An afternoon cooking in Istanbul [RECIPE]

Istanbul is a city with great narrative. It has style, romance, history, and food, an exploding music and art scene, plus a caressing Mediterranean climate. But after you've looked and tasted and examined and thought, the urge to do is inviting.

Cooking classes in a foreign town are a sure bet for the curious traveler. It's a tasty way to explore the city through its food. Cooking a country's food lets you start with the local foodstuff--the panoply of produce, spices, and herbs filling the bins and barrels of the local markets--and figure out how the odd vegetable and local grain combined to forge the foodways of a culture. And since most often cooking classes are held in a private kitchen, taking a class also gives a coveted peek into someone's private home or office, a look inside normally not available to tourists.

Prior to a trip to Turkey, a Google search produced the names of four Istanbul cooking programs. Cooking Alaturka was the only school with a class that fit the schedule. Turns out it was a most fortunate choice, as well, since the cooking school has a talented, English-speaking, Cordon Bleu-trained owner-instructor, Eveline Zoutendijk, and offers an authentic menu of Ottoman and Turkish recipes. The first cooking school in Istanbul, Cooking Alaturka is in the 2,000-year-old Sultanahamet neighborhood, within walking distance of the Haiga Sophia and the Blue Mosque, as well as the teeming, exotic Spice Market, which is called the "Egypt Market" by local cabbies.

Going to cooking school is not unlike the first day of school anywhere in the world. Who is going to be there? What will I learn? What to wear? Is the teacher going to be nice? Will it be fun?

For a class that would create a typical Turkish dinner, students came from Berkeley, California (honeymooners), London (single woman on a lark), Montana (a professional baker), the south of England (couple with little cooking experience), and New Zealand (attorney who specializes in the concerns of Maori people). Everybody in this mini-UN was curious about how the others live and how they found Istanbul. The hospitable Turkish introductory cup of soothing, hot tea was the fuel for hours of animated conversation throughout an afternoon of chopping, steaming, wrapping, and tasting.

The three-course menu included:
Ezogelin corbasi (Red lentil and bulgur soup with dried mint and chili pepper)
Iman Bayildi (Eggplant braised in olive oil with onion and tomato. According to Eveline, the dish translates as "the iman fainted with joy," a way to say that the dish is so tender, so bursting with flavor that even a serious man like an iman can't resist this delicacy.)
Kabak mueveri (Zucchini patties with herbs and cheese)
Etli yaprak dolmasi (Vine leaves stuffed with minced meat)
Sekerpare (Literally "Syrupy pieces," semolina sponge cakes with hazelnuts)
All of this was to be cooked in two hours, followed by a rollicking lunch of the group's efforts, accompanied by copious amounts of Turkish wine (more about that to come in another post).

One look at the vegetable-rich menu clarifies how the tourist eats compared to how the Turk dines: across the entire menu, which feeds four to six, only 12 ounces of meat is required. That small fist of lamb (kuzu kiyma) or beef (dana kiyama) is incorporated into 40 dolmasi. The next lesson? Probably no need for compost piles in Istanbul homes. Every single scrap of food is used; even all the stems and bits and pieces left over from each recipe's herbs are added as saucepan padding and aromatic for the stuffed grape leaves.

What to bring is actually quite simple: good shoes and the ability to play well with others. Cooking classes require the ability to form an instant working team with total strangers. Peeling and slicing 25 pounds of onions while listening to a compelling argument for the decriminalization of drugs reminds that interesting conversations most often happen in the kitchen.

The core of the experience is the teacher, and Zoutendijk works throughout the class to bring out the best of the food and the participants. She respects her students, her food, and her business. And she will assure that the grape leaves are folded correctly--even if the haphazard student needs four re-dos.

Here is the recipe for the soup. A tureen-full evokes the fun of that half-day in Istanbul and brings the caravanserai and the sultans, the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus, home to Minnesota.

Ezogelin corbasi
Serves 6

2 c. red lentils, washed not soaked
¼ c. bulgur, coarse grind
½ - 1 tbsp. tomato puree (dolmates salcasi)
½ - 1 tbsp. red bell pepper puree (biber salcasi)
1 tbsp. butter (tereyagi) and a little olive oil
1 tbsp. dried mint (kuru nane) (Note: dried is preferred over fresh)
1 tsp. Turkish chili flakes (pul biber)
5 c. water; chicken stock can be substituted but it is not authentic Turkish
1 tsp. flour (un)

  1. Cook lentils 15 minutes in 2-3 fingers high of water until they fall apart; set aside.
  2. Melt butter with oil in soup pot; add flour to make a light roux.
  3. Add mint, red pepper, and tomato purees, stirring constantly so the mixture doesn't burn.
  4. Add lentils, followed by water, and bring to a boil, still stirring.
  5. Add bulgur once soup is boiling, leave boiling for a few minutes, add salt and pepper to taste and turn off the heat. It's ready when the bulgur has plumped up.

Serve with lemon wedges and extra pul biber on the side.

No surprise, this soup is even better the next day.

Cooking Alaturka
Akbiyik Caddesi 72A
Sultanahmet, Istanbul
T (+90) 212.458.5919 Cooking Alaturka website

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