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Gilded Serpent presents...
Bargaining for Injeers
by Kayla Summers

“Kayla, you must learn to bargain!”

“I know, I know...”

It's just that... well, I tend to make more money than the average tomato salesman (at least, I think I do). If he wants to charge me an extra quarter for those mouth watering, fresh, red tomatoes whose juice colors my fresh bread a rich red, so what?

Ah, but I was missing the point entirely!

had been a better bargainer. Once in Central America, I caught myself vehemently arguing with an onion saleswoman over what was less than a quarter.    The Guatemalan people have next to nothing, and there I was pitching a fit over a quarter!  I felt so ashamed that I caught myself mid-sentence, shut up and paid the woman what she had asked for, probably utterly confusing the poor thing!  I swore I would never bargain for anything again.

Then I discovered the "Pazars" in Istanbul, where bargaining is considered a basic skill.  Bargaining is not  just about the money, although that is a qualifier. Bargaining is a medium in which two strangers can have a conversation.  Turks love to bargain, and it may be how they get to know you...

Suzette, my friend, had taken me to her Pazar, to show me "how to do it"’. I love her style. She would banter with the salesmen, usually getting a chuckle out of them, but my remedial Turkish, "Ali look, Ali come," was inadequate for even casual exchanges. Despite gentle prompting from the sales people, it was difficult for me to not to feel like a fool. Add to this my lack of knowledge of the price of apples in any country, and it ultimately rendered me mute. The transaction would be terminated, thus leaving them without a sale and me hungry.  If I wanted the best and freshest produce, found only in Pazars, I would have to improve my skill. But how could I learn?  Suzette and her sister Kalianna discussed my dilemma between themselves.  What I needed was a "formula" and some practice. One spring day, Kalianna took me to the Pazar to demonstrate the formula.

Ah, how do I explain the Pazar? Think of a farmer's market,  but make it an exponent to the tenth power.   Animated by gently billowing breezes are drapes of colorful dresses, silken lacy undergarments and richly embroidered tablecloths, each one like a huge tapestry defining the perimeter and the nature of the stand . This is a feast for the eyes as the sellers sing their ancient song to your ears:  ”Just look!”

The display of vegetables is an art form in itself: pyramids of tomatoes are sectioned by layers of carrots, bell peppers, eggplants, lettuces, cucumbers, onions and garlic, all stratified like an ancient Roman road. The artichokes are prepared by leaving only the heart and the slight purplish thistle, and they look like lotuses floating in a lemon pond.

There are also tubs brimming with olives.  Ah, the zateens!  Huge green ones, big wrinkled black ones, pimento stuffed green ones and a half dozen more varieties.  Each olive salesman has his own "brining recipe", imparting a unique flavor to his or her olives ... Previously my "olive experience" had been, sadly, mostly out of a can.  My olive man uses lemon as one of his brining ingredients, and his olives are the best I’ve ever tasted in my life!   Also, his homemade tomato paste is to die for. The olive oil, sold by the liter, tastes so rich and creamy that it's worth waiting 'till Pazar day to restock. 

He got so tired of trying to make me bargain that he gave me a little extra. Incredibly kind, this man always finishes our transaction with “you are always in my heart” in English to which I respond “your oil is in mine”.

White bricks and wheels of cheeses, some like feta, some curd, some goat cheeses.  There are special cheeses, made unique to the village, and collectively called "village cheese."  Due to their gentle flavoring, they are an excellent staple item.

Long tables of cotton bags and straw baskets are filled with spices and herbs, from anise to peppercorns.  Muslin pillow cases brim with dried purple flowers used for coughs and a chamomile-like flower used for the "grippe".

Fruit is bountiful - the Turkish land is rich and fertile.  Spring tends to show that off best.  Peaches and apricots, spring almonds still wrapped in their fuzzy skins. Ereks, small sour green plums, that the Turks eat plain or with salt are very high in vitamin C content, but they are the ones that your mother would warn are unripe and would give you a stomachache.   They are my sign that Spring, or Ilkbahar, has arrived.  Injeers, or figs, as we know them, are a divine experience: red or white, the size of small lemons, with thin skins - juicy and sweet.

