Overfishing the Bosphorus by Deniz Deniz
One spring, over eight thousand years ago, the first school of bluefish swam up the Bosphorus from the Sea of Marmara, migrating from the Mediterranean, through the Aegean and into the auspicious strait where the continents of Europe and Asia meet. Many were diverted by a silvery reflective boulder submerged in the sunlit water where the strait opens, swimming instead into the Golden Horn inlet on the westward shoreline of the sea.
Long before the descendants of Byzantium built the Maiden’s Tower on that white boulder that once struck fear into the heart of an emperor, the mythic stone was the greatest worry to the migratory fish who escaped predators and swam freely up and down the Bosphorus, laying eggs in the Black Sea to the north, and returning south for the winter months.
There were no more than eight million people walking the earth when bluefish began to flourish in the Bosphorus. That was long before anyone heard or even thought of the church bells of Chalcedon in modern-day Kadikoy, known to the ancients as the City of the Blind because its settlers did not see the seven hills of Eminonu, and much longer before those seven hills rang with the call to prayer to become Istanbul, the largest Turkish metropolis.
In the last fifty years, life on the Bosphorus has dramatically changed, for fishermen and for everyone, as its city has swelled from one to fifteen million inhabitants. As local commuters and visitors to Istanbul delight in the waterborne views from the many convenient ferries that traverse the strait and the sea, gazing at the gulls that glide behind the boats for a handout of simit and an easier passage across the water, pollution is increasingly apparent, as dead jellyfish float beside plastic and paper garbage. Once a good omen for the coming of bluefish, dolphins from the Sea of Marmara now leap above water ahead of the bows of cargo ships and oil tankers, and they are a rarer sight than ever.
The ubiquitous tray of stuffed mussels treasured by Istanbullus and remembered by travelers as an iconic street food now bear the brunt of cautionary tales, with most, even the hawkers themselves, agreeing that the seafood has become tasteless, and full of contaminants. Multigenerational residents of Istanbul know that the storied metropolis is more a geography than a city, and that its greatest wonders were not built by men, but were created from nature.
If Istanbul were a story, it would be told through a recipe for fish. The awe-inspiring strait and the beatific seas that nourish the dwellers of Asia and Europe in a single city have never been hungrier for that story, as the most delicious Bosphorus gem, the bluefish, migrates out of existence, slipping away right under the hungry nose of Istanbul, all to the traditional sound of a fish scale cracking over a simple grill on the prehistoric shorefront.
Fisheries are the last frontier of wild hunting on a commercial scale. In comparison to foraging and shooting, fish are the only undomesticated food source harvested with the power and efficiency of modern industry. The sweeping overpopulations of such cities as Istanbul, pressured by the vast urbanization of Anatolia and its desperate workforces, are extinguishing the most beloved of local foods. When met with the demand of all of Asia Minor, the price is eight millennia of ecological sustenance down the drain in less than a single lifetime.
After hunters became herders who eventually settled agricultural plots, the primeval societies that cropped up around them likely noticed a difference in the taste of milk and flesh from the animals they bred and raised. And before that, its gatherers who had always harvested wild fruits and vegetables doubtlessly balked at the newfangled domesticated nourishment. Out of sight, out of mind, says the ageless adage, as endangered fisheries surface to the last echo of the wild ecology as a viable natural resource in the urban economy.
As the predominant species on the planet, human beings rule over creation, from the birds of the sky to the fish in the waters and all that creeps and walks on the earth. Harvesting natural resources to extinction is a symptom of misruling both the environment and society. Political and economic corruption leads to an unhealthy relationship with the sources of life: food, water, air.
Overfishing is economic gluttony, the result of a way of life that has displaced the fish from waters as people are displaced from lands, a parallel narrative in Istanbul, with so many of its residents being forced migrants from the Kurdish conflict in eastern Turkey, and recently Syria.
Only, unlike people, animals are more bound to specific habitats. It seems that for all of the adaptable ingenuity of the human species as predominant throughout the planet, the nature of interdependence ultimately rules above all, even above human rule.
The greatest lesson for every ruler, and simultaneously the greatest virtue for righteous rule, is humility. And so more and more people in Istanbul are learning the humility of mortality and impermanence from the fish of the Bosphorus as they become aware of the extinction of tuna and swordfish, most recently also mackerel, and the endangerment of the bluefish.
The fish recipes of Istanbul, encompassing the waters of the Bosphorus, Black Sea, Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn inlet, are full of delicious signs, pointing to certain nutritional and environmental benefits that have the potential to increase awareness of the importance of seasonal moderation and reproductive sustainability so that future generations are not left without the main ingredient.
