By Anita Breland
For most of us, the food memories we hold most dear, began with the cooking of our mothers, grandmothers and their places of origin. I travel the globe with this in mind, with food as my way into the cultural traditions of the places I visit. Whenever possible, I seek out an opportunity to learn, from the mothers and grandmothers I meet, what a destination’s food culture has to offer. My first day in Istanbul, I spent a half-day in the kitchen with Selin Rozanes of Turkish Flavours.
Selin offers cookery classes in an elegant apartment in Istanbul’s upscale Nişantaşi district. Here, in the house where she was born, she provides a gentle introduction to Turkish home cooking, with a Sephardic flair. Our small group savored the spices and dishes of Turkey’s “city” cuisine, prepared in an intimate, informal setting. The morning began with introductions over a glass of sour cherry juice in a living room lined with overflowing bookshelves. Selin’s family stories, shared with her guests in a tschotke-rich apartment, transported us to an earlier, slower-paced era.
Fresh, seasonal, locally sourced ingredients
We prepared a full menu: soup, salads, meze, a main course and dessert. “I don’t use a lot of spices, because fresh ingredients are the most important component in our cooking,” said Selin. “Spices are there to enhance the flavors.” Sure enough, fresh, seasonal produce figured through the menu, from a salad of tomatoes and walnuts dressed with pomegranate molasses to the richly hued leaves for spinach börek.
Turkish cuisine is an amalgam of historical and immigrant influences. It also varies by region within the country, according to the terrain for food production—olive-oil dishes in the west, greater use of dairy products in the east. As we chopped and stirred, Selin brought out cookbooks to show us the cultural influences of the food we were preparing and talking about: Ottoman, Persian, even Afghani. A map of Turkey on the wall beside the stove was a frequent reference point through the morning.
My favorite dish of the day was split-belly eggplant. We learned to strip the skins just so, before Selin’s assistant shallow-fried them. While preparing a stuffing of seasoned ground beef, we tasted such staples of Turkish cooking as janissary spice and puree of sun-dried tomatoes and peppers. Selin showed us how to make a “surgical incision” on each eggplant, and stuff them just so. Before putting the dish into the oven to bake, we topped the eggplants with tomato slices and pepper spears, and poured lemon-infused tomato juice around our masterpieces. Served with spicy bulgur pilav and a glass of wine, split-belly eggplant was a fine prelude to a dessert of sweetened, juicy butternut squash.
Turkish Flavours beyond the kitchen
The class may be in the style of home cooking, but Selin manages preparation of the meal with the precision of a restaurant chef. I was impressed with her organization, layout of the teaching kitchen (a converted dining room), and the grace with which the finished meal was served. While preparing our luncheon, we nibbled on olives stuffed with orange peel and bites of cheese from Turkey’s dairy-centric east. The most interesting of these were a smoked Circassian and tulum, a sheep’s milk cheese aged in an entire goatskin. The latter is slightly sour, its flavor imbued by the skin during fermentation—who knew?
If understanding its food is a way into a culture, home cooking is its mantra. Cookery classes enlighten, awaken the senses to new flavors, textures and food environments. Selin Rozanes, a former travel agency manager, understands and welcomes the curiosity of travelers. For me, Turkish Flavours provided an ideal entrée to the explosion of taste sensations I would experience in Istanbul.
About the Author:
Anita is an avid traveler who delights in sharing her discoveries of cultural traditions around the world. She is on a never-ending quest for good food and the people who make it. Anita’s Feast is her blog about food, art and culture.
Photos courtesy of Anita’s Feast