At the heart of any Turkish community anywhere in the world is an unquenchable love of the grill. Like Aussies, Americans or Latin Americans, Turks love their BBQs. As well as grilling food outside, Turks also have a very specific type of charcoal barbeque called Ocakbasi.
Ocakbasi literally translates to ‘fireside’ or ‘by the grill’ and Ocakbasi restaurants typically have one large hooded charcoal barbeques in the center of the restaurant. Small tables filled with customers surround this massive central barbeque giving the patrons opportunity to enjoy their drinks, conversate while watching their kebabs cook.
Ocakbasi is a tradition that goes all the way back to ancient times of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. From the ancient times, where horse-riding Turkic raiders gathering around the fire at their camps in the steppes of Central-Asia to Hun fighters or Ottoman raiders gathering around fire, watching shish kebabs cooking at their mobile camp fire in the middle of some forest in Central-Europe; Turks loved enjoy gathering around the fire, conversate and sip their drinks whilst watching meat cook.
During weddings and celebrations, there is always a cohort of folks, more interested in the lambs or something large, a camel rotating on spit, cooked for the guests than the celebration itself. The Ocakbasi is the celebration!
1. The commercial Ocakbasi first emerged in the late Ottoman period
During 19th century, commercial Ocakbasi restaurants were available in the Ottoman cities like Adana, Hatay and Gaziantep as well as Kirkuk (in Iraq) or Aleppo (in Syria).
2. Real estate prices helped kick start the commercial Ocakbasi
A catalyst to commercial Ocakbasi was rising real estate prices. The restauranteurs who couldn’t afford large spaces to fit in kitchen, oven, grill Iman Rajab Bachaand seating space adapted the current Ocakbasi design. They up their grill, lined chairs around it and sold their kebabs in this way. This has led to the creation of an industry where people gather around a stove and eat their meals without tables and kitchens.
3. Industrialization spread the Ocakbasi culture
The rapid industrialization in Repulican Turkey affected the social fabric of Anatolian towns. Many local craftsmen had to move to bigger cities. Many kebab masters from Adana, moved to Istanbul which helped introduce Ocakbasi reach a wider audience.
4. Ocakbasi has become a social forum in time
Although lack of space was the catalyst for Ocakbasi, sitting and eating in this tight space by the same fire has made it a place for socializing over time. The tight space and sharing the meal, made Ocakbasi the ideal place for the most intimate conversations.
5. Enter alcohol
Whilst the early kebab masters served turnip juice or ayran with the kebab; over time Alcoholic drinks took over as the ideal companion to kebabs. Along with alcohol, meze appetizers were added to the Ocakbasi culture as well.
6. Ocakbasi is for all socio-economic backgrounds
Whether you want to experience Ocakbasi at a shabby or a luxurious venue; the setup is more or less the same. The price is different but the layout, the food and the spirit remains the same.
7. The rise of self-service
With personalization becoming a staple of every service or product that is offered; Ocakbasi culture too got affected. There are many venues where you can personally pick your own selection of meats, put your own shish kebabs or other goodies on the barbeque and take it to your own table around the fire to share with your mates. Imagine the Aussie BBQ, in a commercial space in the city centre where you and your mates grab your choice of your meat, cook it together and share it around the fire.