For a few years – before the prospect of chaperoning a literal boat-load of horny postpubescent boys and their female companions occasioned its demise – my family would team up with another for a week’s holiday spent aboard a gulet along the Turkish coast. Ten-plus years on, I still remember those weeks as some of the best of my life, through glasses no less clear for being rose-tinted (in the case of my mother, might that be rosé tinted? I’ll allow it!). A merciless sun in a clear blue sky; a mollifying pleasant breeze; the noise of cicadas that would come down like something physical whenever we docked in a vacant bay. Efes beer, stupid drinking games, wasps. And the worst food on earth. Bloody Turkish food, we would chunter over loaves of stale bread and pinkly unappetising sausage cross-sections, or pasta in a tomato sauce of staggering blandness. Would it be so hard just to give us a nice salad?
Summers end; people grow up and sometimes even learn things. It turned out that Turkish food wasn’t to blame: as subsequent nautical jaunts – and a particularly noisome “fish picnic” aboard a vessel in Croatia – would illustrate, it is food on boats, not food in Turkey, that is bad. Because, obviously. After a week at sea, bread will go stale; fresh leaves will wilt and rot. The pasta sauce remains something of a mystery –we’re talking a “salt water, salt water everywhere” situation, after all – but it’s pretty easy to lay that at the feet of a cook being forced to make something out of his comfort zone for a bunch of spoilt Western Europeans who would themselves faint if you slung a plate of imam bayildi their way.
I’m better now. I really made my bones at Antepliler on Upper Street in North London, which had the one outstanding merit of being fewer than five minutes’ walk from our flat. Gosh, how I miss that place: the bread that trod a fine line between pizza and pitta; the chilli sauce that caught newbies unaware; the trashy Spanish rosé that never quite made it to the main courses. And how much I learned; how much I enjoyed rolling unfamiliar words like sucuk and hellim and cacik on my tongue until they became unfamiliar no more, grew into old friends.
Why did I bother? Partly, I’m sure, it was my own mortification – an incredibly English embarrassment about having denigrated an entire country’s wonderful cuisine. But also partly – if you believe Mark Greif, whose interesting (if nearly decade-old) essay ‘On Food’I read recently – because that is what we do now. Everything – he contends – is so readily available, so easy for us, that we keep seeking ways to make life hard again, whether that be forcing our bodies through exercise regimes of staggering banality, or obsessing over the finer points of each and every nation’s culinary exotica. “Would you like some chipotle with your lemongrass?” he asks (in his uniquely annoying, snippy way) at one point, and whilst he and I have our disagreements, you can’t deny that there has awakened, in our generation at least, something of a mania for collection, taxonomy and display of experiences both edible and Instagrammable. Where the phrase “pics or it didn’t happen” may once have been a means of policing an ocean of otherwise unverifiable claims on the internet, it has now taken on a deeper, more existential register. If you went to that dope new Tibetan place and shared some #lit momos with your squad but you don’t have pics, can you honestly say that it really did happen?
It was pics that brought me to Yosma; it was pics, fewer than 24 hours later, that I triumphantly posted on my Instagram feed. Between that, it was all a bit of a blur. The space is vast, on a stretch of Baker Street so familiar to me from multiple visits to Royal China Club that it felt faintly odd not to be drinking jasmine tea. The menu is enticing, dotted with helpful C.S. Lewis glosses (did you know that aslan sutu, a popular nickname for raki, means “lion’s milk”?) and pleasingly onomatopoeic proper nouns (can you think of a term for sweetbreads that better imitates the ululations of a newborn lamb having its throat slit than Uykuluk?). The food is a real Istanbul-not-Constantinople, flip-flopping from excellent to uninspiring and back again. General rule of thumb: order the proteins, which were all exquisitely cooked and seasoned, with a bit of char and bite and some very fine supporting actors (the chicken breast with charred corn and tahini sauce in particular was an astonishingly interesting thing to eat, especially given how unpromisingly it reads, like a self-professed Islington foodie having some fun with their recent purchases from Ottolenghi for an aghast dinner party). Order two of those sweetbreads, while you’re at it.
The more vegetable-centric stuff, the dips and salads, though? Pretty unremarkable. And the puddings – potentially such a source of heady aromas and syrupy contentment – are not just weird but actively troubling. Poached quince topped with a candyfloss that whispers asbestosis as it inflames its way down your digestive tract. A baked kataifi number that promises Honey & Co’s sing-hosanna cheesecake but delivers a greasy, stringy mess. Sloppily made ice cream, including one scoop of mastic that is like sucking a minicab air freshener.
The worst dish was the one that brought me to Yosma in the first place. I’d been seduced by the photos of their manti(read: lamb dumplings) that had been doing the rounds on all the usual channels; doused in yoghurt sauce and strewn with fresh and dried herbs, they were the embodiment of every Orientalist fantasy of the territories east of Greece but west of China that books like Olia Hercules’ Mamushka had cast into my mind, a weird collage-conflation of Mongols, Uzbeks and fainting imams. What a get for my collection of dumplings of the world; how enticingly different from the sauce-it-yourself phyla of so many dim sum, mandoo, gyoza. But how horrifyingly soft and bland in the mouth! How lacking in bite, of any sort! How in need of dredging through multiple other sauces, pairing with a toothsome chunk of lamb thyroid! How quickly I nevertheless got my snap of it online, mere hours later!
In sharing what I did of Yosma – and of a similarly gorgeous but equally disappointing dish from Morito a day later – without comment, I made my own small contribution to post-truth politics. I honestly, truly feel how low the stakes are here, especially given what’s happening across the pond; maybe Mark Greif is right and technology and scientific advances have conspired to strip me of everything genuinely difficult and needful in my life, so I have created a bespoke storm in a mint-tea cup just for the sake of something over which to agonise.
If only to justify wanging on at this length, I’d characterise it slightly differently. We are already living in the Mallory Ortberg-penned episode of Black Mirror, ‘What If Phones, But Too Much?’. Other than my mouth (and especially since the advent of Stories), Instagram is the primary means through which I consume food. I did not ask for it to be this way – it simply happened. We have all seen the good that comes from 24/7 access to every restaurant in the world; we think we have already seen the bad: the sponsored content, the publicity stunts, the naked ripoffs of established concepts. But it can get worse, and it will, and we should all be careful. As our attention spans decline further, as our eyes are drawn, magpie-like, to the shiniest rainbow confection or hybrid Viennoisserie, the temptation will be to meet like with like, to seek out the glossy but slight (look at the queue outside Dominique Ansel despite all not necessarily being well under the icing); and, once we have found it, to signal exactly that (trawl the identikt Instagram photos taken at Tsujiri).
Going out for something to eat is becoming not a pleasure but a pilgrimage; we go not to enjoy but to show we have been. I do not believe I am alone in saying that, given the surrounding, grinding horror of 2016, the relatively context-free realm of Instagram has been its own sort of sanctuary over the past difficult months. Events this year, though, have illustrated the dangers inherent in spending an inordinate amount of time on any one platform. Instagram’s filter bubble works by giving you not one filter but many; it is this illusion of choice that clouds your vision and prevents you from seeing the distressing truth that everyone’s posts look exactly the same.
Originally published in Civilian Global