Surrounded by construction sites, Salı Pazarı – literally “Tuesday Market” – is a huge open-air bazaar in Kadıköy, a district on the Asian side. This sprawling market, held on Tuesdays and Fridays, is a snapshot of life in Istanbul: old ladies plow through crowds, their trolleys overflowing with groceries; vendors scream at the top of their lungs; and cars rocket down the highway along the front side of the market.
In addition to being a litmus test of Turkey’s economic state and the general mood of the people, the market and the produce showcased on its stands reflect the changes in the seasons. In fact, as spring has been struggling to assert itself this year, only a few stands are stocked with the typical spring products on the sunny but cold April morning that we visit. Strawberries are still quite expensive, fava beans appear only on a few benches, and the first sour green plums are timidly displayed in a couple baskets.
Heading to our friend Ömer’s stand, however, it’s clear that spring has (somewhat) sprung: the big pumpkins he gets from Düzce, a province east of Istanbul, have been replaced by fresh artichokes he cleans and prepares for the customers.
It’s been a few weeks since we began asking him about bakla, or fava beans. The response so far has been negative – the weather is a bit unstable this year, according to Ömer – but on this Tuesday, we catch sight of small bags of cleaned fava beans. This means that the new season is finally on its way.
As always, Ömer greets us with a warm handshake and a hug, while simultaneously calling out the price of the artichokes to a woman who looks interested. He looks very peaceful and at ease – happy, even – despite the repetitive nature of his work. When we ask him how it’s going, he quietly opens his arms as if to say, “It’s alright.” “If we continue, we manage,” he tells us. His hands carry the marks of all the hard work he’s been doing for around 20 years now, picking vegetables in the field to bring to market, setting up his stand on cold winter mornings, and cleaning his produce right before our eyes.
“I came to Istanbul from Ankara in 1992. I was studying law, but I had to drop out of university for personal reasons,” says Ömer while carving an artichoke. “I started working with my uncle at the market. Before I knew it I was making some money and I met my wife, so I decided to just keep doing this. It had become a source of stability and security, mentally and practically.”
He never complains because this work gives him the financial means to provide for his family – just a few months ago he told us that his older daughter had been accepted to university.
His job is a hard one, but it does have its bright sides. “When the high season starts, around May, I work at markets six days a week. On the seventh day I go to the field in Adapazarı to pick artichokes and fava beans, and I bring them to Istanbul. During these three months I hardly have a social life, coming back tired and spending my evenings sitting with my kids and my wife. They tell me how they spent their days,” Ömer tells us. “But I wouldn’t stop doing this – every day I get to meet my loyal customers, and I look forward to seeing them and hearing their stories. I listen to their problems and complaints, I sympathize with them, and I feel like they become an inseparable part of me.”
“Every day I get to meet my loyal customers, and I look forward to seeing them and hearing their stories.”
Being amongst his weekly visitors, we know exactly what he’s talking about – as months pass, we spend more and more time chatting with him about our lives, our daily issues, our jobs, and he never lets us go without some sage piece of advice. Moreover, we always think of him during mealtimes: in winter, our dinners often consist of a delicious cream made with his pumpkin, roasted in the oven and then pureed. In summer, our favorite meze is made with the fava beans he sells.
“The artichokes I have right now are from Cyprus, because this year the weather is still quite cold here in the north. Around the second or third week of May they usually start to sprout in the fields close to Istanbul, where I go pick them,” explains Ömer. “There’s no way to grow artichokes or fava beans in greenhouses, it wouldn’t work. That’s why we literally have to follow their own biological rhythm.”
Just like the artichokes, the first fava beans also grow down south, sprouting first in the region of Adana, then in Izmir and finally in Bursa and in Adapazarı. Following the seasons also means following the migration of produce towards Turkey’s northern provinces as the weather gets warmer – timing is important, but location is, too. “That’s why the best months to buy these products are actually May and June: they come from a closer region, which means they traveled less from the field to the market. On top of that, their price is lower,” adds Ömer.
Buying produce from Ömer also means sharing and exchanging ideas about the recipes we plan to make with it. He’s amazed by our (very Italian) use of artichokes, thinly sliced into flakes, toasted and mixed with grated bottarga (salted, cured fish roe) to dress a plate of spaghetti, as well as the combination of egg and artichoke – a classic Easter dish in Italy, as both foods symbolize spring, rebirth and rejuvenation.
When we ask for ideas on how to use his spring vegetables, he tells us how to combine both the artichokes and the fava beans the Turkish way. “There’s a very famous entree made with artichoke hearts and mixed veggies like snap peas, carrots, and potatoes. When fava beans are in season you can substitute them for the peas. You’ll get a very nice result,” he suggests, showing us some pictures of the final dish.
We would linger a bit more, chatting with Ömer, but we have to finish up our shopping. We’ll see him again next Tuesday, though, same as every week.
“Bereket versin (May God give you abundance),” he tells us with his sweet but firm smile. And in the end, that’s what spring is all about.
Editor’s note: To celebrate the start of spring, we’re running a series entitled “Meet the Vendors,” where our correspondents introduce us to some of their favorite market vendors and their spring products.