Migrant food culture grows in Turkey despite culture resistance

Istanbulites take pride in being the world’s melting pot and its natural outcome: having a bustling abundance of international cuisine. Visiting restaurants opened by recent migrants is often, however, a step too far. Ayse Karabat reports

Tahki Arabi? That’s what a young, possibly teenage waiter, asked me with a timid smile at the door of a restaurant bursting at the seams on one of Istanbul’s busy streets. I realised he was asking me if I spoke Arabic, in response to my Turkish enquiry about what food they were serving. Our exchange continued in the universal language of gesticulation. He asked me to wait, went inside and came back with someone, a little older than himself, to answer my question. It was a Syrian restaurant.

The answer was in broken Turkish and sounded hesitant. I told them I was a journalist working on a story about restaurants run by refugees in Istanbul, which made them even more hesitant. They told me their restaurant opened several years ago and that most of their customers were fellow Syrians. They were reluctant to talk about the owner of the place, which is registered on Facebook as being an “American dinner restaurant”.

Their reticence was unsurprising, given the widely held, yet incorrect belief, that refugees in Turkey don’t pay any business tax. NGOs working with refugees and university migration experts have been unable to convince the Turkish public otherwise. They maintain that the situation is quite the opposite; that the paperwork required for refugees to open a small business is considerable, which is why many of them have Turkish partners.

According to Turkey’s ministry of trade, there were 416 Syrian-owned restaurants and 119 patisseries spread around the country in 2019. Several of them are located near one of Istanbul’s main transportation hubs, Yenikapi Square, and the historical Fatih district, named after the sultan who conquered Istanbul from the Byzantines back in 1453.

Conquering the food sector

A quick look around the neighbourhood would appear to indicate that non-Turkish restaurants are conquering the food sector here. There are all different kinds of kebab houses, originating mainly in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq and Palestine, lined up alongside confectionery shops. Window displays, signage and even the menus are in Arabic, despite legal restrictions regarding the use of foreign languages on signs and boards in shops.

According to Turkey’s standards institute, the lettering of any foreign language used in a shop or restaurant setting needs to be 25 percent smaller than that used for Turkish letters. According to the Refugees and Asylum Seekers Assistance and Solidarity Association, when it comes to the implementation of this rule, the local authorities adopt different approaches, with some tolerating foreign languages, while others don’t.

The Istanbul governor’s office, however, pursues its own, unique interpretation. It removes all Arabic signs and letters that fail to comply with existing standards, while ignoring signs and menus in Russian and English that are equally at variance.

Officially there are 3.6 Syrian refugees living in Turkey, some 600,000 or so based in Istanbul. Yet Istanbul is also home to many other foreigners. After Syrians, the group with the highest population is Iraqis, followed by Afghans, Iranians, and Ukrainians that have arrived in the city since the Russians invaded Ukraine.

According to Ekrem Imamoglu, mayor of Istanbul, refugees account for 15 percent of the megacity’s total population. Officially, there are 1.6 million refugees, but Imamoglu estimates the real number is around 2 million, with most concentrated in certain districts.

Take Fatih, for instance. Some 400,000 people live in the district. Since January 2021, and in an attempt to reduce the number of foreigners in the district by 50,000, the municipality has prohibited rentals to foreigners even if they hold a residence permit. According to the Fatih local authority, this has not however stopped foreigners from visiting the district, with 3 million people entering and leaving daily.

This explains Fatih’s plethora of international restaurants. One of the many eateries is Indonesian. Owner of the restaurant, Sally Soeni, has lived in Turkey for 12 years and is fluent in Turkish. She says their small place has been open since April this year.

“Our customers are mainly Indonesians living in or visiting Istanbul, Indonesian students and tourists from other nations. Turks are not regulars, even though our food is not that far from their tastes,” she tells Qantara.de.

One of the few Turks to regularly visit refugee restaurants in Istanbul is Semin Guner Gumesel. She says she likes to explore these restaurants with her friends. Her experiences to date have only been positive.

“We are always welcomed with open arms. Only a few of them have Turkish menus, but that is okay, because there are photos of the food and it is possible to see the dishes,” she says. She goes on to say that many of her friends consider dining at a restaurant run by refugees a step too far.

“Not because they prefer other tastes. Many of them are open to trying different dishes when they travel abroad. Some are keen to visit fancy restaurants serving food from Europe or the Far East. But they won’t consider a restaurant run by refugees from the Middle East or North Africa. It is all bound up with the negativity towards refugees from that part of the world that is prevalent in Turkish culture,” she tells Qantara.de.

A recent survey by Metropoll research company supports her idea. 81.7 percent of Turks want the Syrians to return to their country. By contrast, a Syrian Barometer survey conducted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2020 indicated that 78 percent of Syrian refugees did not want to leave Turkey.

Yet, as Gumesel points out, even serving fancy food is not enough to convince most Turks to walk into a migrant-run restaurant. It’s something that can be observed on Istiklal Street, Istanbul’s famous pedestrianised thoroughfare. Always thronged with tourists, the avenue is a focus for cultural events, shops, and home to a few Michelin-starred restaurants. Restaurants run by refugees on Istiklal welcome people from all over the world, but only a handful of Turks.

“We have live Farsi music and serve Iranian food. Especially at dinner we are full. Our guests come from all over the world. We also get a lot of Iranians who are either visiting or living here, but there aren’t that many Turks,” says Hakan, a waiter at an Iranian restaurant, who adds proudly that some of the ingredients used in their dishes come all the way from Iran.

Some of the refugee-run restaurants are doing their best to counter Istanbulites’ reluctance, posting photos of delicious food, invitations, and campaigns on social media, with the hope that maybe they too will be accepted as a part of Istanbul’s culture, like other restaurants established decades ago by earlier refugees.

One famous example is a Russian restaurant dating back to 1917, which was established by refugees escaping the turmoil of the Russian Revolution. Retaining its 1920s decor, this Istanbul institution remains one of the city’s finest eateries. Prospective diners are recommended to make reservations several weeks in advance.

Istanbul’s new arrivals to the gastronomy sector may not be frequented much by Turks, but they are also rarely subject to attacks.


Ayse Karabat