Online Issues / Summer 2013 (Vol. 1, Online Issues)

It’s Nice Simit You


It’s Nice Simit You

By Christin Zurbach | Turkey

This week, Culinarian visits Turkey with a Middle Eastern Studies major to explore everything from cultural complexities to foreign flavors.  

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As some of you may know, this summer in Turkey there have been a series of protests that began initially in late May with efforts to save the Istanbul Gezi Park from demolition. The subsequent intense police reactions and the widening political and geographical scope of the protests have become the source of many a newspaper article. For the people of Istanbul, these protests are not just a story or a statement, but a daily reality. No matter what may be happening around us, though, a girl still needs to eat.

When I arrived in Istanbul in early June, beginning my internship working with the archives at the Ottoman Bank Museum the following day, daily reality did not catch up with me immediately. I was staying with my family in a tourist-neighborhood apartment, taking the tram to and from work, and staying clear of Taksim, the protests’ heart, to which my only connection was still relegated to news outlets and frequent posts by friends on Facebook. Soon enough, however, I got a glimpse of the protests’ effect on the mundane.

One day, my dad and I found the metro closed by the police because of the protests. Eventually, we made our way to the safe, non-touristy portion of Istanbul and stopped at the only recommended eatery I knew of in the area: a pudding shop on the same street as my new apartment. As we ate the best rice pudding of my life—creamy, rice-y, and with just the right amount of sweetness—my dad and I tried to figure out how I would be able to go to and from work with less hassle in the future.

christin2I spent that following Saturday night settling in and exploiting the WiFi at a Starbucks near work, cringing as I temporarily shirked local cuisine to buy an overpriced hot chocolate. A few hours later, I heard the man next to me warning his friend about the worsening protests and then saw protesters march past. I took this as my cue to head home, but too late—the police had already closed the metro. Unsure as to whether or not I was going the right way, I asked a guy and two girls in their early twenties for directions to the bus stop. I thought this would be the beginning of the end of my night. Turns out, it was just the beginning of the beginning.

Upon finding out that my new friends were looking for the same bus stop, we all decided to go find it together. Since my bus had stopped running hours ago and because all taxis were full, we decided to board a different, massively crowded minibus together only to get kicked off far from our destinations. Uncomfortable with me walking home alone, my new friends tried to call me a taxi. When one finally stopped, he refused to take me in, revealing that police had blocked off my particular neighborhood and that nobody could enter.

One of my new friends, Duygu, offered to let me stay with them for the night, so we boarded another bus, this time towards that apartment. Through the bus window on the way there, we saw police shooting gas cannons at close range and people trying to close their windows so that the gas could not come in, and then reopen them upon realizing that they needed oxygen circulation. Here we saw the heart of the protest.

“Are you hungry?” Dugyu asked once we got inside and started watching the news, which showed, among other things, the metro next to my house getting gassed. I told her no, as I didn’t want to impose.

“We ate but you must be hungry. Are you hungry? You look hungry. Here!” And before I knew it, at 1 in the morning, I was sitting down to eat my own Turkish breakfast.

Turkish breakfast is serious business. Instead of eating a banana while running out the door, I found myself sitting down at a stranger’s table downing a tall glass of peach nectar and eating cucumbers, white cheese, tomatoes, and simit. Simit is a large, oven-baked, sesame seed-covered, circular bread that has a hole in the center, and it is commonly sold as street food as a filling, popular way to start the day. Simit sellers are a common trope in Turkish (particularly in Istanbul) literature in the same way that the bagel is to Manhattan. Sellers always shout “Yeni geldi yeni geldi yeni geldi!” (“Just arrived just arrived just arrived”) because they are baked throughout the day, which made eating one at night seem almost normal. Simit on its own is a fast food, something eaten while walking to work, but by cutting it up and pairing it with other foods typical of long, drawn out weekend breakfasts, the meal took on some of Turkish breakfast’s social weight. Though they did not eat with me, my new friends kept me company, and the following morning we all ate breakfast again together, breaking bread in the more literal sense.

When you eat breakfast with people, you see them at their freshest, still tousled from the night’s sleep. In that sense, breakfast is intimate because you see someone before they have faced their day and the world. Though this breakfast was before, not after, sleep, there was that same vulnerability and intimacy as my new friends accepted me into their lives at home that night. Sharing food is the most basic sign of hospitality—something that these people, and the Turkish people at large, have in spades. After I insisted, again, that I was full, this time most definitely not just to be polite, my hosts let me use their shower, borrow pajamas, washed my clothes, and gave me a bed to sleep in. They joked before we went to sleep, “If someone had told me that I’d be having an American guest tonight, I never would have believed them!” Neither would I.

In the weeks that have followed, I have continued to settle in, with food in my fridge, Ethernet in my apartment, friends to contact, and a gas mask that I’ve thankfully never had to use. But I also buy rice pudding every week from that restaurant in my neighborhood and keep in touch with the friends I met who took me in that night when I had nowhere else to go, feeding two breakfasts to a total stranger. There is a saying in Turkish, “No matter what/ day will break/ at 7 comes the simitçi (“simit seller”),” meaning that no matter what happens, life and routine persist. What made the simit that night so special was how it was so much a part of the Turkish routine; it symbolized the comfort and closeness that my friends showed when they welcomed me into their routine. Some days are more eventful than others here, and I still run into surprises, but all of Istanbul, including me, keeps on moving forward, whether dodging, supporting, or fighting the chaos. Because no matter what, at 7 comes the simitçi. •

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Interested in learning more about Turkey and its food on campus this fall? Get involved with the Columbia Turkish Club, which hosts lectures, concerts, conversation hours, and more, all accompanied by delicious Turkish cuisine!  Find the club on Facebook or email with any questions.

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To learn more about the “Keep in Touch” online issue, click here.  To see the rest of the articles in the “Keep in Touch” online issue, click here.

One thought on “It’s Nice Simit You

  1. For those of you staying in NYC this summer that are interested in having an artistic perspective on the protest (and the history of protests in general), there’s an exhibit you can check out:
    Review of the Exhibit:

    “ART & PROTEST” runs through Aug. 18. The Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center is located at 3940 Broadway (between 165th and 166th streets). The center is open Tuesday-Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Thursday
    Rfrom 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Admission is free.

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