Interspersed with all these lingual delights are jewelry stands, folk art, Uzbekistan embroidered pillows, silk Bedouin robes and various artifacts of a village life that is rapidly disappearing.  There are Chinese stands, selling strands of pearls among silk brocade boxes and cheap makeup.

But this was the early Spring  I was with Kalianna, learning how to bargain.  Kalianna is a great teacher, a Turkish Jew, turned "a modified Hindi".  She has a very gentle disposition and speaks softly.  She has grown up in this Pazar.

We began with the fruits. Crisp apples, light green with wisps of red .  Salesmen were slicing and handing them out for tastes. She began her demonstration with a smile.  She asked for three kilos of apples,.  The salesman placed three kilos of apples in the bucket on a scale, using lead counter weights to balance.  Now was the critical moment. “Ne-kadar? (How much?)", she asked demurely.  The salesman replied in an equally soft voice, stating a price. She looked at him and sweetly said,  “Perhaps a little fewer apples”.

  • The first rule is be nice.
  • The second rule is never accept the first price.

What she did, instead of telling him to change his price, was to ask for "a little less" so she could pay a lesser price.  Generally, this is more symbolic than factual.  Occasionally, the salesman or woman would purse their lips a bit or shrug their shoulders, smile,  take one out and wish her a good appetite.   More often they’d shrug their shoulders, smile and say, “Okay, take it at your price.”

Weaving our way through the crowds, we munched on a simit.  This is a yeast bread "bracelet" encrusted with toasted sesame seeds.  It is the national snack. Kalianna’s method was working like a charm. No one was yelling, no one was acting "put out".

A jovial man rolled out dough to paper thinness and the size of a bicycle wheel.  It is called "Kote", and is used to wrap many Turkish delicacies.  We hit a snag with the Kote man, who said, “You want I should rip it in half?"  (No one buys half .) There was a little small talk back and forth - not much, more like:

“Well, I’m making such and such with it.”

“Who's your friend?" with his chin jutting in my direction.

We got away still smiling.  Our arms and hands were getting more and more heavily laden with our bounty.

The Pazar, a roving farmers' market, covers a lot of ground. Each day, the Pazar sets up in a different neighborhood.  Some layouts stretch a mile, some longer, weaving their way through a tangle of streets and  neighborhoods .

I noticed at each intersection there would be two or three gypsy women in colorful dresses and equally colorful head scarves.  I heard them singing in the early evening as they pulled their heavy carts though five lane traffic. Their average life span is to the mid thirties, although in Turkey it’s a little longer.  Whenever I feel despondent, I think of them, for they are far more unfortunate than I could ever be, yet they sing as they toil.

A young gypsy  woman approached us.  She was attired in a skirt covered in a rose print, with a worn, green sweater. A  shawl/veil  of white muslin, edged in fine crochet work, graced her head, reminding me of pictures of the Virgin Mary.  Her fingers were twined with strips of gauze. While the figs are green and still hard, the size of golf balls, the gypsy women harvest and then peel the figs with very sharp knives. This explained the bandaged  fingers perfectly. The gypsy girl shyly smiled at Kalianna and offered her a small bag of the prepared figs. 

These figs can be utilized by accomplished chefs, adding a unique and wonderful taste to a stew or other dish. If one does not "do it " correctly, however, the stew or dish comes out so bitter that the entire thing is ruined. I know this from  personal experience!

 Kalianna turned to me and said conspiratorially, “This is a little trickier, but watch.”  She faced the gypsy woman, reciting the universal, ancient mantra of the market place:

“Ne-kadar?” (How much)

The gypsy girl’s shy smile was growing to expose a set of pearly white teeth.  “Two million (a dollar fifty)", she replied sweetly, as she placed the package in Kalianna’s hands.  Kalianna turned a little away from the girl, and raised her chin quickly while emitting the "tsk, tsk’"sound. (Meaning  no.)

