Posts Tagged ‘Turkish food in America’

Very recently, I sat down with a group of people who were visiting New York (from Turkey). They came to the city for business and would be spending less than a week in New York. At one point when I was talking to one of them in the group, I happened to overhear others’ conversation about “what they would eat that night”. These other guys were saying that they would order Turkish food to their hotel room. I was stunned for a second, ordering Turkish food during your stay in the city where you can taste a zillion different cuisines? Plus, ordering to your hotel room when you could walk around in the heart of the world?

That’s odd, I thought and I went immediately back in time, to four years ago when I had overheard another conversation in a Turkish restaurant. When you live in NYC, it is inevitable not to miss your traditional food, and on one of those days when I was craving for mashed eggplants or some sort of kebab, I went to the Ali Baba restaurant in mid town. As I was waiting my order to be served, I could not help but listen to two men chatting in the next table.

Both men were from Turkey and, as I gathered, they had been in New York not for so long. One was a military personnel who had to attend a series of UN meetings that was to last for couple of weeks. The other was a state official from the Ministry of Finance and if I remember correctly, he was also on a short –couple months at most- mission. I know all these details because these guys were introducing themselves to one another when my ears dropped on their table. It was clear from these introductions that they had just met on that day on that table. Later on, the owner of the restaurant, Ali Baba, came to their table and made a gesture showing that he knew both of them, yet separately, and he said he was glad that they finally met.

There were many interesting details, of course, in this particular encounter between the two men. Their pretty warm conversation was rather strange given that they only had met on the spot only minutes ago. Maybe it was understandable, being “outside” makes people hook up much more easily. But even then, the “performances” they gave, the “personas” they embody and how similar these performances were, were remarkable. They carried their official identities like a skin. Two bureaucrats from Ankara sitting down in a Turkish restaurant in New York, fully armored with/and defining themselves through their official duties and precisely because of that reason feeling so at home in each other’s company. No wonder Ali Baba was glad that they “finally” met: They were like soul mates (well, in a foreign land of course.)

What struck me the most, however, was their conversation on food. “I have been here for two weeks now”, the military guy said, “and I have never set foot in another restaurant than Ali Baba.” The other approved: “Yeah”, he said with a smile on his face that suggested a “deeper” appreciation of what the other guy said, “I have been here for sometime now and I’ve never tried other cuisines. Even if I go to other restaurants, they have to be Turkish restaurants. I can’t eat Chinese, sushi, or Mexican…” They went on talking about how great Turkish food was and it was impossible not to sense a nationalist proud in their conversation. (the owner of the restaurant, Ali Baba also listened to the conversation with a weird smile on his face: Happy to have two regular customers, but kind of condescending their choice to stick with the Turkish cuisine. “Go get a life guys” was the subtext of that plastic smile, I thought!)

I said to myself at that point, “wow!, so you come to the city where you can try a million different cuisines, and you stick with what you have eaten and will eat all your life.” That was a real “wow” moment. I even briefly considered asking both men whether they are stupid or not. Let’s make no mistakes, it’s perfectly understandable if: one likes his/her country’s cuisine more than others or one chooses to eat whatever he/she is used to eat on a regular basis. But we are talking here of people who plainly deny even trying other people’s food. That’s a different story. That is about the sharp and rather high walls one erects between what he perceives to be his national identity and the rest of the world. This is about a weird lack of self confidence: I’m not so comfortable in navigating the waters of foreign lands so let’s get back to our little harbor in this ocean called America!

Of course I am aware that in one sense, the multicultural cuisine story of New York (or anywhere else) is a story about the market. Entrepreneurs in the market are exploiting people’s desire to distinguish themselves from other people (to claim status) in an effort to create for themselves a certain niche in the market. It is clear, it follows, that the various different cuisines in the big apple are at best highly unfaithful representations of their originals. The food here is surely mediated to suit the general and average taste of the mainstream. But if this were the reason why those buddies in the Ali Baba restaurant did not want to eat non Turkish food, you would expect them to search for “more” originals: Even if the restaurants are no good, NYC is full of people from all over the world who would, on occasion, be happy to share their experiences, cuisine or culture with anyone who is interested.

But no… theirs was more of a closing into themselves in an environment which they felt threatening and dangerous to navigate. They chose to interact with NY and New Yorkers from behind a glass wall that they felt would make it easy for them to pass their time here, which ended up being not a “choice to interact” but precisely the opposite: “a self forced non interaction”.

Recently when I sat down with this other group of business people and overheard their order for Turkish food, I couldn’t help but get amazed once again with the cultural barriers that’re erected in a land that’s considered foreign. Rather than opening themselves up to the freshness and surprises of a new experience, it seemed, these people chose to wrap themselves up with the foil they know and entertain a sense of control with such wrapping. Why would anyone want to eat doner kebab everyday otherwise?

To be fair to all these guys, I myself have struggled with this question and I’m far from the most open person. Those little trips to Turkishness have been part of the life here since I came. I’m trying to learn though and try not be stubborn about life. (and I eat –and enjoy- a lot of foreign food.)


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