Master of the Ice Cream Domain: Yaşar Usta
The following is an excerpt from Ice Cream Travel Guide, a book about ice cream around the world, by Jennifer Ng.
Yaşar Carli does not worry. In the last few days, the customers at his ice cream shop have been chattering wildly about the protests at Taksim Square. Located on the main residential thoroughfare to the train station on Prof. Dr. Ali Nihat Tarlan Street, the shop invites pedestrians to stop for a brief moment. Like a neighborhood grandfather, Yaşar dresses in a modest purple button-down shirt and slacks. When he spots a familiar face, he waves with a smile. He watches young adults head to Beyoğlu with gas masks and large flags featuring Ataturk, the first president of Turkey. As the protestors return, he greets them, addressing them by name and offering a taste of ice cream, a bright contrast during their day.
I meet Yaşar on a summer evening initially without an interpreter. Yaşar is clean-shaven, and a light blush emerges from his cheeks. As a devout Muslim, he just finished the fast for the preparation of Ramadan. Energy radiates from his eyes. Seeing an unfamiliar face, he becomes excited. Noticing me, Yaşar rises up from his chair behind the counter. His graying hair frames his rosy face as he approaches me, exclaiming greetings in all the languages that he knows. As I hand him hastily written Turkish on a piece of paper, his smile grows wider. Yaşar motions me over to the sign. The sign blares unapologetically “Yaşar Ustanin Dondurmasi” (in English, Master Yaşar, Ice Creamery, or as a friend notes later, Yaşar, Master of the Ice Cream Domain). Tapping a button, he flashes the colored lights on and off.
A young brunette scooper in a hairnet translates his words to basic English, “He is very happy! Love! Ice cream!”
I tiptoe and point at four pictures on the board: watermelon, honeydew, strawberry, and interestingly, a cow. No preservatives are found here. Everything is made fresh every morning. A young female scooper no more than twenty years old expertly scoops the ice cream into a cone. Yaşar motions me to go behind the metal counter. He opens the freezer, proudly displaying the colored bins. Then moving to a hidden bin, he plops a small scoop of orange colored ice cream on top of my cone. “Peach!” I exclaim as I take a lick.
My interpreter arrives, and Yaşar finally has a voice. He fills a table with fresh simit, circular bread with sesame seeds. Like a good Turkish host, he immediately serves black tea in small curved glasses, trimmed in gold. I drop a single cube of sugar and mix the tea with a small brass spoon.
Orphaned as a child, Yaşar lived on the streets of Bostancı, a neighborhood in the Asian side of Istanbul. Despite poverty, he searched for ice cream — to him, a small glimmer of happiness. With little education, he knew his opportunities in Istanbul were limited. Watching his friends fall into trouble, Yaşar became concerned. “I was scared to stay, but I was scared to leave everything I knew,” he remembers. “Everyone thought I was crazy.”
Armed with nothing but determination, Yaşar decided to follow his dream to Italy. Sneaking onto a cargo ship, he traveled through Bologna, Florence, and Rimini. There, he tasted all kinds of gelato. Soon, he found himself as an apprentice to a gelato maker. To his surprise, Yaşar discovered that the gelato was made with chemicals. “Why not just fruit and sugar?” he wondered. “Especially when that tastes better.”
He entered gelato contests in Sicily and to everyone’s surprise, he started winning. His recipes were simple: fruit and sugar. Quality, he learned, was essential. Yaşar studied under other ice cream masters for nearly a decade.
Returning to his own neighborhood in Istanbul, he opened a shop in 1971 at an open-air movie theater. Closing the original shop in 1998, he decided to take a rest. Yet his customers still asked for him. With renewed energy, he opened the new shop in 2001 on the busy street.
“Every morning, I wake up at 4 AM. I go to the market and pick up the freshest fruits. People said that I was crazy that I would buy a kilo of blueberries for fifty liras and sell a kilo of blueberry ice cream for forty liras. But you see, people should always eat the good stuff.”
Yaşar puts his hands together and exclaims, “Now, let’s eat ice cream!” He scoops tahini ice cream onto a slice of bread. “This is my unique creation.”
The taste of toasted sesame seeds slide down my throat. Its savory intensity melds quietly with the airy bread.
“I always eat half of kilo of ice cream in the morning,” Yaşar says. “That way, I know that it’s the best. You should not make your enemy eat something that you don’t eat yourself.”
His wife arrives and places her hand on his shoulder. She smiles.
Yaşar sits up and declares, “I feel embarrassed when I see ice cream makers who don’t eat their ice cream. You see the five cupboards, there? Pick one. If you find something dirty, even an ant, I’ll quit this job and close my shop. Let me tell you this: I believe that there are only three ingredients in ice cream: love, honesty, cleanliness.”
I ask about the future.
Yaşar scans the faces of his young customers. He shakes his head and says, “Yaşar Usta doesn’t desire for bigger things. When the goal is big, it loses its taste. One should have only one lover, if there are more than one, you cannot know the worth of them. One day, when these lovers start seeing others, you cannot control them.”
The sky is dark now. Lights start flickering on in the residential neighborhood full of twelve-floor apartment buildings. Flags hang down from the balconies. The call for protests has quieted. Customers still line up for the ice cream. I ask about his best memories.
“Somewhere in 1968, the Hürriyet newspaper [the national Turkish newspaper] wrote a piece on my shop,” Yaşar says. “’The first man in Turkey to make melon ice cream’, it said! I never knew that they visited me.”
Tears fill his eyes. He looks out at the busy neighborhood, his smiling customers, and his ice cream stand. “But today is my second best memory, when you came to hear my story.”
Meet Yaşar and try his ice cream in Istanbul, Turkey
Prof. Dr. Ali Nihat Tarlan Cad. No: 34/2 Bostancı
+90 212 325 3864
Jennifer Ng, a lifelong ice cream lover, chronicles visits to a dairy plant, the island where ice cream supposedly originated, and conversations with ice cream makers in Ice Cream Travel Guide. She meets former pastry chefs, Gelato University students, and fellow ice cream lovers. Jennifer seeks to answer the question: why is ice cream so special for so many of us?