Los Turcos II: Uruguay
The Syrian, Lebanese and other former Ottoman subjects, who came from the Mediterranean basin to live in Latin America a century ago, are surprisingly called “Los Turcos” (Turks) around the continent. In recent years, new curious generations from Turkey have been joining them to explore the continent. Turkish chef Nilüfer Yünlü, who is one of them, tells us her life in Uruguay.
“I try to get the same flavor as much as possible but what I cook here is never identical to what I cook in Turkey! Even the water or air has an impact on the taste of food!!”
How did your culinary adventure begin?
I didn’t have much to do with cooking until I finished college. Then I started to work in a hotel. I was responsible for organizations and weddings. The cooking aspect was secondary. Then, after my daughter Öykü was born, I started experimenting at home. After my arrival in Uruguay, I entered the food scene entirely with my own efforts. I have made new friends along the way and received a lot of support. A Turkish chef living in Canada shared her cooking secrets in detail. Normally, chefs keep it to themselves!
What influenced your choice of coming to Uruguay?
It was one of the easiest countries to settle as an immigrant and you didn’t have to spend a lot of money on immigration procedures.
Did Uruguayans like Turkish food?
Their knowledge about Turkish food is limited to the tables they see in the TV series. Since there is an Armenian population here, they are also familiar with dishes like stuffed wine leaves, baklava, lahmacun and doner kebab. Here, doner is called “shawarma”. It is a bit like ours, but their lahmacun is quite different, more like the thick flatbread of Bursa. Although this place has become famous as a small country of freedom (gay marriages and marijuana are free), Uruguayans are not very open-minded when it comes to food, unfortunately! I have been cooking at private events for people from upper classes, so the participants were generally open-minded and well-traveled. In many of those events, the dishes were polished off! But this does not represent the general taste. I know a chef who couldn’t eat my home-made yogurt and spit it out! Surprising but our Turkish empanadas with cheese filling, filo dough pastries and kibbeh are also not admired. But when I cook hunkarbegendi (a lamb stew served on mashed eggplant), the plates come back clean!
TURKISH SPECIALTIES NOT EASILY FOUND ABROAD
Is Turkish cuisine really as good as it is claimed?
I realized it better after coming here. There is such a rich variety in Turkish cuisine. Compared to the foreign countries I lived in (France, England and here), Turkish cuisine is number one for me. It goes well with anything. You can create many alternatives for a vegetarian menu, for example.
So far, what kind of events have you cooked for?
The Turkish cuisine workshop and dinner that I organized in Sinergia was great! We cooked a lot in three hours: We prepared six kinds of appetizers, meatballs, cacik (diced cucumber salad in yogurt, with garlic and mint), plus stuffed wine leaves, lavash bread and baklava! Finally, I taught to cook Turkish coffee; it was pretty fun. I also organized a dinner for 46 people at Hotel Alquimista. It was an event attended by Italian and Colombian consuls as well. The Italian consul specifically praised our milky semolina dessert, a very practical and light one. This is a small country, and you can easily meet with anyone you want. Here, I wrote to a county mayor once, and I was surprised when I got an answer. When you go with a plan, they listen to you. If my Spanish was good, I would have been number one in what I do.
What ingredients are hard to find and you miss in Uruguay?
Too many. For example, our main ingredient salça (tomato paste) does not exist. There is tomato sauce but it is liquid and a little bit sweet. Besides, there is no pepper paste, so I made it myself at home. Yogurt is generally sold sugary in the markets and we don’t like its consistency, so we ferment it at home as well.
This yogurt fermentation issue seems like the common ground of Turks living abroad!