On the frontline of the struggle to maintain ecological balance in Istanbul are environmental activists, restaurant chefs, local fishers, and the self-educated public. Yet, considering the economic import of fishing, these roles clash with all of the violent drama that has ever been traditional to the hardships of making a living directly from the raw forces of nature. In January of 2012, Ahmet Aslan, the head of a fisheries cooperative, lost his left eye to gunfire while sitting in an Istanbul teahouse after becoming a vocal critic of illegal fishing, specifically trawling, which catches fish regardless of size: the fundamental contention. That year, the number of illegal fishing boats in the Bosphorus rose from 50 the previous year to almost 300.
Defne Koryürek, the founder of Slow Food Istanbul, responded to the assassination attempt with horror, yet she continues to advocate fearlessly for sustainable waters in and around her treasured Istanbul, city of gardens and forests, hills and bluffs, seas and the intercontinental strait perpetually lionized as the envy of empires.
Her clear, sharp eyes tell stories of protest, of love for the simple and joyous taste of home in a fish, served in its element. A former chef and restaurant owner with an impressive reputation, she is a proud mother and vegan, her words have the power to disarm the reckless ignorance of capitalism, to redirect the entire momentum of modern history towards a place of seasonal harmony and cyclical growth, of unrepressed life and universal truth.
While running a restaurant, the rise of Mad Cow Disease compelled her to remove meat from her menu, even her signature dishes, compromising her reputation as a distinguished chef. Eventually, she brought up her daughter in a meat-free home. As a peerless intellect in the culinary field, her tenacious interest in health and food led her to become a butcher, and to partner with a husbandry farmer. While counterintuitive to some, for Defne, it was exactly the line of work she needed to become closer to her sources of life and livelihood. After one of her cooking staff went to the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Polenzzo, where the Slow Food Movement was founded by Carlo Petrini in 2004, she immediately networked in collaboration, receiving an invitation to Terra Madre, the biannual Slow Food convention, in 2006.
“When you talk about sovereignty you may take sides, but when you talk about food sovereignty you come together. Slow Food is not about eating things slowly, it’s about looking at the matters of this planet through food and ecology,” says Defne, sitting at Minoa Bookstore on a bright January day in the central, shorefront Istanbul neighborhood of Besiktas, smiling at friends at a table across the room, as she happily placed her palms on a newly-acquired book about the history of the city. “We are local. The Bosphorus is facing a serious extinction problem. We are in touch with the fishermen. We can not stop with the campaign.”
When Defne returned from Terra Madre to form a convivium of Slow Food International in Istanbul, she embraced the decentralized global movement to focus on issues that represented Istanbul as a local ecology. Her focus on sustainable fisheries became an official campaign at the end of 2009. After talking about bluefish at the local level it was immediately apparent that it was to be a national campaign. Six months later, Greenpeace joined on a provisional basis.
“Because this is a movement we don’t aim for quantifiable success. We are aiming for a better future that is not quantifiable. A better future, how can you count that?” says Defne, in a steady speaking voice as calm and sure as the flow of the Bosphorus itself. “A fish is never [just] a fish. A fish also means the ecology of the waters. A fish also means the financial or social status of the fishermen. A fish also means the status of the Bosphorus and how we are developing the land around it. And then it’s also about the economy. You have to continue this campaign forever.”
Traditionally, bluefish is most abundant in the Bosphorus during the third weekend of October, when Istanbullus unite for Bluefish Day (Lüfer Bayramı), which Defne organizes annually for the waterfront, Anatolian neighborhood of Kuzguncuk. Last year, the holiday was called off in the midst of terror attacks.
“I was held at gunpoint more than three times during heated conversations with fishers. There is an economy established around that fish. When you try to stop it from being fished, of course you danger the financial status of quite a lot of people,” Defne says with a surprising comfort and ease, without even the slightest change of pace or tone in her voice, as she expresses unshakable compassion for the fishermen. “I was not shot. Men can hit you. If you go into a fight, you can be hit. That’s the nature of a fight. And this is an economic fight. And you have all of the vocabulary and all of the tools to announce your position, and most of the fishermen don’t.”
Despite the dramatic hostility from fishermen whose livelihoods are threatened by sustainability regulations, Defne is a festive public persona with a fun-loving spirit who has rallied supporters at Bluefish Day to celebrate and recognize the relationship between Istanbul and its fish, especially to honor the life of the endangered bluefish. And still, the conflict over short-term capitalist gain, and local environmental existence rages underwater, out of sight for most consumers, and tragically, out of mind for too many workers. Following the extinction of the Bosphorus mackerel, for example, the fish markets of Istanbul were stocked with Norwegian salmon in its place, all in the blink of an eye and with little regard for local impact beyond the rim of a dinner plate.
