Monday, November 21, 2011

A Culinary Tour | The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak

This isn’t a review. It’s a rave. I loved this book so much that I didn’t want to take any chances at slipping up with spoilers. Here goes:

Someday, when I visit Turkey, I’m going to write down every dish I’ve read about in Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul and use it as my culinary guide. I’d take the book with me but that might not be the best idea since the author was put on trial in 2006 for allegedly “denigrating Turkeshness” and I can see why.

At first, it’s an insight into present day Istanbul with the Kanzaci family, ruled by women because a mysterious curse wipes out their men at a very early age. Then through the Kchakmakhchain clan, it’s a revelation into the Armenian community in the US, weighed down by it’s turbulent past. Soon it becomes a journey of self discovery when Armanoush, a young Armenian American girl travels to the land of her ancestors hoping to understand and accept her heritage. It ends with Asya, a Turkish girl born out of wedlock, learning her true identity in grim circumstances.

With so much going on and so many realms to explore – past, present and at times, mystical – The Bastard of Istanbul deserves time, space and a really long commute to work in order to be thoroughly devoured.

Every chapter of the book is named after a flavor, fruit or nut – cinnamon, pomegranates, pine nuts -- an aspect that speaks volumes of the Turkish obsession with food. But while most of these are meant to add to the plot or symbolism of the narrative, mentions to dishes such as kofte, borek, ashure (detailed recipe for this one included in the book), make you ravenous for some Turkish culinary delights.

But references to delicious cheeses, teas poured out of samovars and desserts with coconut sprinkles on top can only enthrall you so much. At the heart of it, the book is a gripping tale of life, survival and secrets that are best left alone… unless of course, you’re the reader, and the one narrating said secrets is a bad djinni called Mr Bitter.

The first time I attempted The Bastard of Istanbul, I naively mistook it for an airplane read. It wasn’t heavy, complex or filled with big words that require a dictionary at hand. But I just couldn’t immerse myself in a world caught between the East and the West, when I myself was dangling between two time zones. So I’m glad I went back to it all these years and five catfights with my sister later, because it the kind of book you most definitely can’t read in transit. It deserves a quite corner and oblivion from your surroundings to step into a long, intriguing, tale that is a journey in itself.

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