Kurdish Restaurant Mesopotamia Serves Up Food and Culture in Kita, TokyoSociety Food and Drink Politics
A Cuisine Transcending National Boundaries
The Jūjō area of Tokyo’s Kita is a patchwork of culinary cultures. Even with all that local color, though, Mesopotamia, just a minute’s walk from the Jūjō station’s south ticket gate, is particularly eye-catching.
The name is likely to ring some bells. I remember it myself from history classes as one of the world’s four great ancient civilizations. But where exactly was it? Unable to recall just where, I steeled myself to walk up the steps and ask the tall man in the kitchen about it.
“Excuse me, what country’s cuisine do you serve?”
“It’s Kurdish food.”
“Kurdish? Where is that from, exactly?”
“People say that we Kurds are the world’s largest ethnic group without a state. The area known as Kurdistan, where most Kurdish people live, includes parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Azerbaijan. Sadly, though it isn’t a recognized nation.”
“Oh. So, why did you name your restaurant Mesopotamia?”
“The area upstream of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, where the Mesopotamian civilization was born, overlaps Kurdistan.”
The man so kindly giving me this basic education on the Kurds is Vakkas Colak, Mesopotamia’s owner/chef. He opened the shop, Japan’s only Kurdish restaurant, in 2017.
We Japanese, used to our island nation, often think of race, language, and culture in terms of national borders, but the world is not so easily sliced up. Many food cultures have roots that transcend national boundaries.
This is precisely the case with Kurdish cooking. When I explain that I have some vague idea of, for example, Turkish food, Colak—who was born in eastern Turkey—explains: “In the long history of Turkish cooking, it has taken influence from not only Central Asia, but Greek, Persian, and Arab cuisine, as well. The people of the region lived nomadic lifestyles in the mountains, so they depended on seasonal fruits and vegetables, as well as dairy products like cheese and yoghurt. And lots of the most famous Turkish dishes actually originated with the Kurds.”
Here, Colcak recommended the Mesopotamia Set (¥1,250). It includes a plate piled with rice pilaf, oven-roasted potatoes, and a fried meat-filled dumpling called kutilk. He says these are all common staples on Kurdish tables.
The lightly salted pilaf matched perfectly with the garlic-flavored potatoes. The real star, though, was the kutilk. The crisp bulgur wheat crust was filled with minced mutton that burst forth with delightful sweetness. The meat is blended with onions, potatoes, walnuts, and sesame, and in combination with the crust offers a richly sweet flavor.
Those dumplings opened up a new world for me. From that point, I began dropping by Mesopotamia everyone once in a while, and each time I learned a little more about the backgrounds and daily lives of Colak and other Kurds living in Japan.
Fleeing Turkish Persecution
Colak was born in 1981 and spent his childhood in a Kurdish village in eastern Turkey. In the late 1980s, however, the Turkish government’s increased repression and persecution sparked growth in the Kurdish independence movement.
Turkey requires military service of its citizens, and many Kurds served at the front against their own people. It is difficult to imagine how painful that must have been. In the middle of the conflict, one of Colak’s brothers joined the rebel militants. That put his entire family in the government’s sights, and they were forced to relocate again and again.
“The Turkish army Kurds in their own hometowns, and as many as 5 million became refugees. One brother who joined the independence movement fled to the Netherlands, while other siblings escaped to Japan.“
Even as he faced the harsh realities of being a Kurd in a time of oppression, Colak kept his dream of becoming a teacher and went on to university. However, the official stance of the Turkish government was that “There are only Turks in Turkey,” and so universities offered no opportunities to study Kurdish language or literature. Colak had to major in the same Turkish language that had been forced on him. He did this even as his brother’s activities put him under scrutiny.
He came to realize that Turkey held no hope for him, so moved to Malaysia to continue his studies. Then, since it would have been dangerous to return to Turkey, he relied on his brother’s aid to help him come to Japan. That was in 2009.
He now puts his skills to the test every day serving the cuisine he grew up eating, but “chef” is but one of Colak’s many facets.
Though he runs Mesopotamia’s kitchen in the evening, many weekdays also see him standing in the classroom. He teaches the Kurdish language to Japanese students as an instructor with the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. He is also director of the Japan Kurdish Cultural Association.
The shop has a bookshelf lined with books connected with the Kurds, some of which are credited to Colak himself. He has helped edit a Kurdish dictionary and grammar text, and he was involved in the newly published cookbook Kurudo no shokutaku (The Kurdish Table). He is also working to introduce Japanese literature to Kurds, for example by translating Kawabata Yasunari‘s Yukiguni (Snow Country) into Kurdish.
For Other Kurds in Japan
There is a large population of Kurdish residents in Saitama Prefecture around the cities of Kawaguchi (where Colak lives) and Warabi, an area some have taken to calling Warabistan, in a play on Kurdistan.
There have been a few films featuring stories dealing with young Kurds living in this area, with 2018’s Tokyo Kurds and My Small Land released May 6 of this year, and Colak has been deeply involved with them, as well. As the films show, there are heavy restrictions on the daily lives of the Kurdish people living in Japan.
Japan has denied all Kurds refugee status so far, and they are often forced to live under the precarious “provisional stay” system. Under that system, they are not allowed to work or freely move across prefectural borders, and cannot have national health insurance. They should be recognized as refugees, but instead of living safely here in Japan, they are treated like criminals. Colak, who works to share Kurdish culture, is also working day and night to help other Kurds who are struggling.
Last April, on my first visit to Mesopotamia in quite a while, there were two Kurdish journalists visiting from Turkey. They were spending four months in Japan to report on the lifestyle of Kurds living in Japan, and Colak was there to provide them with lodging and the tastes of home. Such selfless support of compatriots is worthy of respect.
“Many of us Kurds have been living in Japan since the 1990s, and now we’re welcoming in the second generation. Those younger people are dealing with all kinds of barriers, and often struggle with their identities. Most of what I do is out of a desire to see them surmount those barriers. Opening Mesopotamia is part of that. The people of Japan still know very little about Kurds, and I’m hoping that the ones who come here are inspired to learn more about Kurdish cuisine, language, and art.”
Some people undergo terrible ordeals simply because they were born Kurdish. Colak is one such, though if you meet him you will never hear him bemoan his state, and indeed his endless efforts to fulfill his mission could well inspire you to think more deeply about what life truly means.
Kurdish Restaurant Mesopotamia
Third floor, 1-11-8 Kami-Jūjō, Kita, Tokyo. Tel: 03-5948-8649. Business Hours: 11:00–23:00. Closed on Mondays. One minute’s walk from the south ticket gate at JR Jūjō Station.
(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: The Mesopotamia Set offers up iconic Kurdish dishes on a single plate. ¥1,250. All photos © Fuchi Takayuki.)