“We are at the moment becoming legal. We are establishing our legal entity [as Slow Food Istanbul]. Despite the fact that we did not have a legal entity, we were able to sit together with the government, with the ministry of agriculture on this subject. We were quite successful with our campaign. We were able to go through the proper channels, and make our case solid and apparent for the government. For instance, when we started campaigning we did not aim for billboards. We aimed for columnists in papers. We convinced them first,” says Defne, as she recounts the ongoing fight to legitimize the issue towards fair and effective regulation and enforcement. “Almost every other day, or almost every week, somehow somewhere there was a column on the situation of our fisheries, of the extinction of this fish. So we made our case loud and clear. We did not come from the bottom. We made it there already. This is probably the best way of campaigning in Turkey.”
Defne is a savvy activist, whose critical efforts supersede other methods that have failed, such as proven by the ineffectiveness of Greenpeace, who collected over a million and a half signatures from across Europe to ban GMs to no avail. In 2012, after establishing a media presence, the Turkish government invited Slow Food Istanbul to discuss this issue alongside fishermen and academics. The result was the extension of bluefish catch size. Prior to that development, bluefish were caught at 14 centimeters. Although the agreement landed at 20 centimeters, Defne continues to stand firm at 30 centimeters as the sustainable catch size that will ensure the survival of the Bosphorus bluefish. At present, the catch size is 18 centimeters.
“The length of the catch size is actually determined through the fishes reproductive age. The FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN] has this golden rule. The golden rule is that you do not kill a being before it at least reproduces once, so that you keep that species alive,” says Defne, citing from an encyclopedic memory of details. “Permaculture says otherwise. Permaculture says keep the mothers alive, eat the babies. That’s another way of dealing with ecology. But FAO has this mentality, and most governments take that into account, and most laws in relation to fisheries, in relation to fish catch size are based on that.”
“Every fish in every [body of] water reproduces at a totally different age. They have to go to that specific water, to that specific climate to come up with a recent record of that species and how it’s reproducing. Of course, a government, a ministry, should also know the amount of the stocks in these waters,” Defne continues. “With bluefish we were lucky, because we had a recent report. In the mid to late 1980s there was a report which was also published by an established foreign academic journal, and that argued that in our waters bluefish did not reproduce before 25.4 centimeters fork-length; there are two different ways of measuring a fish, the total length from nose to the end of the fin, or from the nose to the inside of the fork (of the fin). This report, as most of these reports, indicate fork-length, but our laws are for the total length. So, 25.4 [centimeters fork-length] equals around 30 [centimeters total length]. It went back to 18 last year. Eventually it will go back up again because it’s going extinct. It’s obvious.”
Overall, there is still debate about the effectiveness of current efforts to regulate catch size. Even in 2012, many activists alongside Defne were unfulfilled. While government participation was extraordinary in and of itself, it had its limits, particularly following the youth demonstrations at Gezi Park in 2013. The nature of government relations with NGOs has altered since then, as Defne finds her efforts frozen in a government stalemate, with official dialogues closed until further notice.
“We wanted this fish to be protected. We wanted these waters to be protected because Istanbul is not a city. Istanbul is a geography with amazing feeding properties. The Bosphorus is important, the Yediküle gardens, Gümüşdere, Yalova, Beyköz, all these are the cultural areas. Şile, these are the most important values of this geography,” says Defne, exuding a profound respect for the earth under her feet, as for her own life, and that of her family. “That’s why we as humankind came and settled here something like eight thousand and five hundred years ago. We came and settled here because there is food here. This is a geography where you will not go hungry. One way or another you find something to feed your children.”
“Although I’m a vegan, your relationship with fish is your relationship with your ecology, and the more you protect this ecology the more you protect your future, the more you secure your future. This is not a nostalgic thing. We’re not talking about having bluefish evenings, [to] go on the boat and catch bluefish. The livelihood of fish are the livelihood of Istanbullus. They are interwoven,” says Defne, emphasizing her points with the staunch confidence that she has maintained as a public figure standing up for ecological issues. “I’m sure the government, hopefully sooner than later, will be inviting us to the table again, because that’s our only concern, how we sustain ourselves on this planet, in this beautiful city with its waters, with its gardens, with its fish, in harmony. And therefore, we need NGOs to participate in this process of lawmaking, and that’s what we are practicing and that’s why we are celebrating Bluefish Day. That’s why we are sending reports to the government. That’s why we are still in a sometimes sweet, sometimes sour, sometimes bitter relationship with the fishermen. And that’s why our campaign is an ongoing campaign because we are hoping that through this campaign we will not only secure the livelihood of the bluefish but we will also raise the awareness of Istanbullus and the Turkish government at the same time to have a very fertile relationship between us and the ecology.”
Defne is almost fifty years old, yet despite being one of the most adamant and outspoken food justice organizers in Istanbul, she does not look her age. She remembers the Bosphorus of her youth, when the a million and a half people lived in the city, and when there were tuna, which she smilingly reminds ate the bluefish. Her character is naturally investigative, a quality that has stirred her to rise well beyond the sphere of the kitchen and the restaurant to a more socially-convicted occupation that encompasses the land and seas. As the city has sprawled eastward to ten times its population in the last two decades alone, Defne remains resolute.
