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On a mid-June night, one Istanbul kitchen buzzed with Turkish, Arabic and English spoken simultaneously. All women in the kitchen were from Hatay, a province which they – like many other locals – prefer to call Antakya, and which was heavily affected by the earthquakes earlier this year. Delicacies of their hometown filled the pots and pans on the stove, and the fires burning under them increased the already high temperature in the room.

Ayda Suadioğlu, a chef from Antakya, was sweating in the hot kitchen, yet she was determined to get everything ready for the night ahead. If anyone doubted whether they needed more butter or olive oil, how fine they should cut the za’atar, or whether the köfte in the oven was ready, Ayda knew the answer. She and the others had gathered in Istanbul to cook recipes from Antakya for a crowd of around 80 people.

Organized by Anna Maria Beylunioğlu, a food and politics lecturer at Istanbul’s Koç Univeristy and MEF University, and event producer Erdem Dilbaz, the goal of the dinner was to both introduce guests to the lesser-known Antakya recipes as well as provide an opportunity for the chefs to heal while doing what they love most: sharing food.

“When you give your love, it becomes a meal,” Ayda said, adding some salt to the minced meat prepared for oruk (bulgur balls with ground meat and walnut filling). She instructed her husband, Rufail Suadioğlu, to season the hummus more while she folded dough for biberli ekmek (peppered bread doughs) like small roses. “Without love, food means nothing,” she added.

Some of the participating chefs, like Ayda, have relocated to Istanbul after the earthquakes, while others came to the city especially for the event. They have all affected in different ways by the earthquakes that struck in the early hours of February 6, killing more than 50,000 people in Turkey and Syria. More than three million people left the region during the first weeks following the quakes, many of whom haven’t returned to their hometowns yet, and around two and a half million people live in temporary settlements in earthquake-affected provinces.

Ayda ran one of the first catering businesses to open in Hatay. With Rufail and seven employees, she had been serving her customers in three different workshops in the city center before the earthquakes hit. All buildings are now destroyed. “We lost our 20 years of work in one night,” the Suadioğlus told us. “A digger came and removed our stuff. There was nothing to save.”

The couple now lives in Istanbul, alternating between the homes of their two sons and Ayda’s sister. To earn money, they cook for people in their homes or at events.

Ferda Nasraoğlu, another of the night’s chefs, came from Samandağ to Istanbul especially for the event, which for her also meant the first night of sleep in a real bed since the earthquakes. “I imagined tremors all night,” she said. “But it was still good to have a bed in a house with walls and a roof.”

Nasraoğlu describes herself as a home chef, as does Cemile Alıcı, Ayda Suadioğlu’s sister, who also participated in the event. Alıcı moved to Istanbul from Antakya almost forty years ago but still was heavily affected by the earthquakes. “Even though you had located far from it, it is impossible to lose your connection,” she said.

Alıcı hasn’t been back to her hometown since the quakes. “I don’t think I can handle it,” she said, her eyes were filling with tears. “I saw the face of my sister when she returned, and I want to keep [Antakya] in my memories.”

Alongside Nasraoğlu and the Suadioğlus, she proudly watched as the guests enjoyed the food during the night. “We all experienced terrible things, especially my sister,” Alıcı said. “But when you see how happy people are after eating the food, it is everything. And I can see how being in the kitchen helps Ayda emotionally and financially.”

Almost five months have passed, yet millions of people in the region are still in dire need of access to safe accommodation, as well as clean water, food, clothing, and other necessities. On the other hand, those who left their hometowns experience challenges of starting anew and adapting to new cities, such as Istanbul.

As humanitarian actions continue, some small groups with roots in Antakya have focused on food-related efforts since day one. At first, their work was crucial to provide food security for the ones in the disaster zone. Now, as some time has passed, their efforts connect forced-diaspora Antiochians to each other, to their culture, and to others.

The website Nehna (meaning ‘we’ in Arabic), was established in October 2021 to write and share about Antiochian Orthodox Christian culture and became a pop-up control center to contribute to aid distribution efforts in Hatay after the earthquakes. The region has a long history of Christianity; the cave where Antakya’s St. Pierre church now stands is believed to be the place where Saint Peter first preached to a community.

