Can Turkish cuisine be successful around the world?
This question has long been around. The claim that Turkish cuisine is one of the three major cuisines in the world has been making the rounds, just like a superstition, but the source of this claim or the two other cuisines that make up this trio are mysteries I am yet to resolve.
Since there is no proof or record for this clail, I decided to conduct my own research, by comparing Turkey with Italy, a country ‘similar to ours.’ Forgive me if I upset or annoy you along the way…
Let’s start with our similarities…
Italy is a typical, ‘warm-blooded’ Mediterranean country with a Mediterranean climate, and rich in micro-geographic features in its various different regions. And so is Turkey.
Our advantages and disadvantages in terms of agriculture are also similar with Italy. Neither country possesses agricultural lands, irrigation facilities or agricultural enterprises suitable for large-scale agriculture. Instead, both countries have family businesses and farmland that are divided as these families grow.
Our dietary habits are also similar…
The types of diet we encounter in Italy and Turkey can both be generalized as Mediterranean-style. People in both countries enjoy an infinitely various local cuisine.
There is another important feature of Turkish and Italian cuisines: One does not observe huge difference between home cooking and dishes served in family owned establishments. Our local restaurants, like those trattorias of Italians, serve dishes that are very similar to home cooking whereas in France, there are significant differences between home cooking and the food served in high-end restaurants.
So far so good, but the divergence starts here, and so do the ‘cons’ of Turkey.
For instance, the issue of industry and technology…
In terms of both quality and diversity, small agricultural businesses in Italy are much more developed in contrast to those in Turkey. Essential issues such as technology, wrapping, packaging, marketing and logistics have ‘peaked’ in Italy. Or if we were to use the new lingo, these guys are ‘smashing,’ and they have ‘aced’ this business. Their mastery of design and presentation is already a well-known fact.
Perhaps we are also quite good in logistics, but no one can say, “We are so perfect, we are ready to take our place on shelves around the world” when it comes to the other issues. Despite having made excellent progress in recent years, we still have a long way to go in these areas.
I have a friend in Bozcaada, who is a top-end producer in one of the industries with the highest added value, namely wine production. His brand is now known worldwide. But mind you, he buys his machines from Italy, his corks from Spain, and his barrels from France.
Let’s move on to product presentation. That is also an important issue; in fact, it is a very important issue that incorporates several different subjects…
Italy can sell processed agricultural products in value added small packages, mainly through retail. Actually, they are quite successful in this regard. Almost all local Italian products are known by name and sought with respect all over the world. The names of each region are attached to an ingredient, such as Napoli mozzarella, Balsamico di Modena, Chianti wine, Parma ham, Bolognese sauce, and Milanese sauce.
The agricultural products in Turkey, on the other hand, are mostly sold untreated, and more often than not, in ‘bulk’. In fact, from time to time, Italy buys these products from us in ‘bulk’, and exports them once again with their ‘added value,’ and at a much higher price.
In other words, it would be fair to say, we are absolutely clueless when it comes to adding value to our own product.
For years, we exported sun-dried tomatoes to Italy in bulk; thereafter, we imported these same tomatoes from Italy, now in fabulous packaging and with ostentatious brand names attached for our wonderful Italian restaurants in Turkey…
For years, we sold our olive oil to Italy via tankers; subsequently, we bought the same oil, now transferred into glamorous bottles sitting on market shelves…
Turkey is the sixth biggest grape producer in the world following China, Italy, United States of America, France and Spain. As far as I know, we are the fifth in the world in terms of area for vineyards. But our expertise in terms of using our grapes to produce wines with added value, is not enough to put us among even the top 30 in the world…
Another important issue regarding products…
In Italy, products and producers are monitored with an excellent surveillance system with strict appellation rules for both quality and ‘origin’, which is recognized by the state and producer unions. In Turkey, this system is very new, and almost non-existent. Customer exploitation and unfair gains are commonplace.
Using phrases such as organic, natural and local on products could cause one’s fingers to get burned in Italy. In our country, on the other hand, the legislation for labeling excludes several very important details, and as a result, anyone can write whatever they wish on their product’s packaging as if in a three-ring circus. And, self-control in Turkey is now being translated as whistleblowing.
The man is producing cheese in the backstreet, and calling it Ezine cheese; ‘if you believe it’! They would crucify you in a heartbeat for such a thing in Italy… In an ideal world, cheesemongers from Ezine should be up in arms in Turkey too, but unfortunately, there is no such tradition for industry-specific organization or a culture of forming of alliances…
Let’s continue with products, you’re not cross, are you?
