Swill Magazine Issue 5 - Out Now

Greek-Aussie chef Ella Mittas’ eye-opening journey through the kitchens of Turkey

Ella Mittas

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Ella Mittas
Ella Mittas

My father’s side of the family is Greek. They all lived on the same street, in houses next door to each other.There are holes cut between backyard fences, so everyone can be together easily. That one small section of street has given me a sense of community and belonging I haven’t been able to locate in the rest of my life.

It seems separate from the rest of Australia, but it’s a version of Greece abstracted from the real thing. Its traditions are built on distant memories. The language spoken is ‘Gringlish’, a mix of both places. I’ve always felt that somewhere inside that place, among the carved-out fences, is where my true identity lies. I’ve looked for more concrete examples of that elusive sense of community for years: a place where it exists in its entirety, where it’s set in stone.

In Melbourne, I’d worked under a chef who’d cooked traditional Turkish cuisine and had seen how interwoven it was with Greek food culture. There was even a genre of cuisine in Greece dedicated to the crossover. Politiki Kouzina translates to ‘food of the city’ and came to Greece from Istanbul via the ethnic Greeks deported from Turkey during the 1923 population exchange. Once I decided I wanted to work in Greece, had applied for my citizenship and was waiting for it to be processed, I thought Istanbul would be the next best thing and chose to wait there.

Where I got the arrogance to believe I’d be accepted in Turkey with no prior knowledge of the culture is beyond me. I’ll put it down to my age and naivety mixed with various forms of privilege. These things helped form my almost willful misunderstanding of how language and culture barriers would affect me anywhere I went and cooked – something glaringly obvious when writing in retrospect, but indecipherable at the time.

ISTANBUL

I arrived in Istanbul at the peak of summer. I’d picked out an apartment to live in, almost at random, from a tiny thumbnail image on a website. It was in Tarlabaşi, an area whose name elicited a mix of surprise and concern from people when I mentioned it. The buildings there were dilapidated in a way that made it seem like they were leaning in to touch each other. Ropes of washing hung through windows and off balconies, tying them together. I’d walk underneath them on my way to Istiklal, the city’s main promenade.

As I’d walk, the air would be permeated with the smell of chicken pilaf from the street food vendors who’d wait on each corner. Baklava gleamed at me, dripping with syrup from brightly lit shopfronts. I’d walk through crowds until I was overwhelmed. I’d take the ferry across the Bosphorus from Europe to Asia if I had time. I’d cue Brian Eno’s ‘The Big Ship’, to perfectly match the sunset as I crossed continents. That journey never felt less surreal.

Nights in Tarlabaşi were unbearably loud, but when I closed the window in my carpeted room, the air in it would turn thick with heat. Wide-eyed and wide awake, I’d listen to the men who sat on the stoop in front of my window to watch YouTube videos together and chain-smoke. Initially, I was grateful I couldn’t understand Turkish, that the sound would partially wash over me.

The elderly couple who owned the building lived on the floor above me. Fatma told me I could call her Anne: “Mum.” Hassan, her husband, would mostly shake his head and laugh when he saw me. He’d “tsk tsk tsk” me, wagging his finger in my face, for forgetting to water the plants in my windowsill, or for coming home late. He’d knock at my door and say, “Be careful at night,” and I’d think, Okay, okay, I’m not a kid. But one evening walking home, I was stopped by policemen with guns and bulletproof vests. A car had been torched outside a bar near my apartment and the street was blocked off. As I stood there watching the flames in the midnight air, I imagined being safe in bed. Police were moving with urgency, bystanders were yelling at them, and I couldn’t decipher anything. When I was finally let past the barricades, walking home through the night, all I could think about was how little I knew about where I was.

The restaurant I’d organised to work in was in the waterfront suburb of Karaköy. The food was contemporary Turkish with

a short, revolving menu of seasonal dishes – a concept rela- tively new to Turkey at the time. At work, the boys didn’t know what to think of me. They’d call each other kanka or abi, but for me, they’d just whistle. Sometimes they’d stand together and watch me work. They’d take turns showing me googled photos of the Melbourne skyline on their phones and I’d nod.

My head chef sat on a stool, either in the corner of the kitchen with the boys congregated around him, or out the front of the restaurant smoking. If there was something I needed to ask him, I had to approach him, and wait for him to address me. He wasn’t often busy, just sitting and doing nothing, not quite ready to answer.

“Chef?”
I’d wait, and he’d stare off into the distance. We liked each other but fought. I didn’t understand his cooking methods, and looking back I didn’t try to. I thought the way he cooked was all based on myth. He told me honey had too much energy. That if you gave too much to people, they’d go crazy. For that reason, the honey syrup dessert we made had only one cup of honey in it and was topped up with kilos of pure white sugar, instead. He tried to make me change how I caramelised onions. His way was to burn them, then pour water over them to deglaze the pan. I argued that his onions wouldn’t be as sweet as mine, that the colour he was getting didn’t equal flavour. He argued it was his kitchen and his rules, and if I didn’t like it, I could leave. He did concede to let me put dessert specials on if I finished all my regular work, though.

A small piece of control to keep me occupied. I’d finish everything as fast as I could to put complicated French-style pastries on the specials board. Everyone would sit down for an extended breakfast: boiled eggs, cucumber, tomato, olives, feta, simit, olive oil, tea and cigarettes, and I’d be alone, working as hard as I could. Just me and the white noise of the extraction fan.

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