Kurdish cuisine? But what country is it from?
Around Jûjô station, in the Tokyo district of Kita, is a district where different cultures mingle. But there is a place that catches the eye, much more: the Kurdish restaurant Mésopotamie. This brightly colored establishment is just a few minutes walk from the south exit of Jûjô station.
I remember hearing this name in my history lessons at school… Mesopotamia is one of the four oldest civilizations in the world. But where exactly was it… I would have had a hard time telling. It is with this question in mind that I decide to push the door of the restaurant. A tall man was waiting for me in the kitchen.
“Excuse me, what kind of food do you serve?” »
“Kurdish cuisine. »
” Enough to ? Kurdish cuisine? But what country is it from? »
“Kurds are considered the largest non-state ethnic group. The region that bears the name of Kurdistan is in fact made up of several countries; certain regions in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Azerbaijan. However, Kurdistan is not recognized as a country. »
“So why did you choose that name Mesopotamia ? »
“The region located upstream of the Tigris and the Euphrates, the cradle of Mesopotamian civilization, straddles Kurdistan. »
This man, who so kindly teaches me the basic knowledge of Kurdistan, is Vakkas Colak, the chef and owner of the Mesopotamia restaurant. The establishment opened in 2017 and is to date the only Kurdish restaurant in Japan.
Japan being an island country, the idea of borders immediately brings to mind terms such as ethnic groups, languages, cultures. But it’s not always as simple as that. Many cuisines have common roots that go far beyond simple national borders.
And that couldn’t be more true with Kurdish cuisine. I explained to him that, for example, I had a vague idea of what Turkish cuisine was. Vakkas Colak, himself born in eastern Turkey, explains to me: “In the long history of Turkish gastronomy, Kurdish cuisine draws its influences not only from Central Asia, but also from Greek, Persian and Arab. This region was populated by nomads. Located in the mountains, the nomads depended on picking seasonal fruits and vegetables, as well as making dairy products such as cheese or yogurt. And that is why the best-known specialties of Turkish cuisine actually have their roots in the Kurdish region.
A menu that excites the taste buds
Chef Colak recommends the “Mesopotamia Set”, at 1,250 yen (8.5 euros); on the menu, a generous portion of rice pilaf, baked potatoes and kutlik (fried meatballs). The chef tells me that all the foods that make up the Mesopotamia Set are essential basic dishes of Kurdish cuisine.
The slightly sweet taste of rice pilaf goes perfectly with the garlicky flavor of potatoes. But the star of the menu is undoubtedly the kutlik. The crispness of bulgur combined with the softness of minced mutton… a real delight. The meat is mixed with onions, potatoes, nuts and sesame. On the palate, combined with the flavor of the crust, it offers a rich and sweet taste.
These kutlik were like a revelation to me. I came back to Mesopotamia, once then twice, and each time I learned a little more about the origins and daily life of Vakkas Colak and all the other Kurds in Japan.
Fleeing persecution from the Turkish government
Vakkas Colak was born in 1981. He grew up in a Kurdish village in eastern Turkey. Towards the end of the 1980s, repression and persecution by the Turkish government instilled the Kurdish independence movement.
Turkey imposes military service, so many Kurds have had to serve at the front against their own people. It’s hard to imagine how painful that must have been for them. During the conflict, one of Vakkas Colak’s brothers joined the rebels. Because of this, it was all of his family members who found themselves in the crosshairs of the Turkish government, repeatedly pushing them to move.
“The Turkish army attacked the Kurds in their own towns and villages. Result: no less than 5 million Kurds have become refugees. Including my brothers; one of them who had joined the independence movement took refuge in the Netherlands and the others in Japan. »
Even when he had to face the harsh reality of being a Kurd in the face of so much oppression, Vakkas Colak never gave up on his dream: to become a teacher. And for that, he enrolled in college. However, the official position of the Turkish government is very clear: “There are only Turks in Turkey. Universities thus offer no possibility of studying Kurdish literature or even the Kurdish language. Vakkas Colak therefore had no choice but to specialize in Turkish, the language that had been imposed on him, even though the government was monitoring his actions because of his brother’s activities.
Bitter observation, he understood that Turkey did not place any hope in him, which pushed him to leave the country for Malaysia, where he finished his studies. Then, as it would have been dangerous to return to Turkey, he asked his brother for help to return to Japan. It was in 2009.
Vakkas Colak puts his skills to the test every day serving the food he ate himself as a child. But that’s just one of its many hats.
If he cooks in Mesopotamia in the evening, several days a week, he is also a Kurdish language teacher at the University of Foreign Studies in Tokyo. Finally, he is director of the Japanese Kurdish Cultural Association.
In the restaurant, a shelf with works on the Kurdish people, some of which bear the name of Vakkas Colak himself. In particular, he took part in the work of editing a Kurdish language dictionary and a Kurdish grammar book, and also contributed to the publication of the cookbook “La Table Kurd” (Kurdish no shokutaku). Currently, his project is to introduce Japanese literature to the Kurds; he wants to translate “Snow Country” into Kurdish (yukiguni) by Kawabata Yasunari.
Helping other Kurds in Japan
The prefecture of Saitama, near Tokyo, hosts a large population distributed between the cities of Kawaguchi, where Colak lives, and Warabi, sometimes called Warabistanin reference to the large number of Kurds who populate the city.
Two films relate the life of young Kurds in this region; Tokyo Kurds (2018) and my little country (released on May 6 this year); two productions where Vakkas Colak got involved. Both films follow young Kurds in Japan, who face heavy restrictions on a daily basis.
In Japan, no Kurd has obtained refugee status, the latter having no choice but to live under the precarious regime of “temporary stay”. Thus, they are neither authorized to work nor to leave the prefecture, nor to have health insurance. They should be recognized as refugees but instead of living in Japan freely and in peace, they are considered criminals. Vakkas Colak, who invests in sharing Kurdish culture, does not spare his efforts either to help other Kurds in difficulty.
In April, when I had not been to the Mesopotamia restaurant for some time, two Kurdish journalists from Turkey were also present. They were to stay four months in Japan for the needs of a report on the daily life of Kurds living in Japan. Vakkas Colak did not hesitate to accommodate them and of course to offer them traditional Kurdish dishes. Helping other Kurds in such a selfless way left me speechless.
“Many Kurds, like me, have lived in Japan since the 1990s, and now it’s the turn of the second generation. All these young people face all kinds of difficulties on a daily basis, asking themselves many questions about their identity. And everything I do, I do for Kurds to have a better life in Japan. Opening the Mesopotamia restaurant is one of them. It’s a way to introduce Japanese people with Kurdish culture. I hope it will inspire them to learn more about Kurdish cuisine, language and art. »
Some Kurds have to overcome difficult trials for the simple reason that they are Kurds. Vakkas Colak is one of them, even if he is certainly not the one who will lament his fate, a tenacity that could make many reflect on the deep meaning of life.
Kurdish Restaurant Mesopotamia
- Address: 3e floor, 1-11-8 Kami-Jûjô, Kita-ku, Tokyo
- Access: one minute walk from the south exit of JR Jûjô station
- Tel: 03-5948-8649
- Opening hours: 11:00 a.m. – 11:00 p.m.
- Closed on Mondays
(Title photo: the Mesopotamia menu and its traditional Kurdish dishes. All photos: © Fuchi Takayuki)