Photo by Juan Alcón
On any street corner or at any bus stop in Istanbul one will find a young man with a round dish piled with shining mussels, selling them one by one to passersby. The traveler, unfamiliar with this custom and perhaps surprised to see mussels as a quick snackfood, stops to gawk. If he is brave he will order one, and the vendor will deftly flip open the shell, revealing a tight mound inside. He'll squeeze lemon on it and hand it, on the half shell, to the intrepid traveler, who will slurp it down in one bite.
The taste is as surprising as the set-up: spiced rice and mussel steamed together in the shell, rich and fresh, slightly sweet, slightly spicy. No wonder the young people coming out of dance-clubs and bars crowd around the mussel-vendors for a late-night snack, and busy commuters pause for a moment between trains to swallow a quick mussel or two.
Some years ago there were practically no mussel vendors in the streets of Istanbul. This custom, more typical of the Aegean coastal cities of Izmir and Bodrum, has emerged and spread throughout the city in the last several years, ironically as a result of the massive migration of Kurdish villagers from the interior of Anatolia to the city. How did Kurds--highland mountain people, quite unfamiliar with bivalves--come to be mussel vendors in the streets of Istanbul? The story is very beautifully told in a short documentary by the filmmaker Güliz Saglam, "Far from Home," which takes us through the poor and marginalized neighborhoods of central Istanbul where the mussel vendors live, exploring the lives of the thousands of men and women who collect, prepare and sell these stuffed mussels every day.
The recipe, it seems, is originally an Armenian one (though these debates about origins are always fraught, see my previous article on manti). The legend today's mussel vendors cite has it that a few Kurds learned the mussel trade from an elderly Armenian in the '70s, sign of the friendship and fellow-feeling between Armenians and Kurds. Who knows how it started: the fact is that when Kurdish migration to Istanbul intensified in the '80s and especially the '90s due to the destruction of Kurdish villages by the Turkish army, the mussel business became one line of defense against unemployment and destitution in the big city.
In a poignant scene in the documentary, one man tells about how he had never seen the sea before, and suddenly had to learn to dive in the Marmara for mussels, which are brought up in great nets from the seabed. The women then scrub them clean of barnacles and seaweed, and prepare great vats of spiced rice with which to stuff them. The whole family is employed fishing, scrubbing, cooking, and arraying the mussels until at last, in the evening, the men hoist the round trays up onto their heads and file out into the night to sell these humble treats to the Istanbul glitterati, tourists, and commuters.