I am not embarrassed to admit that I was well into my 20s when I first tried kokoreç. Having grown up in a middle-class Turkish family with a hygiene freak mother, I was simply not socialized to enjoy a delight like kokoreç at a young age.
Kokoreç is Turkey's signature street delight—but one that won't be on the pages of a traditional food or travel magazine because of its contents, and one that many Turks have been too embarrassed to admit liking. It is made by wrapping lamb intestines around any available offal such as heart, sweetbread, and lungs. Then, it is seasoned with ginger, cumin, chilli, and other spices and roasted slowly over coals. It also makes the soundtrack of our streets, as it is prepared in a dance-like manner with a pair of special knives.
When I got accepted to an elite university in the Turkish capital of Ankara, I was well on my way to enjoying a sterile and kokoreç-free life. But that all changed one night when I visited an open-air food market, Ataturk Forest Farm and Zoo in Ankara, as a university student. I had a little too much alcohol in my blood to remember my mom's indoctrinations and took that first bite of kokoreç. And my taste buds were contaminated for good.
This historic farm could as well be the kokoreç headquarters of Turkey. Kokoreç sellers are lined next to each other, releasing an irresistible smell of intestines, oregano, and coal fire. The sound of knives rhythmically hitting the thick wooden cutting boards is everywhere. The establishment is a particularly popular destination for those who had a nice night out drinking—as kokoreç is also locally renowned as the perfect munchies. The meat itself is quite fatty, and apparently the white bread that it's served with helps to soak the alcohol.
Somehow, over the years, kokoreç managed to get a really bad reputation for being unhygienic and prone to causing food poisoning. It is usually frowned upon by the country's middle and upper classes and considered a vulgar taste. In fact, around ten years ago, there were talks of kokoreç being banned due to EU food regulations, in case Turkey ever became a European Union member. A pop singer even composed a song dedicated to kokoreç, and we all sang "No kokoreç, never without you…" that summer.
But around the time this song was released, there was a realistic chance of Turkey joining the European Union, and we were willing to sacrifice kokoreç for that if need be. Fast-forward to 2016, and the chances of Turkey joining a Europe plagued by Islamophobia and fascism are slimmer than ever. In all those years, we fully understood and internalized that we are the ugly ducklings of Europe.
Having submitted its application in 1987, Turkey has been the longest standing applicant to the European Union by some distance. Although most of us thought of the prospective European Union membership as the last hope for the sanity of the Turkish politics, we know deep inside that it'll never happen. But maybe that's OK. With the constant lack of approval from the Western world that we dearly valued, we also witnessed the birth of a new unapologetic generation who are tired of being embarrassed for who they are. And that's good news for kokoreç, as its bad reputation slowly seems to be shifting due to this.
"Our clientele has been changing a lot in the last years," said Samet, who has been working at Turkey's kokoreç headquarters for the last six years. "We used to have a lot of middle-aged men who came here after a night's drinking. But now we increasingly have more and more young people, especially university students."
Listening to my conversation with the kokoreç sellers, Ozgur Yilmaz, a corporate executive in his 40s, chimed in.
"Now that you say it, there are a lot of new kokoreç stalls around where I work," he said. "All my young colleagues queue at these street stalls to have a lunch of kokoreç. That wasn't the case ten years ago."
In a world dominated by judgemental Western gazes, for young Turks who feel rejected by the West, eating kokoreç can be a form of resistance—not just to our hygiene-obsessed middle-class mothers, but also to the Western institutions that keep subtly looking down on us and our ways. The shameless embrace of kokoreç is more than a food trend. It is a political metaphor for young Turkish people. The way that many young people like myself embraced kokoreç later in their lives symbolizes a frustration with being told what to like and what to not.
But our answer is loud and clear: No kokoreç, never without you.