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'A Recipe for Daphne' review: Delicious debut blending romance and Turkish culture

"A Recipe for Daphne," the debut novel by Nektaria Anastasiadou, is set in Istanbul. Credit: Hoopoe

A RECIPE FOR DAPHNE by Nektaria Anastasiadou (Hoopoe, 326 pp., $16.95)

Nektaria Anastasiadou's debut, "A Recipe for Daphne," is perhaps the first contemporary novel in English set among Istanbul's dwindling population of Rum-Greek Orthodox Christians, some of whom trace their roots back to the Byzantine Empire. It's also a novel to be thoroughly savored, from its enticing culinary elements to its charming love stories.

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, and Kosmas, an award-winning pastry chef who's still living with his mother at 41.

Anastasiadou 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.

The elders are particularly haunted by the events of September 1955, when Turks in Istanbul 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.

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.

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