For Turkish chef Maksut Aşkar, geography is at the core of his existence. His celebrated Istanbul restaurant, Neolokal, even includes the Turkish word for “local” in its name. And his mission in life is preserving the traditional food of Anatolia, which is the vast peninsula of Asia Minor stretching between the Black and Mediterranean seas.
“If you ask me what is Anatolian cuisine, I would definitely say it’s home cooking—Mom’s cooking,” Aşkar told the Georgia Straight on the phone from his home in Istanbul. “The roots go back to thousands of years ago.”
Turkey comprises many minorities, including people of Kurdish, Greek, Armenian, Arab, Persian, Georgian, and Circassian ancestry. There are also seven distinct regions in Turkey: Black Sea, Marmara, Aegean, Mediterranean, Central Anatolia, Eastern Anatolia, and Southeastern Anatolia.
According to Aşkar, who is Turkish-born but of Syrian ancestry, Anatolian food is defined more by geography than by ethnicity.
“They all bring their traditions and cultures together,” he said. “We say it is not about the ethnic roots. It’s about the geography.”
The Black Sea is home to anchovies, but he said these are not available in the Aegean or Mediterranean seas. Conversely, shrimp can’t be found in the Black Sea. In the southeastern part of the country, food is spicier, Aşkar said, resembling what one might find in India. And ashure, a sweet porridgelike dessert also known as Noah’s pudding, is prepared differently in the different regions.
“We believe it to be the oldest recipe of mankind,” he stated.
The wonders of Anatolian cuisine are featured in The Turkish Way, the opening film at this year’s Vancouver Turkish Film Festival. The documentary features three Spanish food celebrities—Joan, Josep, and Jordi Roca—who operate one of the world’s top-rated restaurants, El Celler de Can Roca. They’re seen exploring Turkey’s culinary history with Aşkar and a Turkish sommelier. The Rocas, rock stars in the international food world, reveal a gastronomic revolution taking place in Asia Minor.
This was the Rocas’ second film on international food done in partnership with the Spanish bank BBVA. “The brothers go and search within the country and try to understand the cultures, traditions, and heritage,” Aşkar said. “Then they create a menu, a wine list, and throw a series of dinners for the fellow chefs, journalists, and guests of BBVA bank.”
Last year, these events were held in Aşkar’s restaurant. One of the Rocas’ greatest passions is sourcing nutritious food ethically. And earlier this year, they were named United Nations goodwill ambassadors for sustainability.
Aşkar shares this obsession with locally sourced healthy food, including some that has been around for millennia. He said that archaeological researchers uncovered one variety of Turkish wheat that goes back 12,000 years, and another that dates back 10,000 years. Using sustainable agricultural practices, farmers are now growing this ancient wheat, even though its yield can’t match the volume of what blooms from genetically modified seeds. Aşkar said his restaurant supports small-scale producers to preserve the food heritage of his country. He even mentioned one man who earns 10 times less growing this wheat than he would if he relied on other seeds.
“At the end of the day, the result is amazing,” Aşkar declared. “I have never used any kind of wheat like this before. Imagine a wheat cooked for seven hours and it’s al dente.”
Turkey’s seed revolution is also on display at Istanbul’s Şile Earth Market, which provides most of the vegetables for Neolokal. The market hosts a seed-exchange festival to promote greater biodiversity in the food supply. And according to Aşkar, his restaurant is doing its part to promote Turkish home cooking, albeit in a refined dining room.
“All our recipes are traditionally original,” he stated with pride.
Maksut Aşkar will be at the opening-night gala of the Vancouver Turkish Film Festival on Friday (November 25) and will attend the first movie, The Turkish Way, at the Vancity Theatre. For more information and tickets, visit the Vancouver Turkish Film Festival website.