‘A Recipe for Daphne’: a love story for Istanbul hidden in plain sight

(The last paragraph of this review contains spoilers for the ending of "A Recipe for Daphne")

The love story at the heart of A Recipe for Daphne is not between the two main characters, but between the main characters, and the author, and Istanbul. The Istanbul that Nektaria Anastasiadou is so clearly smitten with is not the Istanbul of tourists, or the Istanbul of Orhan Pamuk, but an Istanbul that has simultaneously nearly disappeared and is everywhere you look.

It is an Istanbul that is quite literally in the DNA of nearly every native inhabitant. It is the Istanbul of the Rum, the indigenous Greek-speaking population whose living culture is kept alive by just a few thousand inhabitants in a city of more than 15 million, but, as the characters discover at the end of the book, are also the genetic ancestors of almost every Turkish citizen alive today. Anatasiadou has written a lovely ode to Rum Istanbul, simultaneously mourning and celebrating its past and present, while providing hope that it will live on both genetically and culturally despite its tiny foothold.

The book begins in the summer of 2011, when Daphne, a diaspora Rum from Miami, comes to live with her aunt in Istanbul to study Turkish. She is in a long-term, but unhappy, relationship with a “monoglot American”, and the community has high hopes that she will fall for one of their own, a successful bakery owner and pastry chef named Kosmas.

What follows is a story about falling in love with not just a person, but the culture, city, and history he represents. The story is centred on the Rum community, but the cast of characters represents a microcosm of the cultural and ethnic heritage of Istanbul. We meet a Sephardic Jewish violinist, a persecuted Tukish leftist, old-fashioned journalists and intellectuals, and plenty of ordinary Turks who not only live and work with, but love, their Rum neighbours. The phrases, customs, mannerisms, and niceties chronicled by Anastasiadou show a deep, almost native knowledge of Turkish culture and language. The book could easily act as a cultural guide for those living in Turkey for the first time.

Aside from Daphne and Kosmas, there is a third primary character that neatly stands in for Rum Istanbul. Fanis, a septuagenarian widower with a potentially fatal illness that he chooses to ignore, is the embodiment of the City (as the characters call it) and its traumatic recent, and deep, past. He is a gifted cantor who chants at almost every Orthodox mass, but he also believes that the old Greek gods are the ones who control this life, and the next. Fanis is still traumatized by the events of September 1955, when a pogrom instigated by the Turkish state literally and figuratively nearly wiped out the Rum community in Istanbul. Despite his illness, age, and trauma, he still hopes to remarry and finally pass on his DNA. Initially, until Kosmas steps up, he rests his personal hopes on Daphne.

The conclusion of the book is hopeful, but not necessarily happily ever after. Too neat a happy ending would of course not be a true reflection of the uncertain future faced by the Rum community in Istanbul. Daphne and Kosmas could break up, or never have children. Fanis could drop dead at any time. However, for a moment, they all gather to celebrate a small win as Daphne returns to her beloveds - Kosmas and Istanbul - and Kosmas unveils a pastry that he has managed to recreate that was nearly lost to history. Similarly, Anastiadou’s book does not guarantee the continued existence of Rum Istanbul, but it does allow us to momentarily celebrate and savour its culture.