Turkish Cooking Class
I admit it — I am a foodie. I think well-prepared food is a high art as worthy as painting, music, and sculpture. But, I am not an elitist. I think, with proper attention and care, street food, barbecue and home cooking can be as sophisticated as that that pretentiously passes as “the best,” in the some of the world’s most esteemed cathedrals of gastronomy. I believe, just as you can’t truly ever know a place without getting out of your “bubble” and experiencing the entire spectrum of what is available — from back alleys to the penthouses — you can’t ever actually know a culture without experiencing the entire palate of its food.
Crash Course on Turkish Culture
There is nothing like learning about a country’s cuisine to teach you about history, local customs and culture and a cooking class is like a crash-course. Spending time with locals, discovering new ingredients and trying different cooking techniques, can be a real shortcut into insights you would not have otherwise enjoyed. Also, spending a few hours in the kitchen with people who are passionate about great food and local ingredients is always a good way to make new friends.
This was brought home during a recent trip to Turkey. Knowing my passion for food, Jo, the manager of the Taskonaklar Hotel in Cappadocia, arranged with her friend Selçuk of Argeus Travel to take me to their friend’s, Bedia, Cafir and Ebru’s house to have an informal cooking lesson, learn about Turkish cuisine, eat a lot of (and I mean a lot) great food and just hang out for a while. Bedia, the proprietress of Bedia’s and her Cafer husband, greeted me at the door and welcomed me into and gave me a tour of their lovely home.
Drinking Turkish Raki Makes Everything Better
I could already smell some exotic aromas coming from the kitchen as we all walked upstairs and sat on their second-floor patio to chat and look at the Cappadocian countryside. Selçuk, the only other person there to spoke English, turned out to be a great interpreter and we, lubricated slightly with Raki (the national drink of Turkey, made with double-distilled grapes and aniseed, kind of like Ouzo), discussed everything from cuisine to current events. We built an easy rapport, and even though we didn’t share a common language, we managed to get by and learn about each other’s culture. They were as interested in why me, a retired American, would be living in Southeast Asia and traveling the world, as I was about the culture and general affairs of Turkey.
Eventually, Bedia thought we should get to work and start putting together our meal. She had her daughter in law Ebru bring out the dough to make Manti, a dish kind of like very tiny ravioli that is stuffed with bits of ground lamb and aromatic spices. Ebru rolled out the dough and then showed me how to stuff and fold postage stamp sized pieces of raw pasta dough together, taking special care to pinch the little packages tight. I started out making a mess, but eventually got the hang of it, and we all sat talking some more and making Manti.
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I must have been doing something right because I soon graduated to rolling the grape leaves to make Yaprak sarma, an Ottoman dish of grape leaves stuffed with rice, pine nuts, sweet red pepper, mint, parsley and a few other secret ingredients. Yaprak Sarma is served cold, with “Cazik,” a dish of strained yogurt, seasoned with cucumbers, garlic, salt, olive oil, lemon juice and dill. Similar to tzatziki.
As Cafer, Selçuk, and I were finishing up the making the Sarma, Bedia brought out what looked like phyllo pastry, and Ebru began rolling it out and stuffing it with feta, olive oil, parsley and other ingredients together to make Borek Peynirli, another Ottoman dish that is covered with olive oil, sesame seeds and baked.
At various points in the midst of all of this yacking, Raki, stuffing and rolling, various plates of olives, dried apricots, various local cheeses, bread, a honeycomb, almonds, pieces of cantaloupe, fresh cherry tomatoes and other nibbles would arrive and quickly disappear. I was getting stuffed, and we hadn’t even started on the main courses were now in the kitchen being cooked.
Bedia and Ebru disappeared into the back and, after a bit, returned with the prepared products of our labors and something I hadn’t seen before, a huge plate of Karniyarik, an eggplant dish stuffed with garlic, sautéed onions, tomatoes, parsley and ground lamb. The edibles filled the table until there was no room left. I embarrassed myself making so “nom nom” and “mmmm” noises. Bedia and Ebru were beaming, and Cafer and Selçuk were just smiling as we all dug indiscriminately into all the plates.
Everything, and I mean EVERYTHING was superb, but if I were forced to pick a favorite, I would have to say the Manti. The little morsels of meat filled pasta were served in a bowl and covered with a made with caramelized tomato paste, lightly browned butter and garlicky yogurt sauce. Just thinking back on it now is making my mouth water.
I learned a lot sharing this meal with new friends including the, “afiyet olsun,” a Turkish phrase that on the surface translates roughly as “bon appétit,” but is more an expression of goodwill meaning “may it be good for you.” Indeed, it was.
Bedia and Cafer set up the little restaurant/cooking school in their home near Ürgüp at the behest of their friends and neighbors who thought they should share their home and their hospitality with the world. My afternoon with them was more an impromptu get together arranged by Selçuk instead of a formal class and, try as I might, I couldn’t get them to accept any money. If you are in Cappadocia and would like to try your hand cooking with Bedia, try contacting Selçuk at Argeus Travel and Events.