By Menekse Tokyay
In a move Greeks find hard to swallow, the Istanbul Simit Sellers Chamber filed a petition with the Istanbul Union of Craftsmen and Artisans’ Chambers (ISTESOB) this month, asking the chamber to take steps to protect simit — a bagel-like bread covered by toasted sesame seeds — through a national and international patent, revoking any Greek claim to origination.
Simit is one of the most widely consumed foods in Turkey, served at breakfast and lunch. Simit vendors can be found on almost every corner of any city.
“Simit is like the symbol of Istanbul. It is an inseparable part of Turkish culture and our number one food for both rich and poor citizens. As a simit vendor, I will be personally very ashamed if it follows the same destiny as our other traditional tastes, which have been appropriated by foreigners,” Osman Yildirim, a 32-year-old simit vendor in the Sariyer district of Istanbul, told SETimes.
It is not the first time that the two neighbouring countries have experienced cultural friction. Traditional desserts, such as baklava and lokum, as well as the shadow puppet characters Hacivat and Karagoz, have been subject to similar disagreements in the past.
The Turkish Patent Institute announced in January that it is geared up to support trade chambers and NGOs that demand to register their local goods, according to Anadolu News Agency.
The debate over simit kicked off when the Greek daily Eleftheros Typos reserved a page about the origins of simit by arguing that “simit had been known since before Christ and was a popular food both in Istanbul and Thessaloniki during Byzantine times.”
Istanbul Simit Sellers Chamber Chairman Zeki Sami Ozdemir told SETimes that simit is a part of the Turkish culture.
“There is a great difference between our simit and the one sold in Greece under the name of koulouri,” he explained. “The methods of cooking, the look and the quality of sesame are all different.”
According to Ozdemir, it is normal that Greek and Turkish foods share similarities as a result of the deep roots linking the two countries since Ottoman times.
“We can proudly provide the relevant authorities all our historical and technical documents to follow back to its source … in our Ottoman roots, dating back approximately to the 1500s,” he added.
However, one Greek interviewed on the street doesn’t think it’s from the same line.
“I don’t believe the koulouri belongs to anyone,” the 60-year-old vendor at the central Omonia Square, who only would identify himself as Giorgos, told SETimes.
“It’s a basic staple. I’ve been selling koulouria my entire life. Everyone comes to me and asks for a koulouri Thessalonikis — that’s how they know it. If it were Turkish wouldn’t they call it differently, like we say Turkish coffee?” he added.
Elisabet Koukoumeria, general secretary of the Thessaloniki Bakers’ Association, agrees.
“Anyone can claim to have made the first koulouri, but it is historically documented that it dates back to Byzantium and was called kollikion’,” she told SETimes.
“I recently had a group of Italians visit our bakery and they all asked for a koulouri Thessalonikis. Everyone knows it as such. We have never used any promotional campaigns in this direction,” she explained.
“We all have a tendency to name things. But traditions are much stronger than any laws, prohibitions or names. I really believe this is more of a firework display to create some marketing hype,” Koukoumeria said.
SETimes correspondent Maria Paravantes in Athens contributed to this story.