“At this point, bluefish is only a symbol. You can take bluefish and put Yediküle lettuce there. You can put the strawberries of Arnavutköy there. You can put the bees and the chestnut honey that Şile forests produce,” says Defne, proclaiming the ecological riches of Istanbul that are sadly being destroyed by an urban sprawl overburdened by mass migration and constant construction. “All of these are totally about our needs and our relations with this geography. And that’s what Slow Food is about. Slow Food talks about these problems through food. Food is not for a group of people. It is for us all. This geography is for us all.”
Defne remembers her days as a chef, before she became aware of sustainable fishing. She admits to cooking a lot of underage fish, though she is now a vocal example of how the Slow Food movement is an opportunity for professionals and home cooks alike to learn, and to have a chance to act differently for the greater good.
“I’m sorry to say that in Istanbul our eating habits have gone barbaric. If you go to the corporate areas with plazas you see a lot of meat-eating places. Either it is köfte, döner, or steakhouse. Everyone wants to eat meat. I don’t remember Istanbullus eating that much meat from my childhood. Now, for every economic group, for lunch you have something with meat. You can’t find restaurants, especially around plaza districts, where people eat vegetable dishes,” says Defne, who openly advocates universal veganism with the smile of an idealist. “The same goes with fish. People feel that they have a right to eat fish. You tell them, ‘Well, the bluefish is about to go extinct, please don’t eat çinekop, the baby bluefish.’ They say, ‘But I can not buy bluefish, bluefish is for the wealthy. Am I not to eat fish? Of course I’m going to eat çinekop.’ This whole barbaric attitude toward eating fish or meat is triggered by the economy. The times we are living in are full of exploitation.”
Traditionally, fish is the commonest food in Istanbul, meaning the least expensive with the greatest demand. Local fish recipes and the bygone, historic abundance of fish along the Bosphorus speak to a welcoming social climate, as people from all walks of life in Istanbul continue to meet at the meyhane, where seafood and mezze (appetizers) are served with rakı (aniseed liquor). Yet, modern urbanization, and the influx of recent migrants has stretched that welcome to the extreme, taxing the food landscape to oblivion. Tradition dies hard, especially culinary tradition in Turkey, where class distinction is practically a measure of cultural pride. With that attitude, the multigenerational inhabitants of Istanbul have venerated the fish of the Marmara, Black Sea, Golden Horn and Bosphorus with perfectionist taste buds.
“Bluefish can only be grilled. That’s it. And the minute the bluefish passes the Princes’ Islands it changes. Being a master griller, I could grill for you by my own hands two different bluefishes on the same grill, one caught in the Dardanelles, in Canakkale, the other caught in the Bosphorus, and I would put it in front of you and I would close your eyes and you would taste it and you would say, ‘Oh, this is not bluefish.’ That would be the bluefish from the Dardanelles. And you would say, ‘What’s this? This is the best fish I have ever eaten,’ and that would be the bluefish from the Bosphorus. And that’s exactly why this fish is most interesting in this city,” says Defne, spotlighting the worldwide uniqueness of the culinary ecology that Bosphorus fishing has historically preserved, with bluefish the classic special on the local menu. “You have bluefish in New York. You have bluefish in Hamburg. You have bluefish in Cape Cod, but in Istanbul, bluefish is bluefish. It is tasty, mostly because the Black Sea is almost sweet water, very little salt. It is the reproductive pool of fish, where quite a lot of rivers run down the mountains, bringing a lot of food to the Black Sea. And that’s exactly why the fish go all the way up and lay their eggs in the Black Sea, and in autumn they go back down to the Marmara. The Black Sea is almost sweet water with a lot of fish and a lot of food. From there they come down the Bosphorus. And then, of course it changes. The Sea of Marmara is saltier, the Dardanelles saltier, Aegean saltier. If it’s about gastronomy, the bluefish in Istanbul is the tastiest and you should only grill it. Bonito is quite okay coming from the Dardanelles. I’ve had bonito in Italy. It’s also very tasty. I wouldn’t say that [the location of the fishery changes the taste] for bonito, but for the anchovies I would. We call it Marmara Anchovies (Marmara hamsisi) and Black Sea Anchovies (Kara Deniz hamsisi), and you know the difference, you taste the difference. It’s because of the climate. Fish is the common people’s food still, especially if it’s anchovies. You either grill it or you fry it.”
Beyond catching the fish with ecological awareness according to taste, and after cooking the fish by its most popular method, that being over the grill, most fish recipes in Istanbul integrate specific ingredient pairings that reveal subtle confluences of the local culinary ecology. Such common Turkish fish dishes as lakerda, balik ekmek, and hamsi pilav are paired with local and seasonal ingredients, despite the fact that they are now eaten out of season, and in the case with most of the balik ekmek on the street, with imported fish. Sold hot off of the overused grills from the weathered boats moored along the Golden Horn inlet and from the inner city piers of Istanbul, even Germans recognize balik ekmek as the fish sandwich that they also consume as street food in northern Europe for its on-the-go convenience.
