Kelle Paça Soup (Sheep Head Soup)

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Me with my much loved dog Christa, of and a cake beater I'd liked clean!
With my beloved dog Christa

For this year’s birthday post I thought I’d tell you about my long horror hate relationship with kelle paça, sheep head soup for the uninitiated. My intense dislike of offal started long before I moved to Turkey, although as a four year old I apparently loved the tongue soup my nana made, at least according to my mother. She herself loved offal or sakatat as it’s called in Turkey, in all its forms. Mum was born at the start of the Great Depression and like my nana knew that needs must. In Mum’s case it meant I was fed a regular diet of fried brains, sauteed liver, kidneys with onion and other tasty delights (not). Needless to say my darling dog Christa ate more than I did during those meals.

When do people eat sheep head soup?

Sheep head soup is a favourite soup during Kurban Bayramı in Turkey, when sheep are slaughtered in their thousands in memory of Ibrahim. Kelle paça, made from the head of the animal, eyes, brains and all, is considered by many as a delicacy. Luckily for them, it’s available year round.

Yes, they really are sheep heads, displayed upside down!
Sheep head soup ingredients. Why are they smiling?

This is unfortunate for me, because the skinned heads, carefully stacked upside down in mobile glass cases or in butchers’ windows, are everywhere. As if the rawness of the meat, denuded of skin and stretched tight over glazed eyeballs isn’t bad enough, the little teeth, gleaming nicotine stained yellow in their gory expanse of rich, plump flesh, seem to smile menacingly at me  as I pass. Being placed brain down seems to add to their grisly allure, so as much as I find them repugnant, I’m drawn to them as to a car crash.

My butcher is located in Fish street in Kadıköy, on the Asian side of Istanbul, and right next door to him is a gruesome pyramid display of sheep’s heads. It belongs to the neighbouring butcher’s shop that I don’t frequent. One day, a tall moustachioed butcher, his white coat splattered with worrying stains, was out the front rearranging the heads. Plucking up my courage, I asked him why the heads were baş aşağı, upside down. He looked at me quizzically for so long that I asked him again, louder this time, taking extra care to ensure I pronounced the words very clearly. Finally, in reply to what I thought was a reasonable question, he treated me to a ten minute lecture on the anatomy of sheep in Turkey. In very basic Turkish aimed at the young, or possibly the intellectually challenged, he said,

“Here is the body.
Underneath are the legs.
All of them.
Four”, he said, holding up four fingers at the same time.
“The head”, he was careful to tell me,
“Is not underneath.
It is on top. See?” he said while drawing a body with his hands,
“The head is here”, pointing to his own head.
“Not here”, he said while waving his hands in the direction of his knees.
“On top.
Not under.”

I hope you're not squeamish!
The makings of sheep head soup

Each sentence, no actually, every word he spoke was accompanied by a searing look directly into my eyes to check I understood him. Only when he was finally convinced I believed Turkish sheep had their heads on the top of their bodies, at the front, did he let me leave.

Ever since I’ve been careful to keep my head baş aşağı* when I pass the sheep’s heads. I’m afraid the butcher, who thanks to me probably thinks all foreigners are a little strange in the head, will grab me as I pass to check if I have any other misconceptions about Turkish livestock.

*When I came to write this story I was still puzzled as to why the butcher reacted the way he did. Checking my English-Turkish dictionary again, with a much better level of Turkish than I had when these events took place, I realised I should have said tepetaklak, which really means upside down, rather than baş aşağı, head down/under (despite what Google translate says).


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  1. Did you ever figure out why they were displayed upside down? Lol! Great story! Is this just at your butchers or elsewhere as well?

    1. I never did find out and I don’t want to ask again for fear of what comes out of my mouth! And yes, they are displayed the same way wherever they’re sold.

  2. Thanks for your description Lisa. I’ve never been quite sure about Kelle Paça and I can understand you having an aversion to it. But I think I just might try Kelle Paça now. Whilst checking it’s not swimming in oil as my one and only encounter with işkembe soup was. I liked tripe when my grandfather cooked it and I don’t mind offal. In fact my 8 year old granddaughter recently developed a taste for crispy fried liver in one of the lokanta we visited on her holiday.

    1. It made me laugh to read you now share a liking for liver with your granddaughter. I’m fairly adventurous about food but offal is one thing I can’t stomach. No pun intended!

  3. Your article made me laugh out loud. Not very Norwegian of me. When I lived in İstanbul in the 1970’s, my boss came out to visit in the first few months I was there. He wanted to take me to dinner at a typical Turkish restaurant in Taksim where he was staying. I didn’t know that area very well. I took him into a place I thought I knew on İstiklal. We sat down and opened the menu: “sheep head with brain, sheep head without brain, sheep head with tongue, sheep head without tongue…”. You get the picture. My boss paled and I suggested that we might try another place. He eagerly agreed and, making our apologies, we left. I heard later that when he got back to New York, he told the rest of the staff, Jon sure does like to eat in some crazy places”. My stock inadvertently had gone up!

    1. Travel certainly broadens the mind and widens the palette, or leaves us with great stories to tell. I’m glad I made you laugh and prompted you to share your own kelle paca encounter!

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