Italian ventures for the promotion of their cuisine and products at the uppermost, highest level. They are incredible in terms of their use of media, participation in fairs, representation, hospitality, and so on. While in Turkey, this level is very, very low.
Unfortunately we continue to display and represent Turkey like a third world country in fairs.
Whereas the special care Italians show for their products have provided them with another different and vital gain for them in time…
These products are always marketed at the top-end wholesale and retail outlets across the world. Our products, on the other hand, are marketed in regions where only Turkish and immigrant Muslim populations live, and while I am sorry to say this, only in regions occupied by low socio-economic and socio-cultural groups.
Oh, and we also have a problem that I take offence even talking about it…
I can’t even provide an example from or make a comparison with Italy on this subject.
Turkish agricultural products also have very critical problems regarding hygiene and food safety. For this very reason, our meat products, dairy products, chicken, eggs, spices and even some dried fruits and vegetables are frequently prohibited in or denied entry to several important markets, especially the European Union.
And, of course, the steep customs applied by European countries make competition nearly impossible, that’s a whole different story.
Now, let’s talk about location…
In addition to being located at the heart of the European Union, Italy is in close-range to large markets with high purchasing power. Not to mention, there are 100 million people of Italian descent who are living outside of Italy. 50 million are in America alone. And it’s worth noting that our Italian friends enjoy many benefits such as customs convenience and foreign trade advantages.
Ooh… We are also located near markets with high purchasing power; in fact, we are in an even better position. It is quite crowded around us. We are in the middle of the European Union, Russia and the Middle East.
We have such a trump card in our hands; it is beyond great. No small thanks to the geography of the Ottoman Empire, there are 200 million people living just beyond our borders, with whom we share the same culinary heritage.
If one was to ask, “Can we utilize this?” the response is, “Who knows, perhaps we’re learning”; then again, only ‘very slowly’…
Shall we focus on cuisines and chefs for a bit?
Italian cuisine is by far the most common restaurant concept in the world. It is represented quite well on each and every level. Of course, they might have various issues to still smooth over, but from the outside, this is how it feels. The world image of Italian cuisine is on par with France, Japan and Spain.
Sadly, it is almost impossible to say the same things about Turkish cuisine.
Enterprises grouped under the ‘umbrella of Turkish cuisine’ are mainly used by our citizens living abroad as immigrants, and are considered as a sub-category, despite their significant number. Abroad, the image of Turkish cuisine is unfortunately very, very bad.
In Turkey, high-end consumers’ approach to and perception of local products is also quite disheartening. The scope of consumption in this area can be described as what mathematicians define as ‘negligible.’
And the chefs… Chefs, chefs, chefs…
Countless well-equipped chefs represent Italian cuisine in the world but with the exception of Mehmet Gürs and Maksut Aşkar, we don’t have many chefs who have proven themselves in the world.
A commercial for an olive oil is being filmed in Turkey; the leading role is given to a foreign chef. Though it pains me to say this, that same chef is the only person conducting research on pomegranate syrup in Turkey.
Turkey needs well-trained, multilingual and presentable chefs and ‘culinary people’ with good grasp of technical information and products, who love research, who can represent Turkey in kitchens, and introduce Turkish cuisine to the world with their charisma and personality (I’m not referring to the Nusret style).
A close friend of mine, who is a veteran of this sector in Italy, asserts that there are 70 thousand Italian restaurants in Italy and another 70 thousand around the world, adding that the quality of these restaurants has increased significantly in the last 10-15 years. He directly attributes this development to professional culinary schools in Italy and the increase in the number of professional and graduate professional chefs who have taken business administration and/or Italian cuisine training in these schools.
Anyway… Speaking of ‘chefs,’ let me tell you about a ‘nationalist’ issue from personal experience…
Italian chefs—both amateur and professional—who are living abroad, strictly use Italian products, even the specific products of their own regions, regardless of the price. What’s more, they create a solid pressure on both the wholesale and retail channels to act together and keep these products in stock in the country where they live.
The case for ‘our good old countrymen,’ however, is the exact opposite. Neither the amateur nor the professional consumers living abroad insist on using Turkish products; either they prefer the brands that claim to be Turkish but established in those countries or they do worse and bring products such as Greek feta cheese, Lebanese tahini, Bulgarian yogurt into their kitchens, because they are cheaper, and ultimately undermine their fellow manufacturers from Turkey, unknowingly or unintentionally.
