One of the (many) things I'm keen to do on this sabbatical is to learn how to cook traditional dishes from various cuisines, be it from a family's keeper-of-recipes, or a professionally-run cooking class.
While in Istanbul, Babs and I had the opportunity to sign up with Cooking Alaturka , a €60 4-hour cooking class located right by the Blue Mosque run by Cordon Bleu alum and experienced kitchen and hotel manager, Dutch-born Eveline Zoutendijk.
The proposition: Make a 5-course Turkish meal, then sit down together with your classsmates to eat it. Practice at home with your take-home recipe booklet. Not to mention, get to play with some badass blades. Bonus! (Melf this photo's for you!)
Our merry little crew of 8 on this particular day included a 30something couple from Kent, England; a couple of Americans who work for the US governement processing refugee paperwork (who sounded like they had been to every exotic location we'd ever been to or were planning to go to), and a retired couple from Florida who regaled us with tales of how their son and daughter in law took 2 1/2 years to sail around the world. Babs and I feel pretty tame by comparison!
Right. Cay and chitchat done for now. On go the aprons, up go the sleeves.
I'll be recapping the highlights of the class, but won't share the details on the recipes here, as they are not mine to share. Happy to practise what I learned and feed you the results if you'll lend me access to your kitchen and don't mind being a gourmet guinea pig, though!
Imam Bayildi: The Imam Fainted
This fabled Turkish dish -- made from eggplant, tomatoes, onions, herbs and spices -- got its name from its effect on a certain cleric. Possibly from how amazing it tastes, possibly from seeing how much olive oil goes into making it.
Eveline shows the class how to core and peel tomatoes (lookit how RED they are!). Classmate Simon puts some muscle into machete-ing the mint.
Feyzi, Eveline's talented and tireless chef, gives Babs a lesson in putting the squeeze on sliced onions, then dollops in tomato paste and red pepper paste. The latter is made in villages all over Turkey, by cooking red peppers then sun-drying them to concentrate the flavour. I'll have to figure out where to buy this in whatever city we end up living in next.
Next, we make eggplant boats, stuff them silly, lay them in a steaming pan, and watch Feyzi lay on the olive oil...and then some, and then some. A few classmates start to feel faint...
One of the rare moments Babs bothers to photograph his food.
Etli Yaprak Dolmasi: Grape Leaves Stuffed with Meat and Rice
I've never been a fan of dolmas until right now. I've wanted to like them, but there's something about the taste that never went down well. It was just too...overpoweringly...green? Turns out, grape leaves are usually sold in brine, and the more usual way to eat them is cold. This particular dish washes the leaves and cooks them, which may explain the much mellower flavour of the leaf.
We sort the leaves by size, and fashion a stuffing of minced beef, lamb, rice, tomatoes, onions, garlic and herbs.
Eveline shows us how to roll a dolma, which I turn out to be idiotically slow at. Those of you used to rolling ciggies are likely to do better. Apparently if you are a guest in a Turkish home, the smaller the dolmas, the more honour your host is showing you, since they went through all that extra faff to make them that dainty. I can just see Babs and myself protesting "Please please we're all friends here! No need for such ceremony! Bigger is fine!"
We start a production line. Many hands make light work.
Boil in stock, then serve with yoghurt on the side. Dolmalicious.
Mantarli Sac Boregi: Anatolian Flatbread with Mushrooms and Herbs
The key to these tasty mushroom packets is the pillow casing, calledyufka. They remind me of popiah (Chinese spring roll) skin, but with more elasticity. Cut the yufka down to size, lay on the pre-pan-fried mushrooms and herbs, fold, and lightly pan-fry the packet on all sides. Restaurants are more likely to deep fry these, resulting in something more akin to samosas .
Other popular fillings among the locals include spinach or cheese. I expect if I get around to making these at home, I'll be making them with shrooms AND spinach AND cheese.
Yayla Corbasi: Meadow Soup
This hot yoghurt and mint soup turned out to be a great combination of refreshment (from the lightness of the yoghurt and mint and lemon) and comfort (from the meat stock). I'm looking forward to making more yoghurt-based soups at home, or maybe using them as a substitute for cream.
Sekerpare: Syrupy Semolina Sponge Cakes with Hazelnuts
Another production line exercise in rolling out cookie-dough balls, plonking in the hazelnuts and brushing on the egg-white glaze before they go into the oven.
My heart stops momentarily as Eveline drowns the baked cakes in sugar syrup. They are then left to sit in the syrup and soak it all in -- at commecial bakeries possibly for a day or 2. I give my heart a few good thumps to jumpstart it.
Dust with powdered pistachio and dessicated coconut. Thankfully, these tasted lighter than I thought they were going to. For all my protesting I scarf it all down, while some others at the table sensibly stop at 1.
After lunch, we peruse Eveline's little shop shelf, which offers items such as spices, home-made jam (right), ornate tea trays and even the lovely giant curved knife shown above. Try explaining that one to airport security.
The retired American couple pick up a tea tray, and Babs and I pick up a copy of Tales from the Expat Harem, a book chronicling the adventures and insights of 32 expat women from 4 continents now living in Turkey as archeologists, volunteers, artists and entrepreneurs etc.
Eveline's chapter "The Painting or the Boy" is an engaging few pages that punch through rose-tinted glasses and pinch at the raw nerves of running a business in a foreign land and culture, and grappling with managing an employee with strong similarities in work ethic and conviction, but competely opposite beliefs. I look forward to reading the other stories, and the fruition of Eveline's memoirs which she's currently writing.
As for the class, it was a very enjoyable 4 hours of getting our hands saucy and then eating our handiwork. At a class size of 8, we just about fit into the teaching kitchen, so I'm not sure how well a full class size of 10 would navigate the space. It might be ok, if you're closer to the size of the dolmas of a very hospitable Turkish host.
Eveline also runs afternoon classes than end with dinner. If you want to test her culinary credentials before signing up for the class, or just want to sample her work without learning how to cook it, her restaurant is open for lunch, and by appointment for dinner.