Ode to Yedikule lettuce: Istanbul's signature vegetable returns to tables

Published 31.05.2017 23:21
Updated 31.05.2017 23:23
Ode to Yedikule lettuce: Istanbul's signature vegetable returns to tables

Famous for its unique taste, the Yedikule lettuce is being revived and brought back to dinner tables by followers of the Slow Food movement, helping Istanbulites recall the culinary history of the city with the Lettuce Festival set to be held on June 3

Every corner of Istanbul continues to amaze every single day. Just when you thought that the city could not surprise you anymore, you learn something that totally baffles you. That's certainly how I felt when I learned about the special kind of lettuce that has been grown in Yedikule, right next to Istanbul's city walls for the last 1,500 years.

Every day, I pass by the urban gardens right next to the Yedikule walls, part of Istanbul's legendary ancient city walls, and watch farmers grow tomatoes, eggplants, lettuce and even flowers in an oasis of gardens in the heart of this megacity. However, the lettuce, that is peculiar to the Yedikule gardens has never caught my attention until I read an article about it.

It turns out that the Yedikule lettuce is famous not only in Turkey but worldwide! The gardens of Yedikule create a green line between ancient and modern Istanbul. It is a historic place opening up a giant world of culinary delights. The Yedikule urban gardens, or 'bostans' as they are known in Turkish, started to be cultivated during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II. Over the last 1,500 years, many vegetables, fruit and even flowers have been grown in the gardens. However, the most famous product of these ancient gardens is the lettuce which is named after Yedikule itself. The lettuce is known for its long leaves, crunchy white heart and rich natural oils preserved in its leaves. Yedikule lettuce is a variety of Romaine lettuce that is linked to both the historic and contemporary everyday diet of the area. It is an especially important food source for the urban dwellers of Istanbul. Cultivation of this lettuce is a tradition that has been handed down over countless generations.

According to historical records, the Yedikule Gardens originally belonged to the Armenians but changed hands over the centuries and were subsequently taken over by farmers of Greek, Bulgarian and Albanian descent. Currently, most of the gardens are cultivated by people from Kastamonu in the Black Sea Region. However, despite their great antiquity, the gardens have long been forgotten and lost in the urban chaos. Most people, like myself, do not even care to wonder about these oasis-like gardens in the middle of the city. Children who grow up eating fast food do not appreciate the wonders of nature and the famous (or now not so famous) Yedikule gardens that are falling into oblivion as the new generations have no idea what they represent.

To change this, Istanbul-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) Fikir Sahibi Damaklar, which is a leading NGO within the global Slow Food movement, revived one of the oldest festivals in Turkey and re-introduced the Marul Bayramı (the Lettuce Festival) a few years ago.

Back in the day, the Yedikule Gardens were not only considered part of our cultural heritage, but where also a place where Istanbulites could enjoy themselves and appreciate nature. In time, the gardens became a place to produce Istanbul's authentic vegetables and fruits and enabled city dwellers to get their hands on fresh vegetables and fruit whenever they wanted.

To return the old joy to Yedikule and honor the ancient urban gardens, Istanbul lovers have initiated a movement to help Yedikule Gardens to return to the glory of its heyday. The Lettuce Festival brings Istanbulites together for two days and enables them to witness, or even join in, the harvest of the famous lettuce grown in the gardens. This year's festival, which is set to take place on June 3 (the festival usually takes place in early May, but has been postponed to early June), will join forces with the local restaurants as they are expected to support the festival by featuring meals cooked with the Yedikule lettuce.

As a part of the festival, Kadir Has University will host a panel session dedicated to the Yedikule gardens and lettuce. It is organized by MSA and Fikir Sahibi Damaklar and will host Professor Mustafa Sarı, Aslıhan Demirtaş, and Özkan Ökten as keynote speakers.

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