Learning to Cook Turkish Home Cuisine in Istanbul

cooking class at Cooking Alaturka IstanbulAnyone who knows me, knows that I love Turkey. I love everything about Turkey. The culture, the music, the carpets, the landscape, the language, and of course…the food. Not just kebabs and doner but the Turkish home food and the food that you get when you go to a local locantsi and sit with the guys who are getting off work or taking a lunch break. That’s the food I love.  I mean, don’t get me wrong – I love it all, but it’s the flavors and subtleties of the home food that really make my palette happy. I’ve had a bit of the exquisite and wonderful Ottoman style palace food and found it to be extraordinary, but when it comes down to it, I’d rather have a big bowl of chorba, some dolmas, and a dessert that includes the huge variety of sweet dried fruit and salty dried nuts that fill every Turkish home’s pantry.

The problem of course is that getting Turkish home food is pretty difficult outside of Turkey. You can find the doner and kebap shops just about everywhere, you can find baklava everywhere, and of course you can find some odd Ottoman palace creation if you look hard enough – but the home food. It seems to know where home is. And, unfortunately, I’m not in Turkey most of the time. What’s a guy to do?

Well – since I had a few days of unscheduled time in Istanbul, I decided to take a Turkish cooking course that focused on Turkish home food. A friend recommended that I contact Eveline Zoutendijik, the Dutch expat who runs Cooking Alaturka and schedule a morning and afternoon cooking course with her. It was a great suggestion.

I showed up on a Saturday morning and met Eveline and Chef Fayzi Yildirim and the other members of the class.  They’d put together a menu for us to learn to cook:

Ezogelin corbasi – a red lentil and bulgar soup with dried chili pepper and mint..

Imam Bayildi – Which is stuffed eggplant and literally translates as ‘The Imam (preacher) fainted.” Eveline told us several stories about this name, my favorite was that a tight fisted Imam fainted when his new bride used all the olive oil in one recipe. There is a lot of olive oil in this one.  The other story is that the flavor and the oil dripping down his chin caused him to faint in joy.
cooking school Cooking Alaturka IstanbulKabak Mucveri – zucchini and cheese pancakes

Etli yaprak domasi – meat stuffed grape leaves

Incier tatlisi – Walnut stuffed figs in syrup.

It was the perfect menu for me to learn. Eveline offers other menus, but our group decided that this one would be perfect.  Her cooking school also doubles as a little restaurant so while we toiled in the kitchen, her husband George came in and set up the restaurant so that some lucky diners could eat the fruit of our labor of learning.

My classmates were two recent MIT grads on a trip around the world, a cook book publisher from San Francisco and a PR rep from New York. Eveline said that she gets many American clients but it was a bit strange to have us all be American – in any event we all got along and enjoyed our time in the kitchen together.
Turkish cooking course istanbulChef Feyzi was funny and often pulled pranks on us while teaching us the essentials of prep and technique.  Every cooking class I take usually yields some great tidbits and this was no exception.  My favorite takeaways from this one:

1) To peel a tomato you cut a small x in the top and then dunk it in boiling water for a few seconds.

2) To stuff an eggplant, don’t pull the eggplant out, instead, score it and then smush it to create the cavity you fill.

3) The size of the grape leave doesn’t matter, the dolmasi is the same size

4) All the leftover bits of veg and herb stems etc go on the bottom of the pan you steam the dolmasi in and serve to create an aromatic base and keep the dolmasi from sticking to the bottom. Waste not, want not.

Eveline and the Chef Feysi were careful to make sure that each participant learned each part of each recipe. We all got our hands dirty and did our share of chopping and cutting with one girl chopping onions for the first time and running away to the bathroom when she was overwhelmed with tears! Cameras were on hand and there were plenty of pictures taken of every step.

Cooking AlaturkaFinally, we sat down for a meal served by George and got to watch as other diners in the restaurant got to enjoy the food we’d labored over too.  The meal was delicious and by itself was worth much of the course cost of 140 TL per person (about 60 Euro) – it included two glasses of Turkish wine and the five course meal we’d prepared.

Overall, I would say that this was a fun course and a good experience.  I enjoyed the time in the kitchen and came away with a much better idea of the techniques and styles of Turkish cooking.  On the downside, it would have been nice to have a bit more structure – that is, to start one recipe, work on it, complete it, and then move on. Because we were cooking in bulk for the clientele of the restaurant (Can I say I’ve worked in a Turkish restaurant now?) we moved from task to task without necessarily working on the same menu item in sequence. Also, instead of each cooking a meal, we all contributed to the whole – which muddled things in my head a bit because while we all stuffed an eggplant, rolled vine leaves, and stuffed figs – the actual cooking was mostly done by the Chef…

Also, I would have liked a bit more history of the food, instruction on specific techniques that are unique to Turkish cooking – on this level the course felt a bit two dimensional and as one participant said – we would have gotten more information from a cookbook. Well, given that there was a cookbook publisher in the class – I wouldn’t be surprised if  you’ll find one soon.

I enjoyed the class. It was definitely worth my time and money and I recommend that if you are in Istanbul and looking for something unique to take home with you – this class will provide a way to bring a bit of Turkey to your table.

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Damitio  (@vagodamitio) is the Editor-in-Chief for Vagobond. Life is good. You can also find him on Google+ and at Facebook