They say we only are separated by seven people from anybody, anywhere in world. This could be true. On the other hand, we only have a single grain of wheat between us and our hunter gatherer ancestors. Everything started with our ancestors seeing potential in rye and wheat, which lead to them growing these crops after the Ice Age. This period brought severe draught in its wake, causing our ancestors to hunt and eat wild fruits-weeds to overcome these conditions. If we can talk about cyborgs and space colonies, we owe this to that very grain of wheat. I believe ‘çiğ köfte’ (Turkish style raw meatballs) is a very important dish that comes from the same geography that gave birth to wheat. It is one of the most filtered down yet archaic dishes of Turkish cuisine as well as a time travelling machine.
I was taken on a journey back in time while listening to Architect Tavit Köletavitoğlu’s childhood memories about çiğ köfte during a group meeting working on some gastronomy projects for the Silkroad Development Agency. This somehow led to a workshop with gastronomy students from Bahçeşehir University. We discussed about how a dish like çiğ köfte, which has various methods of preparation in different cities or even different households, relates directly to the geography and history of its birthplace, and that a dish is never just food but also a mode of communication, a representation of history, people and land of its origin. Tavit Köletavitoğlu reminded us that gastronomy is a discipline that is always open to scientific doubt by saying “I am not claiming that the way this dish is prepared in my family is necessarily the right way”. We naturally found ourselves talking about cinema as we discussed about what a dish tells us, how it talks and what we can communicate through food. We took a look at çiğ köfte through cinema…
The journey of çiğ köfte towards postmodernism starts with migration from the East to big Western cities, especially to Istanbul, in the 80s. Züğürt Ağa, released in 1985, written by Yavuz Tuğrul and directed by Nesli Çölgeçen, is a story about çiğ köfte above anything else. In this movie, Şener Şen prepares çiğ köfte for his people and politician guests with his hands before he becomes a penniless aga. The grandfather, whose lines “I want a woman” are immortalized in movie history, talks about their family as Şener Şen kneads the ‘çiküfte’. The father of their great grandfather was a bandit, feared by everyone. We listen to a tale of heroism and strength as the çiğ köfte is being prepared. The story is kneaded with the meat and spice of çiğ köfte as an ingredient. Çiğ köfte is a source of power, history and ritual in its geography; a sacred dish presented by the aga to his people and guests. It is almost as if the raw meat and the bulgur in the dish say “This is how people have been consuming us for thousands of years”. Çiğ köfte has a sacred value in the lands of its birth, prepared by the village aga before a celebration as a sign of his supremacy as he offers it to his people. However, this dish gets downgraded when the aga loses his wealth and migrates to the city. It becomes a service provided to the city-dwellers who choose to give money to buy this dish. It is looked down upon for a long time. It is an “outsider” dish for the people of Istanbul. Çiğ köfte rises in ranks again as “outsiders” become the high earners of the city, but this is a sort of popularity that city people turn up their noses at. It is thrown at the ceiling of the parliament building, eaten with accompanying whiskey in mansions overseeing the Bosphorus, becomes a media phenomenon through İbrahim Tatlıses’s performance in TV studios. It embodies new symbolic meanings in our near history, built in layers upon layers just like the lettuce it is usually served with, as a reminder of conurbation, involuntary migration and that Istanbul’s roads are not paved with gold.
A congressman from Urfa offers the other members of the parliament some çiğ köfte and lahmacun (a Turkish style flat bread topped with minced meat) during an event which takes place in the 90s in the parliament building. The cooks who make the çiğ köfte test the doneness of these meatballs by throwing them to the ceiling (to see if they stick or not). This becomes a scandal. It is hard not to wonder if the same reaction would be received if it was spaghetti that was thrown instead of çiğ köfte. A famous gourmand, an expert on ‘rakı’ who is no longer with us, compared çiğ köfte to steak tartare back in the day. Steak tartare is amazing. Çiğ köfte, on the other hand, is a dish with little taste profile due to its heat level. One is accompanied by magnificent wines; it is the epitome of civilization; the other is washed down with unworthy rakı. Çiğ köfte, which migrated from the village to the city, gets berated left and right. Ayça Budak recently showed today’s gourmets how çiğ köfte can easily be paired with rosé wine made with the öküzgözü grapes of the region. We might someday except çiğ köfte as a more refined dish with its bulgur and sun-dried ‘isot’ pepper compared to its French cousin, another raw meat dish named after its ancestors, the Tartar people. Maybe then we will give back the respect this dish deserves.