“With bonito you have the red onions. It goes very well together. They’re both in season. These days you have red onions all the time, but not during my childhood. Red onions also go very well with the lakerda that you make with bonito. Balik ekmek is not balik ekmek anymore. Mackerel is now extinct in our waters. It has left our waters. The mackerels we have on those boats come from Norway. They come frozen, already cleaned, portioned. The balik ekmek is not local fish. Anchovy rice (hamsi pilav) is the authentic dish of the Black Sea,” says Defne, as she reminisces on her days as a world-class chef, drawing from her knowledge of the folkloric culinary traditions of the region surrounding Istanbul. “The haddock reproduces almost all the time, so there is no size limit. It can be small, it can be large. And it can be eaten all year round. It’s a tasty dish all around the Black Sea. When it comes to the anchovies they prefer to flatten it, they put two together, make a sandwich and put it on a pan, and they put some corn flour on it and turn it over, and it’s like a crepe of fish at the end. These are all homemade, frugal solutions, very frugal. There’s nothing fancy about dragging a fish in cornflour and frying it on a pan. It’s the same idea as with anchovy rice (hamsi pilav). But with the rice you go a little a fancy, you add a lot of nice ingredients, expensive ingredients, so you have a special event with it.”
As the culinary ecology of Istanbul is fast becoming denoted to a historical ecology, activists such as Defne are weary of the nostalgia that the path from the fishing boat to the waterfront grill often evokes, especially for people who have lived along the Bosphorus for generations. For Istanbullus in the neighborhoods of Ortakoy, Karakoy, Besiktas, Eminonu, Kadikoy, and Balat among many others, inner city fishing recalls a nourishing happiness without a price tag. Half a century ago, families could spend lunch hours fishing together on the Bosphorus instead of in traffic, and subsist on what that they caught then and there themselves.
Food historian Petek Çırpılı remembers the environs around her home in Kuzguncuk with a bittersweet love. Once much lusher with home gardens that trailed around the synagogue, church and mosque that still stand side-by-side, the neighborhood is famously known as the “village on the Bosphorus” and its locals remain avid Bosphorus swimmers, unperturbed by the polluted waterways. Immortalized in the novel Mediterranean Waltz by Buket Uzuner, everyone who knows Kuzguncuk knows its core institution, the fish restaurant Ismet Baba, where the much-praised Turkish poet Can Yucel drank rakı with his bonito lakerda, devouring forkfuls of sliced red onion drenched in olive oil before returning home with all of the eccentricity of a true artist. He was known to attend dinner in his favorite outfit, a bathrobe and slippers.
Petek recently opened a new culinary school in Akyaka, a rural district south of Istanbul, set in a primordial landscape of alluvial plains, where she plants heirloom seeds and records nomadic wild harvesting techniques for her latest book projects, one of which is on the fermentation traditions throughout Turkey. She was a consultant for most of her career, though recently fulfilled her lifelong passion as a cook and writer. Now the owner of Home Bakery, based in the downtown Istanbul neighborhood of Ulus, she runs her catering bakery and patisserie while also preparing fish entrees with Marmara sea bass (levrek) and salmon.
She is an inviting presence, smiling widely over a long wooden dining table in her Kuzguncuk home that she uses to host cooking classes and culinary lectures. She remembers the abundance of bluefish and bemoans the transformed culinary traditions of today, as most people do not cook fish at home anymore. The result of more people going to restaurants is that youth nowadays do not have the culinary knowledge to choose, clean and fry fish.
