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Food as a babysitter
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Food as a babysitter

Smuggling food beyond embargoes. Words and audio by Tice Cin; Illustration by Sinjin Li
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Good afternoon and welcome to Vittles Season 6: Food and the Arts.

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Note: Today’s text is performed by the author, who has transformed it into a reading and sound collage with additional music. We strongly recommend that if you have the time, you listen to the essay being read via the podcast function at the start of this email.


The best ‘translator’ for food is the body: food speaks through the sensations it produces when we eat it. Writing about food brings the challenge of conveying the irreducibly complex sensations of the body into the medium of language. The body, like food, is site-specific; it is anchored to place and time and cannot be in two locations at once. Language is unattached, and disembodied: floats away from us. Unlike one dish or one body, the same word can be in many places at once. To speak of food, language must go against its ephemeral nature and try to approximate a rich specificity of place and time. Language about food does not always travel well, changing meaning en route. 

Today’s piece of nonfiction by the author and artist Tice Cin speaks of the movements of food and language from North Cyprus to mainland Turkey and to north London across the sea, or on a plane, as well as across the table. Care must be taken when food and language travel – Tice shows us that you need the right container and an understanding of how it will be read. Against the odds, cheese smuggled thousands of miles in slippers might arrive intact when a word for cheese spoken face to face does not. Her text expresses the dance of food as it moves between bodies and borders and words. RMJ


Food as a Babysitter, by Tice Cin

I am soaking Tupperware that is the perfect shape. Before it moulded a stump of cylindrical moin-moin, egg in the middle, day-sustaining and scotch-bonneted.  

No one is here.  
The bleach rivulets into the indices of the lid. 
We smuggle food. 
Pillowcases of it. 
Jars in shoes.  
Contraband gifts. 

Someone’s argued with the neighbour with the goats. My uncle’s had to resort to the other neighbour, with her goats. I once told a boy on a date that I loved his family cheese because they made it ekşili: I loved the tart, the tang. Perhaps the sourness of older goat milk that gives helim a little boost of flavour. Churned with secrets.

My sister gifted her in-laws back on the mainland proper cöy helim, taken on a stormed-up boat from Kıbrıs to Mersin. They sat at a long table in a garden eating soğuk kahvaltı. Cold breakfast. Spicy hung-up pastırma, walnut paste, green-appley almonds. She watched as her husband’s uncle sized up the cöy helim, and she felt confident that this mainlander would become a convert and see how it was special, the cheese from our village, made by the family of the boy I dated. She tells me how he smiled politely after his bite. Said it was nice. Subtle taste. Subtle? She was confused. She remembered the cheese to be tart, lemony but not ekşili. The taste had changed, become milder. Instead they were eating a neutral type of cheese, rather than the cheese that toddlers feared and village men sequestered. Is this the potent cheese you loved so much? Where is the vim? The polite smile of my sister’s husband’s uncle said a lot.      

Sidebar, I said to her, isn’t ekşili a good thing? Isn’t ekşili ‘tart and lemony’? She said no, ekşili is a diss in the Turkish language. That’s like saying someone marinated their cheese in vinegar. I had a click into place, an image of a boy on our date together: I had found the source of the changed cheese. Rewinding all the way back to me leaning forward, towards my date, and using a word to describe a bright, tart flavour. Him, choked on his tea when I’d told him about his ‘ekşili’ family cheese. I thought he was choking because he was shy and I looked pretty. I remember he replied saying how I was more of a villager than the villagers. Now I see he meant: I had the negging that aunties have, as in, ‘hmm the cheese is good but you make it too sharp, honey’. I had only meant to say that I loved the tang of his helim. But he changed it to a new recipe forevermore after that. I can’t believe I changed the helim. I’ve heard his family business has gone a bit downhill in the village. I’ve heard that expats buy their cheese more now, because it tastes less villagey. We might never get that particular tongue-flicking, sour cheese back. I feel to buck him one day on the beach and say ‘I’m sorry, it was just a language barrier thing, a misunderstanding’. I feel to ring up my sister’s husband’s uncle and explain to him how I’ve ruined the cheese and that mainlanders need to put some respect on Turkish Cypriot cheese. If you came to the village itself, you’d find some lovely stuff here. We’ve got strong flavours. We add a particular type of salt to our goat milk. We have some old-school ways that have lasted through the slow pace of life here. There are lots of neighbours who regularly top one another: just when you think you’ve found your favourite, someone else is arriving to come out on top of flavour. Some lovely lovely stuff.  


