Istanbul undoubtedly has one of the world's great market cultures. Salesmen (and they almost always are men) have been plying their wares at the now-4,000-shop-strong Kapalı Çarşı (Grand Bazaar) for more than 500 years, and in every neighborhood, small fish markets, produce bakkals, and street vendors selling everything from antique furniture to the latest knock-off sunglasses coexist with massive new shopping malls.
If I wait to hear the right call coming up my street, I can buy pastries and potatoes, get my kitchen knives sharpened, even shop for carpets just by stepping outside my front door. Given all this, it may come as a surprise to hear that the entire city, home to 12.5 million people and stretching for 600 square miles, did not have a single organic market until two years ago.
Started by the environmental group Buğday (the Turkish word for wheat), the Ekolojik Halk Pazarı (Ecologic People's Market) now draws shoppers every Saturday to Şişli, a modern neighborhood in the northern part of central Istanbul. The market's location in the lower level of a parking structure isn't much to look at, but it offers shade from the summer sun and shelter in inclement weather, and the dim light is offset by the colorful rows of produce and the lively, chattering shoppers.
A Day At The Market
Even in the early afternoon, well past prime market hours, dozens of people sit around socializing at low tables around the perimeter, eating freshly made gözleme (a type of Turkish crepe, rolled out to order on flat stones and stuffed with cheese, potatoes, spinach, meat, or some combination thereof), pastries, and other delicacies.
Fruits, vegetables, honey, nuts, herbs, bread, olive oils, bulgur rice, yogurts and other dairy products (including the local treat kaymak, a decadent variation on clotted cream) are laid out neatly on long tables. Banners hanging from the ceiling tout the health and other benefits of going organic and feature smiling cartoon farmers.
Meeting The Farmers
The first real one I talk to, Hasan Karaman, proudly puts his arm around his young son as he tells me that he's a Kurdish farmer from Malatya, in Southeastern Turkey, who wants peace to come to his troubled region. Active in human-rights and environmental causes, Karaman has been bringing his organic herbs and dried fruit to the Ekolojik Halk Pazarı since it opened its doors. Other farmers have been loyally showing up since the beginning as well.
Earlier this year, a new 100-percent organic market opened in Antalya, the largest city on Turkey's Mediterranean coast. But the concept is still novel to most Turkish consumers. It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that all of the country's agriculture was organic by default. And while Turks may lament the declining quality of tomatoes in the grocery store, almost 90 percent of the organic produce currently grown in the country is sold for export.
Raising awareness is even harder for non-food producers. A little lost amidst the bright green onions and sumptuous red peppers at the Ekolojik Halk Pazarı, a tiny table held a few drab samples of T-shirts and underwear from the seven-month old Flora Organic brand. The proprietor told me that organic cotton clothing is a very new idea in Turkey, and primarily for babies right now. The büyükler (literally, big ones) will have to wait their turn.