Exactly! And then, there is no Turkish coffee, but I somehow resolved it. I ask them to grind coffee beans in the Armenian style at El Palacio del Cafe. Curd cheese can be found here, and I add butter and try to convert it to our brines cheese which is similar to feta cheese. There is no fermented black tea we are accustomed to. No olives. No filo dough. Bell peppers are very thick and large. Here, you cannot make a good dolma (stuffed bell peppers). Although it is a wine country, there are no vine leaves sold on the market. You need to request and collect them from a vineyard. There is bulghur but it costs 300 Uruguayan pesos per, which means 45 TRY. When you make kısır (bulghur salad), “Woow, what a salad!” you say and you are afraid to eat. One of the meals I make here without trouble hunkarbegendi (the sultan’s delight). There is eggplant, milk, and types of cheese similar to our stager. Recently they have also started to export 10-gram packs of tomato paste, so I cook the meat of hunkarbegendi with it. I try to get the same flavor as much as possible but what I cook here is never identical to what I cook in Turkey! Even the water or air has an impact on the taste of food!
“I HAVE NEVER HAD CULTURE SHOCK”
What do you like most about Uruguay? Are there things that you cannot get used to?
I have never had culture shock anywhere in my life. I did not visit Asia yet, it is told to be pretty much different, but I have never felt strange in a European country or here. Of course, you miss your homeland, your parents are not by your side, you are alone but this is another issue. My favorite feature of Uruguay is that no one would look at you when you go out on the street in pajamas!
So people seem quite humble and do not like showing off!
Actually, they do, a little bit. When Starbucks opened here last year, people were waiting two or three hours in a line for a Starbucks selfie. Another issue that I couldn’t get used to is that they are lazy and have little sharp-wit! Turks living abroad usually complain about this.
Are you talking about the Turkish style “sharp-wit” supporting the leg of a rocking table with a folded piece of newspaper?
Well, we are different. Maybe that kind of practical intelligence ought to develop in a country overpopulated like ours. There are 3 million people in this country. If we estimate that 1 million of them are children and elder, there are 2 million left to compete with. Turkey’s population is 75 million, maybe even more now. There is a huge difference. To sum up, Uruguayans do not like working; they want the money of course but they are not obsessed like us about making secure investments, buying a house, etc… Actually, I can hardly see the future of the country. The smart ones are leaving. The population has been stable at 3 million for many years. The natives going abroad are replaced by the immigrants coming in. Many come from North America to settle. They live comfortably with their pension here. Those with specific diseases such as cancer and diabetes also come. Those kinds of treatments are told to be very expensive in the USA. Compared to Turkey, Uruguay’s health care system is not very good but still, it is under the state guarantee.
One more thing I like about here is that it is a very comfortable country for children and dogs. I have recently been on the bus with my 8-year-old daughter Öykü. They immediately offered a seat to Öykü. One-stop before we get off, I told my daughter: “I’m tired, may I sit down for a while?” How badly they stared at me! In short, they hold children very dear. Our dog also spends a very happy retirement here…
Is it difficult to learn Spanish?
I don’t want to try hard learning Spanish after 40. I can still manage all my daily work without speaking much Spanish. Don’t ask me how, as I don’t know.
URUGUAY: BACKYARD OF THE WELL-OFF TOURIST
Do you have any advice for those who come here as tourists?
They can go to Colonia del Sacramento. Compared to our country (surely can’t be compared but), it is a place in Assos style. Colonia and Montevideo are at the mouth of a river. The ocean starts after Piriapolis, on the northeast of Montevideo. I haven’t swum here for 4.5 years! Punta del Este, in the north of Piriapolis is like Bodrum, an extremely expensive summer resort. Prices triple or quadruple between the 15th of December and the 1st of March. Porsches and Lamborghinis invade the streets around that time. Pretty rich people come from Argentina.
What is next?
When we first came here, we had a plan to open a small Turkish restaurant. I don’t want it anymore, as it seems it does not work well here. Some people had to shut down their place due to a lack of business. Yet again, I would like to continue with private events. By the way, a new development: We are starting to live and work in Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay soon. Life is said to be much cheaper there compared to Uruguay. We will see how everything will evolve.