“I do not speak the Turkish language, unfortunately, but I guess I speak the Turkish cuisine.” So says Armanoush, a young woman from an Armenian-American background, to her Turkish hostesses in Istanbul. (p. 156)
Armanoush is a character in The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak, a work of fiction that is full of references to Turkish, Armenian-American, and straight-up American food. Chapter titles include “Cinnamon,” “Garbanzo Beans,” “Sugar,” “Vanilla,” “Pistachios,” “Almonds,” “Dried Apricots,” “Pomegranate Seeds,” and many more food-centered names for the 18 chapters. Each food plays a role in its chapter, and often appears again as the story continues.
It's a complex book. Shafak, who has lived in Turkey, the US, and Europe, uses the commonality of foods among Armenians in the USA and Turks to emphasize the irony of the unfortunate relationship between the two communities. (Shafak was prosecuted in Turkey for using the word “genocide” about the persecution of Turkish-Armenians after World War I, but charges were dropped in this high-profile event.)
Two families are at the center of the book, one in San Francisco, one in Istanbul. They are linked by a couple who live in Arizona: Rose, an American from Kentucky, and Mustapha, the estranged son of the Turkish-Muslim family in Istanbul. Rose’s daughter by her first husband cements this link.
In the second chapter, Rose sees Mustapha for the first time: in a grocery store. Rose, whose daughter at the time is an infant, is thinking of buying “hamburgers, … fried eggs and maple-syrup-soaked pancakes and hot dogs with onions and mutton barbecue;” she wants "apple cider, ... hot spicy chili or smoked bacon…or… garbanzo beans.” A few minutes later, she meets Mustapha, in the canned goods aisle -- he is deciding among several brands of garbanzo beans. And so they get together.
Rose’s first husband was the son of the Armenian Catholic family in San Francisco, so her daughter’s childhood was divided between her mother in Arizona and her father in San Francisco. The daughter even has two names, American Amy and Armenian Armanoush.
The two men – Rose’s husbands – are the only significant male characters, though rather sketchily presented. The two households each consist of 3 or 4 generations of women: women who cook all the time. Further, when the Armenian family pressures Amy/Armanoush to go on a date with a desirable young man, the American food at the date restaurant is also emblematic: she “decided to go for the sesame-crusted ahi tuna tartare with foie gras yakiniku,” while her date tries “a prime rib-eye with hot mustard cream sauce on a bed of passion fruit vinaigrette and jicama.” (p107-108)
Here’s a list of dishes served by the Armenian-American family: "In multihued clay bowls of different sizes were many of his favorite dishes: fassoulye pilaki, kadin budu kofte, karniyarik, newly made churek, ... bastirma ... his favorite dish... burma." (p.51)
Eventually, Amy/Armanoush goes to Turkey to seek her paternal grandmother’s background and secrets. She stays with her stepfather’s all-female house, where she’s served many of these same dishes from her Armenian family. Both families cook and love the same foods, despite several generations of separation in vastly different cultural settings. She even discovers that both Armenian and Turkish parents peel oranges and serve them to adult children who have stayed up late at night. (pp. 115 and 185)
I've been able to identify some of the dishes mentioned in the book. Others I've found hard to identify. Binnur of Binnur's Turkish Cookbook and some of my printed Turkish cookbooks give recipes for some. They all sound delicious: perfect food for thought and dialog, as well as to eat. (Update: with Binnur's help, I've written a post with links to several recipes.)
The author uses the carefully set-up nexus between the people of Istanbul and the Armenian Americans to create a multi-way dialog about controversial issues in Turkish-Armenian history. Also, in Amy/Armanoush’s favorite Internet chat room militant Armenians discuss the Armenian genocide and modern Armenian and Turkish attitudes. These dialogs are really the center of the book, but I’m concentrating here on the way the book uses food to underscore the complex relationship.
At the end a dessert called ashura -- also spelled asura, and called Noah's Pudding because of its complex symbolic meaning in Turkish life -- plays a very important role in the final chapters of the book and their unexpected events and revelations. There’s even a recipe for it -- the ingredient list for ashura corresponds to the chapter titles: garbanzo beans, wheat, white rice, ... dried apricots, orange peels, rosewater, cinnamon, almonds, pomegranate seeds (p. 272-273). I won't spoil the ending with further details.