An unassuming, charming multigenerational restaurant on the outer edge of the market in Kadıköy is called Yanyalı Fehmi Lokantası after its founder and his birthplace in northwestern Greece
The city of Ioannina was a jewel in the imperial crown of the oldest Ottoman territories in Europe, as its Turkish governance began in 1430, preceding that of Constantinople – today’s Istanbul. It was arguably as important, where the gateway to Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire was kept under lock and key in the lake town’s castle. The region is known as Epirus in Greek, which means mainland, abutting the high mountains of southern Albania, not far from Corfu and the shores of the Ionian Sea, its coasts long held under the Venetian spheres of influence that had taken much of the Eastern Mediterranean by storm throughout the premodern eras.
Like many of the Balkan cities in the Ottoman world, it was a melting pot of multinational communities, divided and connected by a plethora of languages and beliefs and whose integration in and among their neighborly districts and villages created a singular source of communal self-expression. In Greek, as in Turkish, there is a specific suffix used to refer to a person from a particular place. For example, if someone is from Ioannina, they would be called Ioanniote in Greek (sometimes spelled Janiote, after Janina – the “J” and “Ioa” pronounced as an emphatic “y”). In Turkish, the name for Ioannina becomes Yanya. And its local, a Yanyalı.
In 1891, Hüseyin Horp, ostensibly from a line of gentrified Ottoman cavalrymen in Ioannina, named his newborn son Fehmi. He looked out over the lake of Ioannina and heard the call to prayer echo from the rustic, stone minarets of its two mosques, which project upwards from the twin acropolis sheltered by Byzantine castle walls. Mount Mitsikeli stood motionless over the lake. Hüseyin Horp felt like a lucky man. He went out to a restaurant to celebrate with his friends and dined as people do in Epirus, where the meats pile high and the meze appetizers are mostly complimentary variations of whatever leftovers the cooks whip up.
Ioannina is humid. It is often nicknamed the London of the Balkans for the measure of its copious rainfall. Its highland, lakefront ecology is peculiarly appetizing. There are herbs and dishes aplenty that harmonize with its round of festivals and the gritty spirit of its daily life. And like all Ottoman Balkan cultures, its culinary landscape is infused with the folkloric diversity of its many inhabitants, blending northern Greek styles of cooking with that of the Albanians, Turks, Slavs, Aromanians, Roma, Jews and others who ate and lived on its soil for generations. Its foods are as mixed and yet as synthesized, as its music. It is also as dramatic and complex.
To struggle for bread
By 1919, Fehmi had migrated from Ioannina to Istanbul, surviving the Balkan Wars and World War I. The city was on the brink of terminal, imperial collapse, occupied by foreign, colonial powers from the West, including Great Britain, whose field officers did not take kindly to Ottoman Turks while their military leadership under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk planned to defend their nation by forming a secular republic in Anatolia. But Fehmi, then an entrepreneur in his late twenties, had innocent designs. He simply wanted to bring the soul of his birth city to the Kadıköy district, where he relocated, by opening a restaurant in its name.
To friends and colleagues in Istanbul, he was known endearingly as Yanyalı Fehmi, and he had a predilection for the rich foods of his old hometown, and as the Turkish saying goes, his eyes were full. But there was a catch. He could not cook. Istanbul, however, was a city on its knees, and its people were looking for work. Among them was a young chef named Hüseyin who had come from Bolu, a small city directly east of Istanbul, closer to Ankara. They became fast friends, and sealed a partnership that continues to serve hungry patrons a delicious smorgasbord of delicacies special to the Turkish “lokanta,” a kind of home-cooking diner.
Among its fare are a typical cast of nutritious characters, substantial and healthy plates that ooze with oil and melt with cheeses. Yanyalı Fehmi Lokantası is a precious spot for fall comfort foods, especially for its pastas, baked in creamy sauce, or its sweet okra. The air is heavy with tradition, yet enlightening. To enjoy a hearty late lunch or early dinner across from a vintage photograph of Yanyalı Fehmi in his youth is to bask in the delights of pure nourishment, even if, at times, its foods might seem artless. But they are geniuses of Turkish classics, such as the “yaprak sarma” (stuffed grape leaves), which taste unmistakably, inexplicably just right.
Yanyalı Fehmi rose out of hardship, and his legacy is everlasting. He was thrown into a dungeon prison by British occupiers in Istanbul, and had to fight for his life. He emerged, stronger than ever, and more resolved, eventually opening branches of his restaurant in the Beyoğlu district and the Sirkeci neighborhood. And four decades after his passing away as the elderly patriarch of a large family in 1980, his sons and grandsons are taking up the helm, poised to continue the traditions of Ioannina’s Turkish kitchen in Kadıköy, where the sole branch of his establishment bustles behind windows that gleam with savory vegetables and sugary desserts.