The Greek community of Constantinople is highlighted in the charming debut novel A Recipe for Daphne by Nektaria Anastasiadou. The book features vivid characters and evocative descriptions woven together in a romantic drama that touches on the painful history that has indelibly shaped the lives of the Polites, the Greeks of Constantinople.
According to the book’s description, Fanis is at the center of a dwindling yet stubbornly proud community of Rum [the term used in modern Turkey to describe Greeks, i.e. the descendants of the citizens of the Roman Empire], Greek Orthodox Christians, who have lived in Constantinople for centuries.
When Daphne, the American-born niece of an old friend, arrives in the city in search of her roots, she is met with a hearty welcome. Fanis is smitten by the beautiful and aloof outsider, who, despite the age difference, reminds him of the fiancée he lost in the 1955 pogrom. Kosmas, a master pastry chef on the lookout for a good Rum wife, also falls instantly for Daphne. She is intrigued by him, but can she love him in return? Or will a family secret, deeply rooted in the painful history of the city itself, threaten their chances? This story of love, hopeful beginnings, and ancient traditions showcases Anastasiadou’s dynamic literary voice. Readers will undoubtedly be entertained and will look forward to her next project.
Anastasiadou who lives in Constantinople, spoke about the genesis of the idea for her debut novel, “One day in 2010 or 2011, an elderly Rum gentleman told me about a forgotten pastry called the Balkanik. He described it as a large éclair, but with differently flavored crèmes inside. Each crème symbolized a different Balkan people and their harmonious coexistence. Because the peaceful coexistence of peoples with different religions, cultures, and languages is something that fascinates me, I knew that I wanted to write about a pastry chef who would resurrect that old recipe. Thus, my character Kosmas was born.”
She continued, “At that time, I was renting an apartment in the historical street of Faik Paşa in the Çukurcuma neighborhood of Istanbul. One evening I was sitting in my cumba— a traditional bay window— and imagining how the street’s old buildings would have looked when they were built in the 19th century, or even half a century prior. I began writing about them in my notebook from the perspective of an old man who had lived all his life on that street, who had seen its changes over time. That old man became Fanis.
“The pastry and the street came together into a story when I had a discussion with friends about the difficulty of finding a mate within a small community (the Rum minority of Istanbul is estimated at about two thousand people). I wanted to write about this challenge, so Fanis and Kosmas had to be on the lookout for a Rum wife. If she were already in Istanbul, they would have found her already because everyone knows everyone within a community of two thousand. Consequently, a woman would have to come from outside, but I didn’t want her to come from Greece because I don’t think that we should limit ourselves to the idea that only Greeks understand Rum culture. For that reason, I made Daphne American.”
Of the Polis and inspiration, Anastasiadou noted that it “is an endless source of material and inspiration. It’s impossible to live here and not have at least ten stories that you would like to write. In spoken Istanbul Greek, we refer to Istanbul as the Polis (City). For us, there is only one Polis, so we don’t need to specify which one. A novelist living in history’s preeminent city— with all its beauty and madness— can never lack inspiration.”
When asked about her writing regime, Anastasiadou said, “I don’t have a particular season or time of day that during which I write better because I believe that writing is a desk job for which you must show up every morning, regardless of how you feel. I write wherever I am. But after months of writing only in my flat due to quarantines, I now enjoy writing in my favorite café. It’s much cooler than my flat and I can see an acacia tree from where I sit (we don’t have many trees in Istanbul, so this tree is my luxury). The owner brings my green tea and water without me having to say a word, and then I forget all about the real world for the rest of the day. It’s paradise.”
Anastasiadou's writing has appeared in The Huffington Post, Al-Monitor, Daily Sabah, Mashallah News, Panoply, East of the Web, Sixfold, The Shanghai Literary Review, Eclectica, and The Eastern Iowa Review. In 2019, one of her short stories was included in the American Fiction Anthology and she won the Zografeios Agon, a prestigious Greek-language literary award established in Constantinople during the late Ottoman Empire. She also received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train's Spring 2017 New Writer Contest and in Ruminate's 2015 Short Fiction Contest.
A Recipe for Daphne by Nektaria Anastasiadou is available online.