Cooking with Turkish Flavours in Istanbul
When people ask me what it is that makes my favorite countries stand out, the food almost always has something to do with it. This shouldn't be a surprise as travel and food really go hand in hand. What better way to experience culture in another country than by sharing a meal? This is no different for Turkey. Even before my first visit I was told by many how great the food is there. When I questioned these people on what exactly makes the food in Turkey so awesome I could never seem to get a strong argument. Small dishes, cold dishes, eggplant, and meat on spits were common words and phrases in the conversations. None of which was selling me on Turkey as a culinary destination.
I wasn't convinced.
Don't get me wrong, I love a good kebab. Although tasty, (especially at three in morning) street meat was far from helping me make Turkey one of my favorite places to enjoy a meal. To help me understand why Turkey gets such high marks for its cuisine I decided to take a cooking class while in Istanbul and enlisted Selin from Turkish Flavours to shed some light on the subject.
Selin loves two things, travel and food. Perfect. To be fair I'm sure her husband and dog YoYo slot in there somewhere although the order probably isn't up for discussion. Born and raised in Istanbul, Selin is a self-taught chef using family recipes and locally sourced high quality ingredients to make some seriously tasty dishes. She retired from the travel and tourism industry to open Turkish Flavours, a gastronomical experience that above all else makes you feel at home in the bustling city of Istanbul. Through her in-home cooking classes she has shared her passion for Turkish flavours with people from around the globe, combining her two first loves in the process – depending on who you ask of course 🙂
Getting behind Turkish Flavours
Before cooking and enjoying that wonderful Turkish meal it was important for us to understand what was at the root of Turkish flavours. Celine met us out front of the giant Spice Bazaar on our gray and wet Istanbul morning. After exchanging pleasantries she quickly linked arms with Erin and we were off. I had already decided I liked Selin.
We casually strolled the market halls while Selin gave us a rundown on the history of the Spice Bazaar. Mısır Çarşısı, meaning Egyptian Bazaar, was once a major market in the heart of Istanbul. Items from the east and west changed hands dating back 350 years in what was once the largest and most significant market in Istanbul. Although the market has transformed into more of a tourist attraction, items such as Chinese flower tea, Iranian saffron, medicinal herbs, spices, incense, and Indian curry can still be found today. High rent has pushed many of the quality shops out, leaving sub-par ones in their place. The best spots left are scattered between shops selling lamps and rugs. This is where having a knowledgeable guide like Selin comes in handy.
First she took us to a deli that has been around for decades. There we sampled Pastırma, a cured beef from Anatolia that is super red in color. "That is because the meat is coated with a thick paste of garlic, cumin, and paprika before being air-dried" said Selin sensing our perplexion. All I could muster back was a smile as I was to busy enjoying this delicious Turkish specialty. After enjoying the bright colours and smells of the market and stopping to taste local cheese we arrived at Ucuzcular Baharat spice shop (No. 51) for some spice sampling. We weren't exactly sure what we were in for but sampling spices is exactly what it sounds like. Super friendly shop owner Bilge Kadıoğlu gave us disposable sticks and talked us through the different spices used in Turkish cuisine and what they are used for. Turns out eating dry spices on their own is delicious, or at least the high quality ones Selin sniffed out for us were. Also the crazy assortment of Turkish delights. These too please.
Off to Asia
Armed with our new knowledge on Turkish spices (and $70 worth of vacuum sealed spices to take home) we were off to put it to good use. Selin, once again linking arms, guided us across the street to the ferry terminal where our ride across the Bosphorus waited. While on the scenic ferry ride to her home on Istanbul's Asian side we chatted about travel, food, and what makes the two such a great pairing. Selin asked about our current trip and where we had been so far. After we listed off a place she followed up with a "Isn't this delicious?" or "Did you try that??" There was no hiding her passion for food. Selin was excited to hear about our time in Iceland and the recent street food tour we did in Amsterdam with Hungry Birds. We were excited to hear about her recent trip to South Africa and all the amazing wine that was consumed there. Did I mention I really like Selin?
