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It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that Turkey remains starkly divided on a range of issues, be it the controversial 2017 presidential system referendum or whether the classic scrambled egg dish menemen, which is always made with chopped green peppers and tomatoes, should also be prepared with onions. While the referendum squeaked through with 51 percent voting affirmative, the pro-onion camp narrowly edged past the naysayers by the same mark in a 2018 Twitter poll launched by popular food writer Vedat Milor, in which more than 430,000 people voted. (For the record, we prefer it soğansız).

One thing that everyone can agree upon, at least those without gluten allergies, is that Ramazan pidesi, baked golden brown in the form a glorious puffy, chewy, robust disc topped with sesame seeds and/or çörek otü (nigella seeds), is delicious and something to look forward to.

The bread is traditionally baked in Turkey only during the holy month of Ramadan, forming the foundation of the fast-breaking iftar dinner. As soon as Ramadan begins, bakeries across the country waste no time in churning out hot loaves of pide, and that has not changed amid the coronavirus epidemic, which saw retail sales of bread nosedive by 35 percent in the initial weeks after the virus first hit Turkey, with many people opting to bake their own bread instead.

Ramadan pide is so integral to the holy month that the government continues to set the price for a loaf, which this year ranges between 3 and 4 TL depending on weight. As for the smell, which blankets the city in the hours leading up to iftar, it frequently invokes nostalgic memories for many people in Turkey.

“It was my duty to buy it when I was a kid, and there used to be a queue for a batch of freshly baked pides at our fırın. The smell, the wait, the bustling environment to make it to iftar was somewhat exciting for me, and I felt like I did something important by getting it all by myself. And I always ate half of the extra pide that I bought on the way home,” said Ferit Odman, an Istanbul-based professional jazz drummer who grew up in the city of Bursa across the Marmara Sea.

The lines around the block have persisted both in spite of and because of coronavirus social distancing regulations, as only a couple people are allowed in the bakery at once and (ideally but not always) people waiting outside are giving each other enough space. In conjunction with the curfews that have been imposed every weekend in Istanbul and 30 other provinces in Turkey – unlike countries such as Italy, Turkey has not implemented a full-on lockdown – it has proven tricky to get our hands on Ramazan pidesi.

On Friday, April 24, the day after Ramadan began, we set out for our first pide, thinking that we were allowed to be outside until 2 p.m. But it turned out that lockdown began in the morning, something we quickly realized walking down the empty streets, where bakeries were among the only shops open (they were allowed to make home deliveries). We strolled into the Mahmutoğlu Küreklifırın bakery on the usually busy Ergenekon Avenue in the Pangaltı/Kurtuluş area, a place in front of which lines consistently form even hours before iftar.

Getting one’s hands on a piping-hot, frisbee-shaped slice of glory can require precise calculation.

The baker told us that we were only his second customers of the day, and it didn’t look like they had baked a large batch. He said that come Monday, when the lockdown had ended, the typical line would be back (we stopped by on Monday to see if he was right – by around 5:45 p.m., with just over two hours until iftar, an extensive queue had formed). We asked why their pide was so good, and they chalked it up to their years of experience. They claimed to not use egg yolk in the wash, which enhances the deliciously savory flavor, but instead said they “spread something” on the pide, declining to reveal this secret ingredient.

Getting one’s hands on a piping-hot, frisbee-shaped slice of glory can require precise calculation. If you arrive slightly or even well before iftar, you can expect a long wait, but if you show up shortly afterwards, the bakery might have run out of oven-fresh pide, leaving only those in the display window, which have been sitting there all day.

This was the case on another trip to Mahmutoğlu Küreklifırın, and we didn’t want a cold loaf from the window, so we strolled to the nearest branch of Uniş, a small local chain of five bakeries operating in the Şişli and Beşiktaş districts. We got our fresh, tantalizing pide (with egg yolk in the wash), and its mouth-watering scent managed to wriggle its way through our mask on the walk home. Uniş is among the bakeries that allow you to pay for someone else’s pide in advance so those who cannot afford to pay can get one for free, and we chipped in for an extra loaf, a small gesture reflecting the spirit of sharing that Ramadan embodies.

Meanwhile, during the epidemic others have opted to try their hand at baking Ramazan pidesi at home, such as journalist Cansu Çamlıbel, editor-in-chief of the Duvar English news portal. Çamlıbel initially thought she had run out of yeast, but eventually found some that she had brought back from her previous stint reporting in Washington DC.

“We baked our first pide on the first day of Ramadan with American yeast!” Çamlıbel said. Irony aside, for her the bread also conjures up pleasant childhood memories.

“I ate the pide with my daughter just like I did during my childhood in my mom’s kitchen, with butter, tulum peyniri and walnuts. The smell of the nigella seeds took me back to the Ankara days when my grandfather used to take me to the neighborhood bakery shop just an hour before iftar to get fresh pide. I closed my eyes and felt my grandpa’s hand holding my little hand with so much compassion,” Çamlıbel said.

In the Kurtuluş neighborhood, given its eclectic population that includes Armenians, Greeks, Jews, immigrants, LGBTI people, students and artists, it’s safe to say that most residents aren’t fasting, but that doesn’t stop people from buying a loaf of Ramazan pidesi on the way home to enjoy with their dinner. The bread might be synonymous with Ramadan but its cultural importance and delicious flavor also transcends it.

“It made me remember that you do not need to be a pious Muslim to be part of this very Turkish tradition. It is about living on this land and feeling everything about it in your veins,” Çamlıbel said of her experience baking the bread at home.

Paul Benjamin Osterlund and Monique Jaques

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