Just outside Jūjō Station in Kita, Tokyo, is a place featuring the cuisine and culture of Kurdistan, one of the most politically unstable regions in the world. Its owner hopes to offer refuge to his struggling Kurdish compatriots far from home.
A cuisine that transcends national borders
The Jūjō district of Kita in Tokyo is a patchwork of culinary cultures. Even with all that local color, Mesopotamia, just a minute’s walk from Jūjō Station’s south gate, is particularly appealing.
The name is likely to ring a few bells. I remember it myself from history lessons as one of the four great ancient civilizations of the world. But where was it exactly? Unable to remember exactly where, I armed myself to climb the steps and ask the tall man in the kitchen about it.
“Excuse me, what country cuisine do you serve?” »
“It’s Kurdish food.”
“Kurdish? Where does it come from, exactly?”
“People say that we Kurds are the largest stateless ethnic group in the world. The region known as Kurdistan, where most Kurds live, includes parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Azerbaijan. Unfortunately, even if it is not a recognized nation.
“Oh. So why did you name your restaurant Mesopotamia?”
“The area upstream of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, where the Mesopotamian civilization arose, straddles Kurdistan.”
The man who so kindly gave me this basic education on the Kurds is Vakkas Colak, the owner/head of Mesopotamia. He opened the shop, Japan’s only Kurdish restaurant, in 2017.
We Japanese, accustomed to our island nation, often think of race, language and culture in terms of national boundaries, but the world is not so easily sliced up. Many food cultures have roots that transcend national boundaries.
This is precisely the case with Kurdish cuisine. When I explain that I have a vague idea, for example, of Turkish cuisine, Colak, who was born in eastern Turkey, explains: “In the long history of Turkish cuisine, it has taken the influence not only from Central Asia, but also from Greek, Persian and Arabic cuisine as well.The people of the region lived nomadic lifestyles in the mountains, so they depended on seasonal fruits and vegetables, as well as local foods. dairy products like cheese and yogurt.And many of the most famous Turkish dishes actually originated with the Kurds.
Here, Colcak recommended the Mesopotamia Set (¥1,250). It includes a plate filled with rice pilaf, oven roasted potatoes and a dumpling filled with fried meat called kutilk. He says these are all common staples on Kurdish tables.
The lightly salted pilaf went perfectly with the garlic potatoes. The real star, however, was the kutilk. The crispy bulgur crust was filled with ground mutton that burst with delicious sweetness. The meat is tossed with onions, potatoes, nuts and sesame and, in combination with the crust, provides a richly sweet flavor.
These dumplings opened up a whole new world to me. From there, I started taking everyone to Mesopotamia from time to time, and each time I learned a bit more about the origins and daily life of Colak and other Kurds living in Japan.
Fleeing Turkish Persecution
Colak was born in 1981 and spent his childhood in a Kurdish village in eastern Turkey. In the late 1980s, however, increased repression and persecution by the Turkish government sparked the growth of the Kurdish independence movement.
Turkey requires military service from its citizens and many Kurds have served at the front against their own people. It’s hard to imagine how painful that must have been. In the midst of the conflict, one of Colak’s brothers joins the rebel militants. This put his entire family in the government’s crosshairs, and they were forced to move again and again.
“Kurds in the Turkish army in their own hometowns, and no less than 5 million have become refugees. A brother who joined the independence movement fled to the Netherlands, while other siblings fled to Japan.
Even as he faced the harsh reality of being a Kurd in a time of oppression, Colak kept his dream of becoming a teacher and went to college. However, the official position of the Turkish government was that “there are only Turks in Turkey”, and therefore universities offered no opportunity to study Kurdish language or literature. Colak had to specialize in the same Turkish language that was imposed on him. He did so even as his brother’s activities put him under surveillance.
He realized that Turkey had no hope for him, so he moved to Malaysia to continue his education. Then, as it would have been dangerous to return to Turkey, he counted on the help of his brother to help him come to Japan. It was in 2009.
He now puts his skills to the test every day serving the food he grew up eating, but “chef” is just one of the many facets of Colak.
Although he runs Mesopotamia’s kitchen in the evenings, many weekdays see him standing in the classroom as well. He teaches the Kurdish language to Japanese students as an instructor at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. He is also director of the Kurdish Cultural Association of Japan.
The shop has a library lined with Kurdish-related books, some of which are attributed to Colak himself. He helped edit a Kurdish dictionary and grammar text, and he was involved in the recently published cookbook Kurudo no shokutaku (The Kurdish table). He also works to introduce Japanese literature to Kurds, for example by translating Kawabata Yasunari yukiguni (snow country) in Kurdish.
For other Kurds in Japan
There is a large population of Kurdish residents in Saitama Prefecture around the towns of Kawaguchi (where Colak lives) and Warabi, an area some have begun to call Warabistan, in a play on Kurdistan.
There have been a few films featuring stories dealing with young Kurds living in this region, with 2018 Tokyo Kurds and my little country released on May 6 of this year, and Colak was also deeply involved with them. As the films show, heavy restrictions weigh on the daily life of Kurds living in Japan.
Japan has so far denied refugee status to all Kurds, and they are often forced to live under the precarious “provisional stay” system. Under this system, they are not allowed to work or move freely across prefectural borders and cannot benefit from national health insurance. They should be recognized as refugees, but instead of living in safety here in Japan, they are treated like criminals. Colak, who works to share Kurdish culture, also works day and night to help other Kurds in difficulty.
Last April, during my first visit to Mesopotamia in quite a while, there were two Kurdish journalists from Turkey. They were spending four months in Japan reporting on the lifestyle of Kurds living in Japan, and Colak was there to provide them with accommodation and the tastes of home. Such disinterested support from compatriots is worthy of respect.
“Many of us Kurds have lived in Japan since the 1990s, and now we welcome the second generation. These young people face all kinds of obstacles and often struggle with their identity. Most of what I do is driven by the desire to see them overcome these obstacles. The opening of Mesopotamia is one of them. The Japanese still know very little about Kurds, and I hope those who come here will be inspired to learn more about Kurdish cuisine, language and art.
Some people go through terrible hardships just because they were born Kurds. Colak is one of them, but if you meet him, you will never hear him lamenting his condition, and indeed his relentless efforts to fulfill his mission just might inspire you to reflect more deeply on what it means. really life.
Kurdish Restaurant Mesopotamia
Third Floor, 1-11-8 Kami-Jūjō, Kita, Tokyo. Tel: 03-5948-8649. Opening hours: 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Closed on Mondays. One-minute walk from the South Ticket Office of JR Jūjō Station.
(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: The Mesopotamia Set offers iconic Kurdish dishes on a single plate. ¥1,250. All photos © Fuchi Takayuki.)