When a people disappears, they say the last thing to be forgotten is its food. You might not teach your children your mother tongue, but the chances are you’ll still cook them your mother’s recipes.
Thessaloniki today seems a thoroughly Greek place – all Byzantine churches and pork skewers. But at the turn of the twentieth century the Ottoman port then called Salonika was a very different city. Half its inhabitants were Sephardic Jews, who had arrived in the area after their expulsion from Spain in 1492. They still named their synagogues after their lost Iberian homeland – Aragon, Catalan – and they spoke Ladino, a Hebrew-inflected dialect of medieval Spanish. The rest of the townsfolk were a mix of Turkish-speaking Muslims and Greek and Bulgarian Christians who lived in different districts and worked in different trades. So long as all obeyed the Sultan’s laws and paid his taxes, the empire’s authorities did not care whether their subjects shared Ottoman values or were culturally integrated. Salonika was multicultural avant la lettre.
In the opening pages of Salonika: A Family Cookbook, by Esin Eden and Nicholas Stavroulakis, the latter calls the old city
an ancient house with many rooms, shared by different families whose paths only crossed in darkened corridors . . . Some rooms were full of light and open to the changes that were taking place in the world about this house, but others were dark, cradling hidden memories and events that were seldom, if ever, brought to light.
Now, the reader might raise a sceptical eyebrow at the words ‘family cookbook’. Personally, they make me think of spinsterly great-aunts with a taste for self-publishing. This is no jam-making memoir, however: it’s a last culinary record of a lost culture, and a window into a dark, tightly shuttered room. Esin Eden is a well-known Turkish actress, and her family – whose recipes
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