The story revolves around Daphne, a young American woman who has come to the city of her parents’ birth to explore her heritage. There, she meets two men who vie for her affections: Fanis, a feisty 76-year-old, has a long history of womanizing, to try to exorcise a dark chapter from his past. Kosmas, an award-winning pastry chef who’s still living with his mother at 41, tries to track down a lost Ottoman recipe to win Daphne’s heart. A colorful group of friends, opinionated aunties and neighborhood regulars, almost all from Istanbul’s diverse non-Muslim communities, round out the endearing cast of characters.
As multiple courtships play out simultaneously, the city comes vibrantly alive through the author’s evocative descriptions that conjure all the senses. The classic Istanbul seagulls’ squawks and muezzins’ calls to prayer are present, but so too is “the damp, soot-stained pavement outside the greengrocer’s shop . . . littered with scallions and lettuce.” The air in the Panagia church has “a stale wood and mold base, top notes of apple and rosewater, and a spicy heart of myrrh and cinnamon.” Numerous food descriptions pique the taste buds, such as a pastry whose “cardamom, cinnamon, and rose flavors transported Daphne to the Egyptian Bazaar.”
Anastasiadou, who is Rum and chose to write in English to share that experience with the wider world, sprinkles her characters’ dialogues with salty Greek and Turkish expressions. She writes with the deep cultural understanding of an insider, incorporating depictions of Orthodox religious rites and details about marriage traditions. Yet her narrator also possesses an outsider’s keen eye for observation, wryly commenting on the overinvolvement of Greek mothers in their sons’ lives or the excessive jewelry worn by Istanbul women.
As Daphne becomes part of this world, she is hiding a secret about her family that could prove unsettling to her new circle. They are acutely worried about the survival of the Rum community, which once made up about a quarter of Istanbul’s population but has been reduced to fewer than 2,000 people today after multiple waves of emigration in the 20th century sparked by animosity and discrimination. “It’s the dead. They’ve become too many,” laments Daphne’s aunt. “And we don’t have any children to replace them.”
The elders are particularly haunted by the events of September 1955, when Turks in Istanbul — stirred up by nationalist sentiment in the press about the future of Cyprus — carried out an anti-Greek pogrom as the police, on official orders, turned a blind eye. Thousands of Rum families fled Turkey in the aftermath, and the Rum populace that remained — and the city itself — were never the same again. Through memories and flashbacks that depart from the novel’s main time frame of 2011 to 2012, Fanis and other characters attempt to confront this traumatic history.
In weaving together a delightful present-day romantic drama with a more profound narrative about reckoning with and making peace with the past, “A Recipe for Daphne” proves deeply satisfying.
Vanessa H. Larson is a multiplatform editor at The Washington Post. She writes about culture, art and film.
A Recipe for Daphne
By Nektaria Anastasiadou
Hoopoe. 326 pp. $16.95