“Fish, especially from the Bosphorus, were so abundant, and due to the cold currents and clean waters of the past they were so oily and delicious that Istanbullus chose to eat them as they were, mostly grilled on coal. For certain fish like mackerel (istavrit), pickerel (izmarit), red mullet (barbun, tekir) frying in olive oil was the preferred version. The choice of oil for frying was never sunflower or corn oil in the past. It was always olive oil. Stews (pilaki or papaz yahnisi) were also a preferred way of cooking certain meaty and oily fish with onions and parsley and vinegar. That dish was mostly eaten cold. Old generation Istanbullus consider the use of lemon on fish a sin, saying the lemon kills the real taste. Especially with bluefish (lüfer), the queen of all fish in terms of taste, lemon users are scorned and labeled as newcomers who do not know how to eat fish,” says Petek, sharing her practiced knowledge of the local culinary ecology, specifically conveying why certain ingredients are paired within the most widely prepared fish recipes that have circulated in Istanbul from prehistoric times to the present (in fact, lakerda is a dish with ancient Greek origins). “Salads and its ingredients are often the only accompaniment to fried or grilled fish. If there was no time for a salad, it may be red onions for bonito (palamut) or fresh green onions in the spring for other fish or turnips or carrot salad in the winter. The addition of boiled potatoes was unheard of. It came into fashion with the new wave of restaurants that try to bring in a new and more Westernized way of presenting fish. There may be historic reasons for serving fish with salads. Each village or neighborhood had its own gardens (bostans). These green gardens grew veggies according to the flow of the seasons. We did not have green houses until very recently. Whatever the season gave as produce was accepted. Handy and cheap, the ingredients from these bostans accompanied the season of the fish. Fry, stew or grill the fish, toss in a salad. That was an easy and well-accepted meal that made life easier for housewives. Back then everyone knew how to clean fish. It was unheard of that fishers sold clean fish. I always like to say that the flow of different fish marked the time of year, especially in Bosphorus villages that had ready access to fish due to their own fishermen. We still have our own fisherman in Kuzguncuk.”
From the salinity and temperature of the water, to the oil of the fish itself relative to its cooking oil when frying, every aspect of a fish and its environment is considered when identifying taste quality and right ingredients for chefs and foodies in Istanbul, especially when talking about fish. The natural habitat, the kitchen, and the plate are all part of the culinary ecology that has utterly transformed in the lifetime of seasoned locals. With such a rich history as Istanbul, its culinary culture speaks volumes, with Petek citing everything from her grandmother to the 17th century travel writer Evilya Celebi.
“Anchovy rice (hamsili pilav) or anchovies a la içli tava (stuffed and fried) are two different things and most people confuse the two. Anchovy rice is traditionally cooked with a lot of chard, fresh mints, rice and salted anchovies that get cooked in a pot with the juices of the veggies and is served with cucumbers and ayran because it is a tad on the salty side. İçli tava is prepared with fresh anchovies under and on top of the rice filling and is baked and cooked whenever there is a flow of anchovies [to catch]. These were dishes that were prepared mostly by the wealthier residents of Trabzon for rice was an expensive item for a long time and the rest of the population was very poor. The land was not very generous apart from kale, chard, beans and corn. This region used corn meal for frying fish whereas in Istanbul it was wheat flour. Since the dish was later adopted by the newcomers to town life, the first dish got forgotten and içli tava was labeled as "anchovy rice" wrongly,” wrote Petek, as she carefully explained the culinary nuances of traditional Istanbul cooking by email during her busy weekday schedule, commuting daily across the Bosphorus with tens of thousands of downtown workers who motor from pier to pier while more and more commuters drive over newly constructed, sky-high bridges. “Sourdough bread was common among villagers, but not much for Istanbul. Of course, fish and bread always go together. For the poor, it’s less fish more bread and vice versa for the wealthy. I heard from a friend from the mountains of Black Sea that her grandmother salted anchovies in cans and its oozing juices were served on toasted and buttered sourdough slices. Salted fish, such as dried mackerel (çiroz), was left in brine for 24 hours, tied on strings and dried in the wind, wetted by sea water from time to time for saltiness and texture, and marinated in olive oil and lemon and served with dill on top. My grandmother used to serve salted fish along with fava made from broad beans and a red onion salad. This is a long forgotten recipe. These two are never paired anymore. Recipes do change in time. For example, the only recipe in Evliya Çelebi's chronicles was about an anchovy stew from Trabzon where a lot of parsley, celery leaves and cinnamon was used. He must have liked it so much that this was the single recipe among thousands of dishes he mentioned. We do not use cinnamon or other spices anymore. That’s long forgotten. It’s black pepper and salt mainly now.”
The advances of Turkish fish recipes are part of a global wave of interest in cooking from Istanbul chefs who now live abroad. Ozlem Warren is a brilliant example, as she teaches and writes about Turkish cookery from England, primarily through her blog Ozlem’s Turkish Table (ozlemturkishtable.com). She is a personal friend of Petek and a fellow food historian, as they advocate mutually to preserve the culinary traditions from the fast vanishing fisheries of Istanbul.
