Travel and Dining

Bread and Community in Istanbul

Dogan Dera, owner of the Dogan Et Tavuk Butcher Shop, in his store. (Photo: Stephanie Henkel)

Sitting next to a coal-pit oven, a heavyset woman wearing a flowered headscarf begins to twirl paper-thin yufka, a Turkish flatbread, faster and faster. She then tosses it on a circular cast-iron griddle resting above the oven, and begins the process all over again. This traditional bread-making practice is an ever less common sight in rapidly urbanizing Istanbul. With more than 14 million people, it's easy to get lost in the city's hustle and bustle, yet among the chaos, tight-knit communities bound together by local culture and customs still exist.

Just north of the famous Taksim Square lies Pangalti, a neighborhood united by an array of specialty shops dedicated to fresh and local fare. Butchers, bakeries and produce markets, some of which have been in business for over 70 years, line the narrow, cobblestone sidewalks of the hilly terrain. These shops have become staples of the neighborhood, influencing local Turkish cuisine in restaurants and residents' homes.

Erzincan Tandir Ekmegi, located on Türkbey Street, still uses one of the oldest styles of Anatolian bread making in Turkish history. In the back behind the bar-style countertop, three women (including our talented yufka bread maker extraordinaire) surround a large pit-style oven kneading, shaping and baking various types of traditional Turkish bread. The love and care used to make these artisanal treats keep people from all over Istanbul coming back for more.

"These types of places are very rare in Istanbul. Making bread like this is an art," said Hasan Ginar, a retired schoolteacher and longtime patron of Erzincan Tandir Ekmegi.

Down the street from this little piece of yesteryear is one of Istanbul's more distinctive produce businesses, Naturel Ürünler, a specialty store devoted solely to a Mediterranean treat—the artichoke. A few feet away from the entrance of the shop sits an assembly line of expert trimmers carving out artichoke hearts at lightning speed. They use only the finest quality artichokes, and typically sell their unparalleled produce to locals and some of Istanbul's top hotels and restaurants.

As complex as the anatomy of an artichoke, Pangalti is an area rich with history and a long legacy of community collaboration. During the 16th century, many Chian Greeks immigrated to Kurtulus, the cosmopolitan quarter where Pangalti is located, to work in the dockyards of the Ottoman Empire. At the time, the area was known as Tatavla, which means "horse stable" in Greek. As time went on, many other nonnative groups moved to the region, including Armenians, Jews and Kurds. Today, many of these minority populations still inhabit Pangalti, enriching the area with diversity and a culture of their own.

"They cooperate with each other," said Alp Ünsal, a student at Yeditepe University, who resides in Pangalti. "They share their problems, food and money. When they come here, they live in peace."

The residents have created a culture based on rich relationships with neighbors and shop owners alike. Many of them feel like they need to band together, and that means supporting local businesses while eschewing supermarkets and shopping malls. In return, the shop owners and workers provide exceptional products and services that, in the age of big business, are becoming more and more unusual.

Behind a glass display case filled with a variety of fresh, beautifully marbled meats, stands Dogan Dera, owner of the Dogan Et Tavuk Butcher Shop on Baruthone Street. His comments reflect a strong sense of pride and accomplishment in his work. "I do my best to welcome people here. I want my customers to leave happy," he said.

Dera has lived in the Pangalti neighborhood for 46 years, and most of his customers are his friends and neighbors. Even when people move out of the area, he said, they typically make the trip back to the neighborhood to buy their meats from him.

Dedicated customer Taylon Çeçer, who is a local medical worker, said he comes to Dogan Et Tavuk every day to buy meat. "In this place, people have at least 50 years of history. That reassures people when buying their products. It means quality," he said. "In this neighborhood, these shops do not advertise. It is all word of mouth. People just recommend these places to each other. This system keeps the community more friendly and local."

Aishan Ekinci, owner and chef of Cookistan, a cooking school built around the Pangalti fresh-food culture, could not agree more. "Pangalti is a neighborhood where you can still shop cheaply in a very traditional way," said Ekinci. "Shop owners have been here for years and know people by name. They will call you when fresh produce comes in, and will sometimes even deliver it to your home. This relationship between the families and shops is very important. People are always helping others in Pangalti."