Food embargoes are such a bore. You’d be rude not to exchange Nescafé from London for homemade prizes. But there’s a flip side. In the airport back to London from North Cyprus via mainland Turkey, me and my siblings, all fifteen and younger, got pulled by security once. 

They all protested: nothing was in our suitcases, promise. 

I remember earlier that day in my auntie’s spare room, virtually untouched since the 1970s, and her winking at me as she put food in alternative stockings: lemon in a pant leg here, crumbly dairy-haven nör in a sock there. 

This was my time to straighten things out, to remind my siblings, ‘Eh, what about the helim in our slippers?’ 

What slippers and what helim? 

Suitcases. Four kids looking on. Me, pleased as anything. 

Police are brandishing a pillowcase of dried molohiya before our eyes.

Security guards are looking at me like I am a paid-and-prodded snitch.

You see, North Cyprus has been under harsh embargoes since 1983. Flights to its Ercan International Airport are banned internationally. If you’ve made the trip there, you’ve had a stopover in Turkey, or you’ve crossed the Green Line at the border to get over there. The United Kingdom, Germany, and some other European countries accepted Turkish Cypriot food products, including citrus, being directly imported for some time, until the European Court of Justice heightened the economic embargo in the 90s by stating that food certificates issued by North Cyprus were deemed unacceptable for the European Union.

When people ask me what do I eat, what’s on our family table, they often don’t imagine the lengths the food took to reach the table. Let’s forbid a jar breaking. Economic scarcity takes on new heights when you break something that is expensive and hard to replace. 

There’s a saying: if you don’t exist politically, you don’t exist at all. But we try to find ways to make it work. To archive ourselves on a plate.

An ex, breaking up with me, once spoke to me about how it must be nice to be so connected to my island, ‘yours surrounds you in North London’. It’s not quite as simple as that. Many Turkish Cypriot food businesses have failed over the last twenty years: it is easier to find and eat most foods from across the Middle East and North African regions than it is to find a Turkish Cypriot business thriving. Those others are similar and beloved but they’re not the same. On the phone to my sister, talking about the guy who brings delicacies over from North Cyprus, she tells me, ‘I don’t know where he brings it from but he just does it’. 


I spent a lot of my young years getting driven around various cash-and-carries. Babysitters with side-hustles would drop me off while they went off on phone calls. It would be a waiting game of mine to hold tins up and wonder if it might be similar to home goods in North Cyprus. Elsewhere I’m let loose and told to walk around eating by myself, and to return when I’m full. If I’m a kid, nobody will notice me. Go to the salad bar. Eat the olives out of the bowl containers. Find the hot chicken corner. 

My few memories of being with my dad involve these places too. Loon Fung in Tottenham is where he introduced me to dried fruit; he’d buy a box of sweetened mango and I’d go back to his flat, in shock at the quantity before returning home and wishing I’d taken another packet with me.

Another time in JJs wholesaler I am walking around with my dad, whose kebab shop in east London is failing (Romford is still quite… impenetrable at this point, and he eventually swaps to making Full Englishes and roast dinners). We are in the meat fridge, where the plastic shutters feel warm by contrast, and he is explaining to me how Turks didn’t originally cook kebabs with lamb in London: the real stuff is with beef so it gets steaky, like the delicious Iskender in Antepliler on Green Lanes. . I am enraged because it sounds like a lie. I’ve always known lamb to be best – it was never the cheap option in my head. If England had been different, the kebabs might have been beef all along. Is it hearsay or subterfuge in a meat locker? I go back home, to my mum, who says that in her opinion, things like köfte meatballs always taste better when you mix the mince half and half. Lamb. Beef. I nod because this is common sense. 