The Nehna editorial team of six combined its local network with volunteer chefs and others in the food industry to open soup kitchens around the region. They managed to start distributing soup in İskenderun on the second day after the earthquake, and two soup kitchens organized by the platform – located in churches in İskenderun and Samandağ – served tens of thousands of people over the course of months.

The food culture of Antakya-Antioch has often been at the center of Nehna’s events. Nehna editor Anna Maria Beylunioğlu was born in Mersin but describes herself as “raised as an Antiochian in every sense.” Food is at the center of the lives of the Antiochians, she said, using the historic name of the region. “We express ourselves through food. It was something connecting us as people to the land itself.”

Beylunioğlu is a political scientist, but after receiving culinary training, she combined both interests to study the history, products, and recipes of the region. She designed the menu for the Istanbul dinner together with Dilbaz.

Instead of limiting it to the most well-known food of Antakya, like tepsi kebabı (tray kebab) or içli köfte (kibbeh), the menu included dishes such as kişk soup – which Beylunioğlu learned from her father that Orthodox Antiochians ate during Christmas instead of turkey. Another unknown for many was martadella – a distant cousin of the Italian sausage and supposedly a dish inherited from the French during the occupation, yet interpreted by Antochians.

Oruk, a version of kibbeh special to Hatay, olive and zaatar salads, salted yogurt, muhammara (a spicy dip made of walnuts and red pepper), meatballs with mint, and various kinds of local bread were also on the table. For the people of Antakya, the quality of ingredients is as important as the recipes. Ferda Nasraoğlu brought most spices from Antakya, and the red pepper from Altınözü – a town in Hatay on the border between Turkey and Syria – was especially crucial for these recipes, said Beylunioğlu.

There was no dessert, just ful likö – a jasmine liquor special to the region, which was served at the end of the night for guests with a sweet tooth.

Musician Can Sürmen was one of the guests at the dinner. He visited Antakya a couple of times before the earthquake and saw this dinner as a show of solidarity. As someone who is interested in food, he called it a special chance to eat these dishes that are typically limited to Antakya home kitchens. “[This is a] once in a lifetime opportunity,” he said. “You can’t find this food in Istanbul normally,” he added.

“There are many things being done to provide some money or financial opportunities for the earthquake survivors, but cooking together is also a psychological process,” said Beylunioğlu while explaining the idea behind the night.

“We were preparing food all together. Of course, we had our differences. Some put more pomegranate extract, some put less, or some put water in the kısır – which makes me very angry. But all of those debates represent us,” she said. “For those people who miss Antioch every day, it was priceless.”

When talking about the connection between the people and the food in the region, Beylunioğlu spoke of her late cousin, Betül Balıkçıoğlu, who lost her life in the earthquake. Balıkçıoğlu’s family had been producing pepper paste for generations in Altınözü. “One time I asked Betül what the difference between the pepper from Altınözü and the others was,” Beylunioğlu recalled. “And she said, Anna, I don’t know if you could understand this, but when I eat it, I can feel the taste of the sun.”

In Beylunioğlu’s opinion, food can be the center of the efforts to rebuild Antakya. Culinary culture can create opportunities for the ones who stayed behind or who are temporarily located in other cities, connecting people through full bellies and sharing the culture. “Being in the kitchen, doing something good, and seeing that people are pleased with the food, gives us energy,” she said.

Being together and connecting around shared values helps, according to Beylunioğlu, but she also warned about the future problems of Antiochians leaving their city. “Of course, in the long run, they will be everywhere,” she said. “But they will be in the diaspora. And Antioch will change. Everything will change. So, in the long run, I think everything is in danger. We have to find a way to help people to go back to Antioch. There should be projects done, focusing on the locals and local production. They have to be there, produce their products there. Of course, we have to support people in the diaspora. But somehow, we have to find a way to bring people back to the region.”

(Editor’s Note: As part of our commitment to documenting Turkey’s post-earthquake recovery, we have teamed up with Turkey Recap (Tr), a superb newsletter covering Turkish affairs, to jointly publish articles with reporting by Tr correspondents from some of the hardest hit areas. The pieces will run on both of our sites, with CB providing financial support for the reporting.)

Ingrid Woudwijk and Gonca TokyolIngrid Woudwijk

Published on July 10, 2023

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