“We Turks are purists when it comes to our food. We like to showcase the main ingredient of the dish, for example the fish or certain vegetables or meat, rather than hiding it behind the sauces. We have an abundance of fresh produce, a good variety of fish, simplicity in cooking and serving is what we love and do best. The slices of red onion, as well as rocket leaves and lemon served with grilled fish is a good example of this simplicity. The sweetness and acidity of the red onions goes so well with the fish and it is a classic pairing. It reflects our love of bringing out the best of the fresh produce and placing the grilled fish as the main event,” Ozlem wrote via email in the midst of a hectic travel schedule, as she leads classes from her home base in England and tours across the culinary landscape of Turkey on a regular basis. “As for the balik ekmek, the fish sandwich experience, the freshly grilled fish has been served between hunks of bread along the Bosphorus and Golden Horn since mid 19th century. Especially when the fisherman had an abundant catch, they would freshly grill some of the catch and sell it as balik ekmek to hungry Istanbullus, also to earn extra money. Bread is a huge staple at home. We eat bread with everything, including pasta, so there’s no surprise the fish is sold in a bread sandwich for a familiar, substantial meal. Whatever fish is available and in season, it can be used in balik ekmek. Anchovy has a huge culinary and cultural significance to Black Sea regional cuisine – there are even folk songs written for anchovy (hamsi) in the Black Sea. The Black Sea region has been enjoying anchovy since 2201 BC. Anchovy appears in many dishes in Black Sea region, paired with rice, with eggs, poached in olive oil with lemon and tomatoes (hamsi bugulama), and more. The Black Sea region doesn’t have a huge variety of seasonal produce other than corn, cabbage and few others, therefore the food pairings are influenced by what the region can offer environmentally too. Anchovies (hamsi) are also paired with rice, to make the most of what the region offers as a substantial, delicious meal.”
Across the Bosphorus from Ortakoy, along the rainswept Anatolian shorefront, there is a pier long known from the Turkish folk song, “On the way to Uskudar” (Üsküdar'a gider iken). There, the night falls hard, silenced by a conservatism that mutes nightlife to the reminiscence of the village. A dog barks. A cat moans. The foghorn of a tanker hums through the century-old wood of the historic homes. Seagulls shriek. And the waves slap against the stone wall foundation of the famed Ismet Baba fish restaurant, which is about a block away from Kuzguncuk Balikcisi, a new fish restaurant that sprung up five years ago in the colorful, historically preserved alleyways of the quiet and homey neighborhood. Led by entrepreneur and chef Nükte Onat Dilber, yellow paint fans out like an optical illusion across the front of the restaurant under a lamp fixture, exuding a creative edge instilled in the central core of the community where young businesses flourish alongside time-honored institutions.
Nükte transformed the former Limonluk Kahvesi into Kuzguncuk Balikcisi out of a building that has traditionally belonged to the local Greek Orthodox community, adjacent to Ayios Yeorgios Eastern Church. She has been at the building for seventeen years, now with twenty years in the food business at her disposal, which shows in her unique aesthetic and culinary style. Opening down the street from Ismet Baba, a fish restaurant landmark for Istanbullus, has compelled Nükte to promote an alternative to the rakı and mezze nightlife culture that prizes the fish above all tastes.
“Eating fish shouldn’t be complicated. Fish can be tasty and cheap. It doesn’t have to be a big deal to go dine and eat fish. It’s an everyday food that has to be consumed consciously with respect to the seasons,” Nükte said over the phone, conversing cordially about how she began to cook fish during certain days as a chef at the bygone Limonluk cafe, serving only freshly caught fish from a local fisherman named Bekir, who continues to supply her at Kuzguncuk Balikcisi using only a rod and line out of his fishing boat which is moored during the offseason near Ismet Baba. “Fish are now consumed as a fast food in the city as the population increases. Fish becomes a fast food consumer product, regardless of the season or type of fish. Fishing by hand isn't a problem. [They catch] one at a time, [and they are] mostly amateur.”
While preparing for her special fish days at Limonlu cafe, Nükte developed a distinct culinary experimentalism when pairing ingredients with her fish dishes. She remembers feeling bored after cooking the same traditional fish dish, and so she began coming up with new recipes and trying more diverse ingredients. Her favorite pairings with any fish are rocket lettuce, and the traditional red onion, which she understands is familiar because it is a cheap ingredient, and easily prepared to plate. Together with rocket lettuce, Nükte feels free to serve her fish dishes in any and every way possible, whether grilled, steamed, or otherwise.
Although she has not involved herself personally as an activist, she has made her restaurant available to Slow Food Istanbul during the Bluefish Day festival. That said, Nükte displays a seasonal, and ecological etiquette herself and through her place of business which she maintains for her patrons to respect fish in a special light, not as a luxury item, and not as fast food either, but through a happier, more sustainable and perhaps even more delicious medium that is good for people, for the fish, and most importantly for the environmental balance of Istanbul, which has never been so fragile. Steeped in a consciousness of the taste and quality differences pertaining to aquaculture catch and wild harvest fisheries, the range of prices and ingredient pairings on the menu at Kuzguncuk Balikcisi reflects an even greater awareness than requite seasonal variation. Through her mindful fish dishes, Nükte is preparing the city itself during its epochal evolutionary and biological transformations.
