I am what I eat: Cimen Teale

Categories: Behind the stalls

Food, perhaps more than anything, gives us a sense of who we are. In this series, regular blogger Victoria Brown interviews traders about the foods that are important to them, and how their experiences of food have shaped their identity. This month: Cimen Teale of The Turkish Deli

Words: Victoria Brown

There are any number of reasons why people might feel that their cultural traditions are at risk of disappearing. Globalisation or international trade might be perceived as a threat to local cultures, as might industrialisation of the food supply or modern lifestyles. This sense of loss often inspires efforts to revitalise or preserve cultural traditions, regional and national cuisines.

When moving overseas, you inevitably have to leave aspects of your culture behind—food, however, doesn’t have to be one of them, and is often used by migrants to hold on to their culture and past in their newfound home.

Cimen Teale, co-founder of The Turkish Deli at Borough Market, was born in Gemlik, a town on the eastern side of Istanbul, but moved to London when she was two years old. Her Turkish heritage was an important part of her upbringing in the UK and, although she says she has two homes, “when it comes to food and culture, the Turkish inside of me comes out more.”

“My parents didn’t want me to lose my culture and my past—cooking and eating Turkish food was a central part of ensuring that didn’t happen.” They ate a lot of vegetable and meat stews with rice and pasta, but her favourite childhood dishes were her mother’s dolma (stuffed vegetables or vine leaves) and manti—a dough similar to ravioli, stuffed with minced meat and served with garlic yoghurt, “a red sauce” and butter—“Naughty, but very nice.”

Cimen Teale

Rich, Ottoman-style cooking
Cimen used to visit her late grandmother in Gemlik when she was a teenager and pines after her rich, Ottoman-style cooking. “She cooked very, very nice food. I mean everything, even if it was just toast, tasted different somehow.” She laments that she didn’t learn more from her grandmother while she had the chance: “She used to tell me, but when you’re young you don’t really listen.”

She would help her grandmother roll fish kofte into balls, but she’s not sure how the mixture was made. Another dish Cimen wishes she’d learned to cook is cerkez tavuk, a shredded chicken dish made with tahini, walnuts and a creamy sauce. “It’s not modern day cooking, you know, with one pan, one thing in the oven—it could take two to three hours to make something.”

Cimen does all her cooking from scratch and on the Market she follows “traditional, authentic” recipes, but when she’s cooking at home “it is whatever I can do with the time that I’ve got”.

The smaller family unit—just herself, her husband and her son—is another aspect of her modern lifestyle that has shaped her home cooking. “Maybe if I was a stay at home mother and I had aunts and uncles round, that traditional cooking would carry on, but as people’s lifestyles have changed, I think cooking has changed as well.”

Close proximity
In Gemlik, people tend to have bigger families, live in close proximity and everyone knows their neighbours. “Turkish style home cooking, it’s not small portions,” she continues. “It’s quite a common thing to give a plate to a neighbour, too.”

Cimen is concerned that her generation not only lacks time for cooking, but also that she doesn’t have the big family gatherings she used to have when her mother and father were alive. When they do meet up, however, Cimen makes an effort “to cook the food we don’t usually have time to cook” and like her parents, she is keen to pass her cultural heritage on to her son: “I try to do Turkish food with my family, because I want my son to taste the food and know the culture.”

Cimen started her business because she wanted to show Londoners that there was more to Turkish cuisine than kebabs, and to introduce them to high quality Turkish products that they would not get elsewhere, such as the olives that her family grows in Gemlik.

The longer I speak to her, however, the more I am convinced that it is about more than introducing people to her cuisine: it is about keeping it alive, both for herself and for future generations. “I think having that type of food reassures me that I’m Turkish—that I am still part of that culture.”

Read Cimen’s recipe for hunkar begendi here