Returning to our movie; Aga, who migrates to the city due to social, political and climate changes, is too honest, a bit useless and too noble for Istanbul. He is in such a bad situation that he even tries to end his life in the last scene of the movie. The director portrays Aga and çiğ köfte, which is a representation of everything Aga stands for as they both descent the social ladder hand in hand in a single great scene with a transition reminiscent of Joseph Von Sternberg’s work many years ago.
Austrian director Von Sternberg, who facilitated Marlene Dietrich’s worldwide movie debut, created not only a diva but also a fetish. The maestro and Dietrich together created a movie history legend from a thick-legged, masculine woman, working on this transformation scene by scene in this adventure that lasted seven films. Dietrich is a popular singer in Morocco in the movie with the same title. The night club scenes were less conservative and braver in the 1930s compared to today and they gave birth to a femme fatale figure to be reckoned with. In the movie, Dietrich falls in love with a penniless American legionnaire portrayed by Gary Cooper, even though she has many rich and powerful men wrapped around her little finger. We see Dietrich walking into the desert, headed towards the unknown as she looks at the legion in the last scene of the movie. A group of women is following the men. Dietrich pushes her sizeable chest out, stares out and takes her fancy high heels off as she rises and then drops on her toes. She walks barefoot tjrough the desert. She leaves her history, past, future and social status behind with her shoes.
The same thing happens to Züğürt Ağa. In the last scene, he says to Kiraz “I am an Aga. I am useless” and smiles in a shy manner while he adds “I can make çiğ köfte”. The next shot focuses on the beautiful black boots Şener Şen has not taken off until that moment. We watch these boots drive away in the cart of a junk dealer. The camera then switches to Şener Şen’s shy feet wearing ripped plastic slippers. The boots are sold to buy meat and bulgur for çiğ köfte. The following scene shows Şener Şen happily walking among the tables of Istanbul taverns with a tray of çiğ köfte in his hands. We see these meatballs fade into the distance as we did with the boots on the cart. The movie ends with the aga’s smile brought upon by finding a use in life.
This isn’t where çiğ köfte’s story ends. Demet Akalın and her husband reenacting the ceiling test of the 90s in 2010s signals a new era. Çiğ köfte is now a meat-free simulacrum, living its postmodern life. “Take a snap like I am Çiğ köfte” becomes a social media tag as the dish becomes an unoriginal copy of the raw meat dish it once was. It is an actual meatball pretending to be raw now. The symbol spiral expands and expands.
We can place the now meat-free çiğ köfte under countless valuable titles like terroir, sustainability, animal husbandry and migration politics. This is where it comes a part of the Matrix. Çiğ köfte becoming meat-free is an important topic. Antibiotic and hormone-free meat sources which can be safely consumed raw becoming endemic and animal husbandry practices diminishing cause this shift in ingredients. Wachowski sisters’ masterpiece Matrix is an embodiment of Baudrillard’s concept of simulacra. The movie tells the story of a world which simulates the 90s during which humanity has become a source of food for machines and people are raised as farmed animals instead of being born. This is how this movie relates to çiğ köfte as we know it today. The famous blue or red pill scene gives Neo a choice. A hard choice between the reality and a world that pretends to exist. This is a choice we all have to make as soon as possible. Will we eat the meat-free version because we are scared of its ingredients or will we demand that not only meat but everything we eat is produced in the proper conditions? Will we satisfy the vitamin and mineral needs of our bodies through concentrated and synthetic pills or defend proper food in its own right?
Here is how this important dish of Turkish cuisine, whose contents we wrapped with many layers of meaning without objection just like Cansever’s Masa, is made in the Köletavitoğulları household, hailing from the city of Malatya…
Çiğ köfte is done with a part of the cow that is called an ‘egg’ from the back of the animal. This meat is taken from several cows due to its small size. The silver skin needs to be removed even though there isn’t much of it in this area. This is done by using a pestle and mortar. The silver skin sticks to the sides of the mortar. The bits that are left are removed with hand.
Çiğ köfte’s bulgur must be made with semi-hydrated wheat which is medium to fine in size.
Bulgur is kneaded with tomato paste, followed by the addition of spices and finally the meat. It must be kneaded for hours.
If there are good tomatoes at hand, they are squeezed into the meat like a lemon in small amounts to add their sweet-sour taste.
Some people add ice during the kneading process which adds water to the mixture. This will shorten the kneading time but won’t contribute to the taste.
It is served with romaine lettuce instead of iceberg lettuce.
A few drops of olive oil can be added on top after kneading.