Can a simple eggplant dish cost thousands of dollars? Last week, I wrote about the fondness of Turkish people for eggplant dishes and how dangerous it was to fry or char-grill the beloved eggplant that caused devastating fires in Istanbul’s history. It is true that almost all summer tables are adorned with endless varieties of eggplants. But one chef’s interpretation seems to have excelled all: The plate of İmam Bayıldı, the ubiquitous vegan dish interpreted by chef Maksut Aşkar of Neolokal which tastes exactly like the original, if not better, but looks quite different. The dish previously stirred arguments, whether it could be called with the original name, and now it seems that it will bring a lot of controversies, as the digital GIF has been recently put in an auction as Non-Fungible Token (NFT) at OpenSea with an opening price of 0.5 Ethereum (ETH), that is, approximately $1,600 or 13,500 Turkish liras.
As folktales say, one of the interpretations of how the strangely named İmam Bayıldı dish, which translates as both the imam fainted, or the imam liked it enormously, came into being. One dubious but the funny story is that the imam fainted when he learned how much olive oil went into the making of the dish, but now with the auction price tags, he would surely faint hearing about the whole NFT craze, now spreading to the gastronomy world. Together with the İmam Bayıldı dish, there are a total of five dishes that are put to auction, which are all artsy and tasty interpretations of Turkish cuisine classics: Hummus and Anatolian Landscape, Sardine wrapped in Vine Leaf, Celeriac Börek, and Kadınbudu meatballs, the latter also having a funny name which translates as “Lady’s thighs.” Chef Aşkar confirms that putting plates as an NFT digital asset is the first of a kind initiative in the world. These five dishes are the classic dishes of Neolokal, which Aşkar has reinterpreted based on traditional tastes. Since its opening in 2009, Neolokal has been adding new interpretations of local dishes to its repertoire every year, hence its name coming from New & Local. I say repertoire because each plate is like a work of art. Even the making of some of them resembles performance art, such as the hummus plate. The colors and flavors of Anatolia are reflected on hummus, each color standing for another characteristic taste, and an egg yolk symbolizing the Anatolian sun shines in one corner. Celeriac börek is much more than a pastry. It is a succession of layers of flavor placed on top of each other with an artistic touch, the silhouettes of herbs appearing as shadows behind the see-through paper-thin baklava dough, not only providing a multitude of layered tastes but also displaying layers of visuals through the dish.
Coming back to the eggplant dish, the İmam Bayıldı dish of Neolokal is a real treat. Covered with a mash of eggplant skins cut like thin matchsticks, it is beautiful, but the appearance is nothing like the original. The dish is constructed on a rectangular slice of bread, and each element of it is deconstructed and then reassembled to accentuate the original flavors. I tasted this dish for the first time in Georgia, Tbilisi, where Aşkar was one of the guest chefs at Café Littera to join famed Georgian chef Tekuna Gachechiladze. When the plate came in front of me, I stumbled for a moment muttering to myself, “What is that, a slice of bread topped with some eggplant bits?” But when I took a bite, it was like an explosion of flavors in my mouth, I was blown away! It turns out that, that slice of bread was the secret. It was kind of brioche, made with the reduced cooking juices of an actual classically cooked İmam Bayıldı dish. The idea came from the chef’s childhood memories, and the best bit he liked most was dunking the bread into the juices of the dish. That sensation was totally captured in the bread slice that created the fundamental layer, then the plate is constructed, accentuating every single taste element of the classic dish. The result is a truly authentic taste, displayed in a totally new manner and in a very artful way. I could well be seen as a painting from the deconstructivism movement. As Aşkar said in a presentation he made at Le Cordon Bleu Istanbul recently, it is not a dish that can be fully understood without tasting, but even a bite creates a holistic effect as if having devoured a whole plate of the original.
Every single dish in the digital collection has a story in its creation, they all look very artsy, and they all taste great. But how can taste be a digitalized asset as an NFT? Can a flavor be a salable commodity like digital artworks sold online for millions of dollars? That remains a mystery to me, hard to explain and hard to comprehend, but at a certain point, I give up understanding that anything is possible in this crazy digital world. I try to explain it in the terms of culinary art. One of the most common interpretations of the plates of Neolkal is the analogy “like a work of art.” Indeed, chef Aşkar has an artistic creative background. It turns out that, together with his partner Erim Leblebicioğlu, who is very open-minded about such innovations, they were already playing with the idea and had intentions to enter the world of NFT in the field of gastronomy. They cooperated with Tooken.io, Turkey’s first NFT agency founded by Orkun Bulut and Hakan Şık, chose the collection of plates most representative of Neolokal kitchen and put them up for sale on OpenSea, the foremost international NFT marketplace. The opening price of the plates, which will remain in the auction for 90 days is 0.5 ETH. Currently, virtual flavors are presented as 15-second GIFs. At the end of the auction, the person who buys each plate will have a high-resolution image and the video showing the preparation of the dish, and if in Turkey, will have the privilege to cook the dish together with the chef at Neolokal, if abroad from a distance, via zoom. Only then the winner will be able to taste the food. As I said, such a craze in the digital culinary art world is beyond my comprehension, but I get at least that: It is a good thing that the first dishes to hit the NFT market in the digital world come from Turkey. Perhaps our funnily named little-recognized classic dishes can now be heard of and gain the reputation they desire.