Born and raised in Kuzguncuk, the fisherman known as Bekir to local chefs and restauranteurs has fished by hand for thirty-five years. What started as a hobby became a salable craft, with the quality of his catch known and respected by wealthy clients and small businesses alike. A traditional fisher, one who catches by hand rod from small boats is called an oltacı in Turkish. Along with selling mackerel (istavrit), sea bass (levrek), bonito (palamut), pickerel (izmarit), large bonito (torik) directly from catch, he also sells prepared fish, such as the oily lakerda (bonito), the briny çiroz (mackerel) and the salty uskumru tuzlama (mackerel). Tragically, Bekir confirmed there are no more mackerel in the Bosphorus anymore, and so with extinction, uskumru tuzlama is forever cut off from its local harvest, and with that, from culinary traditions that have fostered certain social and ecological relationships through the ages.
Bekir is the first to admit that the extinction and endangerment of fisheries in and around Istanbul have affected the commercial aspect of the catch. For example, he is now able to sell 12 kilograms of fish worth 80 to 90 liras per kilo to distinguished clients in the city. Nowadays, fish are smaller in size than in the past, and prices are rising. That says, the decrease in fish stock in recent years is dramatic, overextending trade to the bewilderment of everyone involved in the industry, from chefs to fishermen to reporters.
While Bekir says there used to be over a hundred fish in the Bosphorus, he stands firm testifying that the current number of fish is sixty-five, although many statistics cite the number as low as fifteen fish all told. Nükte says there thirty-five fish remaining in the Bosphorus. In 2010, Ahmet Örs writing for the Turkish daily newspaper, Sabah, reported that the historic 150 fish species that once swam in the Bosphorus had been reduced to only five surviving. Last year, Bekir says he had a good catch of bonito and scorpion fish (kırlangıç). In the first week of March his sea-weathered face smiled to the memory of large bonito abundant in the Dardanelles.
There are some 5000 fishers in Turkey using only hand rod methods, says Bekir who sets out to fisheries from the Dardanelles to the Black Sea in a modest wooden boat with only one other person. The current season began March 15, and it ends on June 15, marking the time when mostly bluefish (lüfer) and sea bass (levrek) swim up from the Aegean through the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus to lay eggs in the Black Sea. After mid-June, Bekir and his colleagues will take a month off to tend to boat maintenance duties ashore while the fish eggs hatch and the fall season begins with the fish returning from the Black Sea south. Traditionally, the fisheries of the northern Bosphorus and the Black Sea are fished for bonito (palamut), large bonito (torik) and bluefish from September to December. And from January through February fishers from Istanbul begin on the southern end of the Bosphorus and into the Sea of Marmara, following weather and wind patterns closely along the way.
And then there are fishermen who double as activists, like Cengiz Kaya, who founded balikcilar.net seven years ago as a virtual forum for fishermen to air concerns about the overfishing regulation propositions that have passed before the desks of government, often proposed by NGOs. The online space is steeped in advocacy. Defne has worked closely with Cengiz over the years from Slow Food Istanbul, helping to instill an ecological ethic in the lives of fishermen while engaging them in policy decisions that have major economic impacts. As is too often the case on the food chain of urban globalization, workers, particularly manual laborers, bear the brunt of governmental reforms first and foremost.
“Overfishing and contamination is the problem,” says Cengiz Kaya, who has become one among many fishermen who have discussed law, weather and market price, among other issues at balikcilar.net for nearly a decade since the site was launched. “Ordinary citizens help when they don’t buy smaller fish.”
Most unfortunate for future generations of Istanbullus who will likely never taste Bosphorus bluefish if current overfishing trends continue unabated, smaller fish like çinekop, the second youngest type of bluefish as known to the sophisticated Turkish fishing lexicon, is not only oilier, and by that meaning tastier than its larger kinfolk lüfer, it is also less expensive. And so the bridges and waterfronts of the city are peopled with amateur fishers casting lines and gambling for a free meal or a cheap sale out of the storied waters that now tell a whole new tale, one more tragic than the loss of Byzantium, more infuriating than the occupation of Constantinople, and yet it is a tale that begins long before humanity claimed the flowing, seaborne geography now known as Istanbul.
In the third week of February, during the 16th Istanbul Independent Film Festival (!f), filmmaker and diver Mert Gökalp stood in front of a crowd of cineastes and answered questions after the debut screenings of Lüfer, his documentary which chronicles the tragic and legendary importance of bluefish endangerment in the Bosphorus region. During its opening run, three hundred people saw the film, which was originally intended as a creative presentation for authorities in order to thaw NGO-Government relations following the Gezi Protest public policy stalemate. Defne then stood beside him, cheering up the crowd with her buoyant optimism, her vegan activism, her motherly justice. In ten years, neither Greenpeace, nor Slow Food Istanbul has resolve the issues of regulating and enforcing adequate laws to curb overfishing and illegal fishing in and around the waters of Istanbul. While ever more powerful economic lobbies on behalf of the fishing establishment stretch deeper into government pockets to the chagrin of the ecological community, the art of film is cleansing the palate of the city.