Istanbul’s immigrant food cafes feel the pinch

Syrians have been able to sustain their food culture in Istanbul, but smaller immigrant communities are struggling. Getty Images

Stephen Starr
May 11, 2017

Early on New Year’s Day, a sleepy immigrant restaurant in Istanbul’s Zeytinburnu district welcomed its most infamous guest. Hours before, Abdulkadir Masharipov had shot to death 39 revellers at an upmarket nightclub on the shores of the Bosphorus. The ISIL terrorist’s first move was to spend the remainder of the night in the Mölcer Dag Cafe – a place he seems to have chosen at random, but that he thought would offer sanctuary.

Today, the Uyghur cafe is shuttered and its owner Semsettin Dursan is nowhere to be seen. Oz Ahmet, a manager at a Uyghur restaurant facing the Mölcer Dag Cafe says he has no idea what happened to Dursan, but that police came and locked down the cafe just days after Masharipov made it a centre of world attention. For Dursan, his name and livelihood became a casualty of terrorism for no greater a crime than running a service for Uyghurs.

Restaurants such as Dursan’s serve as both a link to home for immigrants who’ve fled persecution and war, and a place to keep alive age-old cooking traditions. Chefs, culinarists and restaurateurs are among the thousands who have fled conflict in Yemen, Afghanistan and west Africa, to name just a few, for Istanbul.

However, though Istanbul’s large populations of Syrians and Iraqis sustain their own time-honoured cooking traditions, the food cultures of smaller immigrant communities such as those named above may be at risk of losing their unique essence.

At the nondescript Ebuka Mama Nigerian cafe in Istanbul’s Kumkapi district, groups of men and women chat while downing jollof rice, cow hoof stew and goat leg pepper soup. Upbeat African music blares. This is an establishment with no need for menus: its west African customers know that the yam, plantain and Ogbono soup – ground tree nuts, seasonings and meat – served here offer a genuine taste of home.

But a deal signed last year between the European Union and Turkey to block migrants reaching the shores of Greece has hurt the cafe’s business. "I knew about 50 people from Nigeria who came to Istanbul because of the [Boko Haram] violence in the north [of Nigeria]. They were heading to Greece and then Europe," says owner Chukwu Ekuba from Anambra state in south Nigeria. "That was two years ago; now, [the number of customers is] down by around 40 per cent because people can’t get to Europe anymore."

In Istanbul’s Aksaray district, a bustling hub for immigrants from Morocco to the Philippines, the unimaginatively named Yemeni Restaurant is jammed with customers: men on hair transplant vacations, families and suited African businessmen. Twenty-nine workers, 15 of whom are Yemeni, keep the traditional saltah beef stew and mendy – a dish of moist rice topped with slow-cooked chicken, cloves, cardamom pods, raisins, cashews and saffron – on hungry patrons’ plates. In a downstairs kitchen, chicken pieces are cooked in a metre-deep, wood-fuelled taboon oven for about two-and-a-half hours. The restaurant is an important gathering point for Yemenis and east Africans in Istanbul for the reason that it is difficult to find any Arabic food in the city other than Syrian.

Manager Hani Yehya from Sanaa, however, says not to be fooled by the crowds. "It is busy because today is Friday, a holiday for these customers," he says. "At first there were a lot of Yemenis coming, but they began to find it expensive." Last month, Turkey’s inflation rate reached double figures for the first time in five years, squeezing immigrants who typically work in poor-­paying jobs. "But there are more and more Yemenis coming to Istanbul every month because of the conflict in Yemen."

Yehya moved to Istanbul in August of last year after the military airfield behind the hotel he worked in came under attack. He estimates that westerners make up just five per cent of his customers, a trend reflected across the city as it suffered a 25 per cent fall in international visitors last year. "Anyone who hears about the terror attacks here won’t come," he says. Dozens of tourists and police officers have died in a string of attacks by ISIL and Kurdish separatist groups in Istanbul over the past year.

With Turkey now home to more refugees than any other country and western states closing down immigration routes, migrants trapped between conflict at home and countries that don’t want them increasingly see Istanbul as a possible permanent home.

"Definitely, there are tighter restrictions for getting into Turkey than before," says Ilhan Jamilah, the proprietor of Afghan Dondurma, a store selling creamy Afghan-style ice cream in Zeytinburnu. "So it’s a little more difficult to find a qualified Afghan ice cream usta," he says, referring to the professionals trained in the art of making ice cream by hand.

"But Turkey has been good to Afghans; the summer is coming and I hope that business will be better than before."

Stephen Starr is a journalist and author who has lived in Syria and Turkey since 2007.

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