After our lovely chat and view of Istanbul from the river we arrived in Asia where Selin's husband picked us up and brought us to their home. Upon entering Selin's apartment we were greeted by YoYo, her famous pup. Besides being cute, YoYo is an animal actor and started in a TV commercial for an international energy drink called Burn.
But I digress
Cooking with Turkish Flavours
Spices and famous pups aside, it was time to roll up our sleeves and get to work. Thankfully Selin and her lovely assistant from Georgia do most of the preparation for you. So by work I really mean listening to Selin and sampling as you go. My kind of cooking.
On the menu
Red Lentil Soup
Crispy cheese and herb filled pastry rolls
Carrots with a garlic infused in yogurt and tahini dressing
Green Olive Salad with sumac and pomegranate molasses
pilaf with Orzo
Split Belly Eggplant stuffed with meat
Apricots stuffed with Kaymak ( clotted cream)
I was salivating then and I am salivating now. I can smell the aromas that filled the kitchen that day while writing this now. How is this possible? I guess Turkish flavours really are that great after all. Cooking with Selin was like cooking with family. We joked, drank wine, and tasted – all over our international love of food. It was great. Although we were making several dishes at once Selin's instructions and approach made it very enjoyable and felt like a breeze. We made an amazing lentil soup special for the cool and wet Istanbul day while prepping our eggplants for the meat stuffing that was already simmering on one of the stoves. We grated and chopped vegetables like a pro – but not as professional as Selin and her rose bud tomato, but still pretty great.
Amidst the chopping, drinking, and laughter, Selin's husband reappeared with a large package. "Today is a special day" smiled Selin as she opened the giant tub. Inside was the most amazing tomato paste which she had imported from a farmer in the interior.
I can honestly say I have never tasted anything like it. We could have polished of the whole tub. This was just a hint of lengths Selin goes to in order to source the best possible ingredients around. Her kitchen was full of these kinds of fresh gems. From the fruits and vegetables to the spices and wine, Selin's commitment to quality really sets her cooking class apart from the rest.
I could go on about how great it was to feel like I had a family in a foreign country and how amazing the food was smelling but really the proof was in the pudding, and by pudding I mean stuffed eggplant, lentil Soup, pastry rolls, salads, and stuffed apricots with clotted cream. Man can we cook.
This feast was amazing. The combination of fresh flavours and vegetables were unlike anything I had ever tasted before. These seemingly simple sounding dishes had some seriously complex Turkish flavours behind them. Choosing a favorite dish of the day proved to be difficult as they were all so flavorful and different. For arguments sake lets say the stuffed apricots with clotted cream dusted with pistachios. Oh my.
What a way to spend an Istanbul day
Spending a day cooking with Selin and Turkish Flavors was by far my favorite time in Istanbul – both on the Europe and Asia sides. It's not often you get the chance to spend the day cooking with someone who makes you feel truly at home their country, city, and apartment. Selin and Turkish Flavours can do just that and more. If you are short on time or would rather eat than cook Turkish Flavours also offers great food tour options. Looking for something a little more unique? Head to the shores for an afternoon of sailing and lunch.
What if one day isn't enough?
Have more time on your hands and feel adventurous? Hit the road for a culinary tour of Turkey. What better way to experience all the awesome sights of Istanbul and Cappadocia than centering it around the wonderful regional cuisine along the way. Even more appealing about this tour is Selin uses the Kale Konak Cave Hotel, the best hotel in Cappadocia, as one of her stops. Space is limited each year so book ahead if this tour speaks to you!
So why is Turkish food so great exactly?
Truthfully, I still don't know. What I do know is that it really is up there as far as my favorite places to eat. I also know now why it is so hard to explain this to other people. So what did Selin and Turkish Flavours teach me about Turkish cuisine? I already knew that it consisted of small dishes, cold dishes, and eggplant dishes – which is exactly what we prepared that day. What I didn't realize was the flavours and high quality ingredients that are readily available, a true testament to a country that sits on the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Beyond that it truly is in the taste and that is something you really need to experience for yourself.
And I hope you do.