The girl  looked dumbfounded.  While she spoke, (rather loudly), Kalianna translated. The gypsy girl was defending the price requested, citing long work hours, ”up since four a.m. harvesting these delicacies”.  “Oh and the peeling!”  As she waved her bandaged fingers in the air, “Look, look!  I cut myself to the bone!” 

 She started unraveling one of the bandages. As she unraveled it, she asked Kalianna what she would offer instead. Kalianna, replied very coolly , “One million.”

“One million?”
“Yes, one million.”

The gypsy woman's smile had dissolved to an dropped jaw, as she stared at Kalianna incredulously .  She began speaking really fast and loudly.  Kalianna was unable to translate, due to the rapid delivery punctuated with occasional shrieks. There was less need for translation, for the gypsy woman began pantomiming her arduous day.  The bandage end was undulating like a Chinese streamer - each time the girl waved her hand, it grew longer.

The girl was now beseeching  Allah, wailing for his intervention with this merciless woman. She was flinging the white veil and covering her beautiful face, lest we see the tears she was shedding for the cruelty of her fate in the world.  The sedate crowd of shoppers and salesmen alike  paused to look on with curiosity.  I was feeling really self conscious, but their confused looks turned to smiles as they shook their heads. It was all part of the entertainment.

Kalianna was holding firm, her arms folded, her jaw tightening.  Her head was held high, eyebrows raised, although her gaze was looking inward.  However, she still held onto the injeers.  With the next shriek, the gypsy woman hurled herself to the ground in a sort of modified prostration, wailing about babies to feed.  Miserable world!   Allah be merciful and take her now!

The pink blush that had been creeping up Kalianna’s neck had blossomed on her cheeks. She rolled her eyes and said in a patient voice, “Okay, that’s enough!  I’ll give you one million and seventy five.”  The gypsy woman took a deep breath.  We simultaneously stepped back, preparing for another onslaught of curses.   Gracefully, she rose, carefully daubing the "tears" away from her eyes with the corner of her veil.  She smiled broadly, heaping sincere-sounding, pleasant sentiments on Kalianna and her friend.  “All of Allah’s blessings!  May He make each bite you take be better than the last! " And of course she blessed the hands of the chef, finishing with a call for good appetite.  Then she promptly disappeared into the crowded Pazar, with the two million, to get change, as Kalianna had no change. 

The crowd of onlookers was laughing and moving on.  I’m sure they were reciting their own gypsy stories. While waiting for the change, Kalianna and I stood quietly, a little stunned. The gypsy woman  miraculously  emerged  from the crowd and handed Kalianna her change.

We turned towards the car;  Kalianna looked at me, smiled and said, with a shrug, “Well, what can you do? You have to try!”

More photos from Kayla's experience with food and the markets in Istanbul

A fruit truck parked on a fairly main street. The corner stores buy from these trucks as do people living above (the apartment windows are visible in the photo). People will call down and let down a basket on a rope with their list to be filled by the truck vendor. Usually the vendor is known by his customers who are familiar with the prices. Not much haggling takes place.

Horse drawn lemons. This is the same street we saw the fruit truck. Istanbul has about 25,000 people. The horses look well cared for. Gypsy families keep horses also. You may see the Gypsy families salvaging and recycling. Discarded clothes are often left beside the trash cans for the salvaging families.

Grilled layered lamb meat which is shaved off into lavash for a gyros-like sandwich. Chicken is done this way also.

A lokantsi, or locanta.
Turkish lunch items visible: stuffed grape leaves (dolmas), sauteed mushrooms,
meat stuffed zucchini, among many lamb dishes.

Honey comb sold at a kavahlatici. A breakfast house with village cheeses, homemade tomato paste, ground peppers, luncheon meats, and other delicacies not usually available at the normal supermarket.

Shredded wheat soaked in cinnamon flavored honey syrup, wrapped around a pistachio filling.

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