair game: cucumbers, hot peppers, cabbage, lemons and even sour plums. Pickled goods are traditionally consumed to aid digestion while eating heavy dishes, but pickling is also an important way of preserving food throughout the seasons.
Meşhur Özcan Turşu, the pickling shop in Kadıköy çarşı, has been in business since 1935. Ahment Özcan now runs the shop. At the shop’s entrance, a pungent smell of vinegar and garlic welcomed me. The day I visited, Ahmet and his brother were manning the counter, and there was no break in the steady flow of customers, munching on pickles and selecting an assortment to take home.
During one lull, Ahmet walked me along the interior of the shop, pointing out family portraits hung on the walls as well as various newspaper clippings detailing the history of the family business, or in some cases, lauding the health benefits of pickles, claiming them as the cure-all.
The Beşiktaş Bazaar
Just like carsi markets, most neighborhoods in Istanbul have their own weekly bazaars as well, occurring on the same day each week and often referred to simply as the “Thursday bazaar,” or whichever day the bazaar happens to fall on. The bazaar is a staple for city-dwellers looking for fresh, cheap produce including fruits, vegetables, dairy and eggs, and even non-food items such as kitchen items, clothes, and various knickknacks.
Shopping at a neighborhood bazaar is not for the faint of heart. My own neighborhood bazaar, the Beşiktaş bazaar or Saturday bazaar takes up a large car park in the center of the city, next to the municipality’s wedding hall. On Saturday mornings, one has to weave between the parked lorries of the bazaar vendors and the weekend wedding traffic before even setting foot in the damp, tarpaulin covered car park. In the early mornings, steam rises off the vendors’ tea glasses and shoppers munch on freshly baked simit.
Competition is fierce at the bazaar. Vendors attract attention, yelling ‘buyrun, buyrun’–a catchall term for “here you go,” “yes,” “please, look at this”–and advertising their deals on makeshift cardboard signs. Once I find my stalls–I usually frequent the same each week–the vendor tosses a large basket or plastic tub over the table allowing me to pick out my own produce, fill up the tub, and pass it back for weighing. After I pass a few coins across the counter and drop the produce in my bazaar trolley, I start to make my way through the throngs of other shoppers, usually Turkish teyzes or aunties squeezing past each other, in search of the best deals, or porters equipped with oversized baskets wandering through the bazaar offering their services to lighten one’s load.
With a little bit of patience and persistence, it’s possible to score cheap produce by the kilos for a household’s weekly grocery needs. The vendors are themselves the producers, which cuts out the need for a middleman, keeps prices low, and ensures goods are locally produced or in the case of Istanbul–brought in from nearby agricultural areas.
The wandering boza seller
The most striking of Istanbul’s traditional food retailers is perhaps the presence of wandering street peddlers. Unlike Istanbul’s street food sellers, which have a permanent location and who the municipality strictly regulates, wandering peddlers travel the city on foot selling their goods. It’s a way of life and despite it being illegal, many individuals continue to ply the trade, some even arriving in Istanbul specifically for this type of work, staying for a few months and returning to their villages in the off-season.
In my own neighborhood, the cries of Hasan, one of these wandering peddlers selling boza–a fermented wheat drink–ring out as soon as the sun sets. Walking up and down the neighborhood streets in the dead of winter, his coat pulled up against the rain and snow, he yells out a long, low BO-ZA. I can always hear his voice loud and clear from the adjacent street well before I can see him. On nights when I want to fill up a pitcher with boza, I poke my head out the windows, yell “good evening” to Hasan below, and run downstairs to meet him at the front door. From the large canister he carries by hand, he fills up my container and offers small baggies of roasted chickpeas and cinnamon to top off the drink.
Despite the difficulty of his trade, the boza seller is always friendly, joking about how the interest in his work has skyrocketed with the release of Orhan Pamuk’s latest book about a boza seller from Hasan’s village traveling the streets of Istanbul. Everyone–he says–wants to interview him and take his picture. After posing for another, he bids me farewell and walks on into the night. A loud, clear “BOZA” hangs in the air behind him.
Two ends of a spectrum?
While Istanbul will likely continue adopting globalized retail, and perhaps U.S. grocery stores will move away from the one-stop-shop model, for now the small retailers of Istanbul have their place in the fabric of the city and how it feeds itself.
One winter evening not long ago, I was surprised to hear an unfamiliar cry of “BOZA” in my own Beşiktaş neighborhood. Another peddler had started to compete with Hasan for his route; surely, a testament to the vibrancy of traditional food vending in cosmopolitan Istanbul.