Best Kebab opened in Stokey in 1982. According to some potentially reliable family members of mine, they started off with beef for their döner and went on to use lamb. That same family member thinks the choice was their idea, that they practically invented the secret recipe in a conversation while ordering from them in the early 80s. But the general idea was that the lamb had more fat and therefore would stand out and taste juicier, attracting a cold-weather stomach. On my way home from my first poetry performance when I was 22, a friend of mine offered to drive me and my siblings home – we slowed down to grab Best Kebab on the way. She was complaining about the smell of the kebab, how it would sink into the leather seats of her new Mercedes. Me and my brother cradled the two bags of döner in our arms as the winter winds whipped in through every open window, finding her disdain sacrilegious. We were grateful for the lift, but more grateful to get back home and peel the paper away. 


My mum used to go to the market stall in Lefkosa in the 70s and buy ‘paupers’ essentials’ from stallholders who shouted the lyrics of Barış Manço’s ‘Domates, Biber, Patlıcan’ – ‘tomatoes, pepper, aubergine’. They’d yell it so fast that you couldn’t make out the song. It is rumoured amongst mainland Turks that you can make 700 different dishes from that combo of ingredients. My mum will tell you it’s more like 20, but I am looking to reach at least 100 somehow, with smoking drums and fine sieves. ‘Domates, Biber, Patlıcan’ is an ode to missed opportunities: it tells the story of a heart-ached poet who is on the brink of expressing his undying love for an unnamed woman. Right on the cusp, a street seller outside suddenly cries out Domates! Biber! Patlıcan!’ and it halts him in his thoughts. For there is always reality when you come back to eating, sheltering, walking on. 

In my novel Keeping the House, cooking is a means of connecting back to what you have around you. There is a line ‘our Tupperware, just the same’. To me, this calls to mind the warming surprise as Tupperwares get sent back and forth between friends' households. You never return a loaded plate empty. My pepper paste recipe has been improved by a friend of mine whose Yoruba mum gave him tips to freeze mine for better results. Smoke things before you blend to freeze them. The rest, top secret.

The adaptability of food has always been a comfort to me. One item swapped for another. Nothing is lost as we find ways towards each other with tricks and solutions. 


I am soaking Tupperware that is the perfect shape. It is a friend of mine’s birthday and there is no better way for me to show love than by filling the Tupperware with ceviz macun: green walnuts in a clove and sugar syrup. I asked my auntie to get the lady in our village to do it, the same one who’d shown me around her home and pointed out black-and-white family portraits of her husband before the war, and new ones of her grandkids in jelly shoes. She fell and broke her arm after a playful goat ran into her arms. She’ll make it again but first I need to visit, to bring her the fresh walnuts, the sugar, the cloves. In the meantime, I am going to fill the Tupperware with ceviz macun delivered by the short, hooded man who brings things over. My auntie asked the lady in Esentepe to make it for me. As a thank you, I will use a holidaying relative to send back coffee, underwear from Primark, maybe some M&S biscuits. 

No one is here.  
We smuggle and swap food. 
Pillowcases of it. 
Jars in shoes.  
Contraband gifts.

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Credits

Tice Cin is an interdisciplinary artist from North London. Her novel Keeping the Houseis set in and around the north London heroin trade. She is a recent recipient of a Society of Authors Somerset Maugham Prize, and was shortlisted for Book of the Year at the British Book Awards. A DJ and music producer, she is preparing to release an accompanying album for Keeping the House with a host of talented features including those from the creative house she is part of, Fwrdmtn, such as Kareem Parkins-Brown and Latekid. A filmmaker, she is currently writing and co-directing three short films. She has just produced, self-funded and directed her first music video.

Sinjin Li is the moniker of Sing Yun Lee, an illustrator and graphic designer based in Essex. Sing uses the character of Sinjin Li to explore ideas found in science fiction, fantasy and folklore. They like to incorporate elements of this thinking in their commissioned work, creating illustrations and designs for subject matter including cultural heritage and belief, food and poetry among many other themes. Previous clients include Vittles, Hachette UK, Welbeck Publishing, Good Beer Hunting and the London Science Fiction Research Community. They can be found at www.sinjinli.com and on Instagram at @sinjin_li

Vittles is edited by Rebecca May Johnson, Sharanya Deepak and Jonathan Nunn, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead.

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