Melek Erdal's Yayla Çorbası with Cucumber Cooler
An introductory essay, and a recipe. Text and photography by Melek Erdal
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Welcome to Vittles Recipes! In this new weekly slot, our roster of six rotating columnists will share their recipes and wisdom with you. This week’s columnist is Melek Erdal. You can read our archive of cookery writing here.
A living etymology of cooking
An introductory essay and a recipe for yayla çorbası with cucumber cooler. Text and photography by Melek Erdal
‘When I have the land, I will sow the words’ – Mercedes Sosa
When I have the words, I will give you the recipe.
Can I tell you that I do not enjoy writing recipes? It is not instinctive to the way I cook or share food. So, when I write recipes, it is often a compromise and a surrender, because I do love so very much to share the food I cook so that you might cook it too.
When one wonders, ‘But I followed the recipe, why does it not taste or look like yours?’, I can tell you it’s because there is a hidden part of the recipe, the invisible spice that is salt-bae’d down your elbow onto the plate. It’s called context: the context behind the recipe, the thing that is earned over time and space, over kitchens shared. What our mothers call ‘hand taste’. The flavour added from the hands that are cooking it. So, no two dishes that have the same name are ever really the same. And that’s beautiful.
The women in my family, like many in our region, are poets and mystics. They do not cook with printed words, because printed words have failed us. There is a suspicion around the printed recipe because we come from a culture that has had to persist without existing in books.
The Kurds, you see, have lived for a century as minorities in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, making them susceptible to oppressive regimes and tactics to suppress our existence. The Kurdish language was banned in Turkey (where we are in the southeast) for a long time. Listening to Kurdish music or learning how to read or write in Kurdish were illegal. ‘Mountain people with a mountain language’ was the line used to minimise and diminish the Kurdish sense of self – a sense of self that was formalised out of you when you got to school age and were taught the state language and read the state books that did not mention your place in the history of the land or the culture.
The printed word, therefore, does not hold superiority in our forms of communication for the preservation of culture and history – if it did, we would have long disappeared by now. We express and communicate in song, in stories, in dance, and in food. The act of cooking became subversive: an act of resistance. The women of our kitchens have been the gatekeepers of our stories, and they never knew it.
When you ask mama or aunty, ‘How do I make this?’, you will get an answer like ‘Well, come and watch.’ It is both an insult and an invitation, a generosity encased in slight shade, as with all forms of their love. They are opening up their kitchen and history for you – is there a more generous thing? But it is a love that requires you to do some work too. To earn the space. To earn the ‘hand taste’.
As you watch them cook, you will hear mysterious descriptions like ‘alabildiği’kadar un’, which means 'to add ‘as much flour as it can take’. You will then have to decode for yourself just how much flour this is. Aldi flour is superior apparently. This is a known thing among the aunty baking community.
The spoken word is important, the spoken words in our songs and stories. The spoken word is flexible and elastic. It changes shape, form, and meaning over time. It picks up its surroundings, it is formed by the earth it is from, and, in return, it shapes those who use it. I love to retrace a word, to imagine how it got here, just as I love to retrace a dish. How did it get to our table? What journey did it take and how did it survive? How did we make it delicious? When my baba embellishes stories, he manages to make our recent history legend-like with his hyperbole. I now realise that this is our survival: making words and food delicious so that they can survive to reach your table today.
It is with this sentiment that I start this series of recipes. I will savour a word, retrace it, and build a recipe around it, so that it might reach your table.