People might argue about taste, but anyone who has tried the Turkish cuisine, will tell you that it has much more to offer than just kebap and döner. In most cuisine rankings the Turkish cuisine has found a place among the top ten worldwide. But it would be a mistake to talk about it as one cuisine. Turkish cuisine is a hotchpotch of different influences: Ottoman, Armenian, Asian, coming from the Middle East or from Europe. It’s its own culture!
One component of this fantastic culture constantly influences our daily life. The Turkish lokanta system. It is Turkish food with that homemade feel of mom’s cooking: quickly prepared, healthy, fresh and cheap. So, to dive into this one aspect of Turkish culture, it is best to just visit a lokanta yourself. That’s why we met up with Yücel Abi and Burhan Abi at their lokanta in Kadıköy.
Yücel Abi’s lokanta career began in 1986, since then he has worked in different lokantalar all over Turkey. Since six months their lokanta in Kadıköy has become his new home. In the meantime, he has stopped cooking and instead takes care of the guests and the lokanta’s smooth execution. That sounds easy, but the reality is that people would otherwise often argue about the last portion of a meal, cut in line, or knock on the windows, until they have secured the last piece of meat. Between 20 and 25 employees prevent this madness on a daily basis.
However, the lokanta has not only become a second home for Yücel Abi and his crew. Up to 1700 people stop by daily to enjoy a meal here. Burhan Abi comments: “İnsanlar her yerde insanlar” (People are people everywhere). And their lokanta is much more than just a fast food joint, it has become somewhat of a brand in this mahalle. People arrange to meet each other in front of the restaurant and the relationships between the guests and the staff go far beyond the obligatory “Merhaba”. Everyone knows each other, each other’s preferences and the people behind those preferences.
In our ever-accelerating time, where the very time-consuming Turkish cuisine is in danger of losing its place, lokantalar are the counter-trend. Everything is based on tradition and is freshly prepared. Instead of burgers and döner, guests can choose anything ranging from fresh salad to soup to stuffed eggplant. Between six and seven dishes are always available, the classics being mercimek çorbası (lentil soup), pilav (rice), musakka (casserole), Izmir köftesi (meatballs), kuru fasülye (haricot beans) or kavurma (braised meat). Besides these, new dishes are added often, sometimes you can even find Italian pasta. If it works, it stays on the menu.
The prices start at 1,50TL, which is equivalent to 50 cents for a soup. This can only be financed through the masses, meaning that only if enough people come, the lokanta stays profitable. The market is highly competitive and most lokantalar disappear even quicker than they are established. Cleanliness and the smell of the food is what attracts most people. Yet, at their lokanta, personal contact remains the most important feature. “I could tell you hundreds of stories and anecdotes of the people who come to eat here”, says Burhan Abi. For instance, about an elderly couple, that had to give up cooking at home. It had become too much for them and if they included everything in the calculation of their expenses (like electricity, gas, and groceries) the lokanta was cheaper for them in the end. So they came to their lokanta on a daily basis and took their food home in a sefer tası (some kind of lunchbox), where they could eat in peace.
Their lokanta in Kadıköy has been existing since four years and two years ago a second branch was opened a few streets further. It is one of thousands of lokantalar in Istanbul, how many there are exactly, probably no one knows. According to Burhan Abi everything began with a trend, one person started and countless lokantalar followed. Nowadays, two types exist: self-service and service. He views the self-service version as a new form of supermarket. This system had already been running on a non-commercial basis in Ottoman times, for instance in big canteens for soldiers or students. The lokantalar as we know them developed through the fast food trend. But what makes them special: everyone eats here. Students, retired people, officials or tourists. Whether you are young or old, the lokanta is a place that connects people.
If they’ve considered opening more lokantalar, we ask at the end of our conversation. Berlin might be a good location? Burhan Abi waves the idea aside, saying franchise doesn’t make sense: “It wouldn’t work, our food isn’t cooked easily. You need good people to do it. Their lokanta belongs in Kadıköy.”
Text: Rebecca Meier, Eren Erdoğan
Translation: Judith Blumberg
MAVIBLAU is a German-language online magazine which is based in Istanbul and deals with stories, events and encounters between Turkey and the German-speaking world in the field of art, culture and society.