Allow me to make a simple calculation…
Let’s imagine that we are establishing a mid-level Italian or Turkish restaurant in a decent-sized Western European city.
Let’s say it serves 100 for lunch and 100 for dinner.
The average check is 30 Euros for lunch and 50 for dinner.
What a day! 3,000 at noon, 5,000 in the evening, and a total of 8,000 Euros a day.
Everyone in the food and beverage industry knows that 33 percent of the revenue is the cost of sales. Where are we with our calculation? 2,650 euros.
And let’s say that half of these are ‘country specific’ products, which bring our balance to 1,300 Euros. Please multiply that with 365…
A restaurant has the opportunity to make a contribution of 475,000 Euros a year for exports from its own country.
One restaurant, a single restaurant has the capacity to purchase half a million euros of local ingredients per year.
I believe that, those of you who can appreciate how valuable even an export of 500,000 Euros is, can just as easily calculate how much this would be with 10 restaurants, 100 restaurants, 500 restaurants around the world. I’ll leave it with you…
I tried making the calculation for my friend’s assertion of 70 thousand restaurants in Italy and another 70 thousand around the world, but the calculator on my phone just could not do it.
Actually, what needs to be done is quite simple, just one word: Education.
Education is all we need. Education in agriculture, education in storage, education in processing. Rigorous training in batching, packaging, design and display. And rigorous training at every level of the ‘value chain,’ from the producer to the consumer.
An education designed in a sustainable way, for a sustainable system
I told you about my friend in Bozcaada, who purchased the machines from Italy, the corks from Spain and the casks from France. There’s nothing to be ashamed of here, but I did not mention the most crucial thing he obtained… He acquired know-how from Italy. He paid for it and got the education to become an expert in this business. This crazy guy did not stop there, but he also took care of the producers in the neighboring vineyards, making them receive this education and paying for it too. Now those neighbors also know that quality goods pay well.
Now this approach should be the state policy in Turkey.
Look… I am not necessarily saying that the state should pay for everything; please don’t get me wrong.
Besides, as far as I know, the initiatives that motivate the masses around them; ignite their industries to action and of course ‘push standards’ by creating added value, more often than not are from the private sector.
But the state should at least pave the way for these endeavors, remove unnecessary procedures and barriers and utilize its international relations and diplomacy… Right?
In conclusion, I would like to sum up as follows…
It doesn’t matter who pays for it, whether the state subsidizes this education or we pay for it ourselves; if we do our jobs once we are equipped with the know-how, and of course, if we work hard and in a responsible manner, nothing can hinder our success.
If our aim is to develop Turkish cuisine, to support the worldwide recognition of our local products and for our manufacturers to be educated and for them to gain awareness, then Italy is an important ‘role model’ for Turkey in terms of its success in the field of gastronomy.
The country name is interchangeable; Italy could just as well be swapped with Spain, Peru or the ‘Nordic’ countries…
I think that instead of rediscovering what has already been accomplished, creating a strategic master-plan overseen and encouraged by the state, by utilizing these effective practices, taking advantage of other countries’ experience, obtaining professional know-how and training, setting out with the right actors and creating our own unique style along the way is what is necessary for us to progress towards our goal.
Is it possible, of course it is. But you need a very professional and dedicated team, a very rigorous program, a considerable budget, and persistence that is equally passionate.
Final word: ‘Our culinary people’…
Let’s not forget that, especially in the last 20 years, cuisine has globally become an art and research subject that can’t be defined solely with ‘restaurant quality and palate.’
Highly intellectual international symposiums, seminars and congresses on cuisine and culinary issues are being organized worldwide.
The vital role that these organizations play in the representation and promotion of ‘national cuisine’ is clearly obvious for all of us.
We have very successful culinary people who are too important not to mention. But unfortunately, the success of these heroes, and there are only a handful of them, is entirely due to their individual efforts.
If I was to provide very high level examples (and that is the level required here), the extraordinary culinary person Musa Dağdeviren, the founder of the best culinary research magazine ‘Food and Culture [Yemek ve Kültür]’, which we have been benefiting from for years, whose work at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) has been making us proud, and who has recently written ‘The Turkish Cookbook,’ a book that even the word perfect is not enough to describe or the architect, culinary culture researcher and columnist Aylin Öney Tan, who has been gallantly representing Turkey on platforms such as Oxford, namely our heroes, should not be treated as ‘Don Quixote’s, should increase in number and be included in the development of a conscious and strategic state and tourism policy.
What if we were to replace the phrase Turkish cuisine with Turkish textile or another of our industries, wouldn’t the content still be valid?