Can any of you remember the best meal you’ve ever had? The best time with friends or family over food? The ideal feast in your mind’s eye? For many of you reading this it would probably be at Christmas, roast turkey/beef/whatever, potatoes, sprouts, carrots, bread sauce, peas, mince pies, whatever. I love the traditional feasts of Britain and yet…I feel like we don’t have enough! I have been to many an American thanksgiving dinner and I seriously feel like British people should somehow hijack it. I love the deeper sentiment behind the idea of thanksgiving however the food is certainly a massive part of it. We need as many traditional means to stuff ourselves as we can! I’m pretty sure if we looked hard enough we could dig up some saint’s day from an older calender and use that as a new national feast day. We could make the start of summer a feast day or more importantly, the end of summer a feast day to cheer ourselves up.
Honestly though I have a problem with Britain’s food culture. I heard from a friend that the average American spends just under an hour a day eating or having meal times, and from what I can see the British one can’t be far off that! The amount of time people spend on their meals in France is apparently over 2 hours! Our approach to food is incredibly rushed. The existence of the breakfast cereal is testament to that need to get food down you as quickly as possible. The meal deals at Tesco (not Sainsburys, you blew it guys) exemplify the need for a speedy feed, to say nothing of the pot noodle or microwave meals. However it is incredibly convenient and I would struggle without any of these food sources. The economy of London may well be adversely affected if we didn’t have them. However I regret the fact that speed and convenience are the most important things in our society’s approach to food.
Not so in Turkey. When the clock strikes one most people don’t rush off to the nearest Migros (A Turkish supermarket chain) and buy a ready made sandwich, bag of crisps, and a diet coke. They stay at their place of work and a wonderful thing happens. A delivery man from the nearest local café brings a long a tray with a freshly cooked bowl of soup, a basket of bread, and the all important cup of tea. Sometimes the meal would be different, cucumbers, olives, and cheese for breakfast, or lahmacun (turkish pizza) for lunch. All freshly cooked, a hot lunch. It is a strange sight for a Londoner. No professionals whirling around the streets in search of food but a whirl of couriers delivering food here and there. And it’s fresh! Once you’ve had your soup and bread you’ll spend a good amount of time chatting over the latest happenings of the day over your cup of tea. You will sit at a table, with plates, cutlery and napkins. Sipped sparingly and slowly. You will have a relaxing time in the sun, your food fully enjoyed.
When I was younger and living in China a similar phenomenon could be observed. Restaurants where piping hot food could be eaten in a proper meal time situation were frequented by all members of society. Certainly as foreigners we could afford more but going to a restaurant for lunch was the norm among most people. The image we have in the west of a restaurant as a place for fine and expensive dining did not apply there. Restaurants in China were usually quite dirty, small and noisy, but the food was good and you could still relax whilst eating. Eating food by yourself on the street out of a packet was unheard of.
Similarly the idea of a sandwich or cereal is relatively alien to Istanbul. The concept of making meal times a ritual that must be honoured with hot food still seems to present in certain areas. I have of course frequented the falafel tents and other street foods of London however these are relatively special places to go in my experience. Even then wonderful hot street food is by nature quick and easy to get hold of. Sitting down at a table and getting something hot does not seem to be the norm. Here the ability to go to a restaurant regularly for a good eating experience has been reduced to the elite of society. We must re-ritualise meal times as a sacred space for relaxation and enjoyment.
And almost a week ago now in Turkey, and across the whole Muslim world, an important event marked by eating occurred. The festival of Eid Al-Adha (in Arabic), or Kurban as I have known it through turkic languages, is a great event for all muslims across the globe. According to tradition it celebrates the obedience of Abraham who was willing to sacrifice his son to God before an angel was sent to intervene. Each year every family that can afford it buys an animal, usually a cow or sheep, for the slaughter. Prayers are said by the family as the animal is killed and later the animal is butchered through the proper halal process. What follows is several days of all out feasting and celebration. Of my experience in Istanbul, school was out and everyone was on holiday and the marks of animals were everywhere. Neighbours invite as many people round as they can on different occasions to share the vast quantities of meat around. No part of the animal goes to waste and every table groans with the weight of rice, mezzes, bread, salad and more Turkish foods than I can describe in a sentence. As you walked down the street friends and neighbours would say “Bayramınız mübarek olsun”, enjoy the blessed feast. Or to english speaking ears “happy holidays”.
This years Eid celebrations ended several days ago and many of you may be looking forward to your next holiday, be it Thanksgiving, Christmas, or something else. In fact the Chinese moon cake festival only just ended as well. In the wake of all the turmoil in Turkey and the pain of many people across the world in these troubled times I would just like you to know that everyone has their feasts. Everyone has their Christmas dinner, just in different ways.