When I started researching Turkish food I got excited. There were so many local vegetarian dishes to try—not something that happens in many places we travel. As I drooled in anticipation I knew food was going to be a big part of our Turkish experience and I wanted to learn more about the cuisine, so I signed us up for one of our favourite travel activities—a cooking class with Delicious Istanbul.
Our teacher Olga is a world traveller, originally from Russia, who fell in love with Turkey, especially the food. She married a Turkish man and has been running cooking classes for four years to share the knowledge she has learnt from her mother-in-law, who runs the family’s hotel restaurant in the countryside outside the city. Olga has both insider knowledge and an outsider’s perspective of Turkish cuisine.
Olga runs the kind of cooking class that she wanted as a traveller, focusing on what local people really cook at home. In Turkey home-style meals are simple, seasonal, vegetable based, and full of flavour. In our class we delved deep into Turkish cuisine, beyond kebabs and baklava, and learnt about its diversity and Ottoman Empire heritage with influences from North Africa, the Middle East, and Greece.
The Market Tour
We took a ferry across Istanbul to meet Olga on the Asian side of the city and, along with four American ladies, started by exploring the Kadikoy market where stalls have been run by the same family for three or four generations, passed down from father to son. Olga loves shopping here as it’s a place where you really get to know the vendors and chatting with them about their family is an important part of the transaction.
We wandered past organ meat stalls, fishmongers, and colourful vegetable stalls where the vendors were slowly setting up, discarding any imperfect specimens and creating a pristine display while they sipped tea in tiny glasses delivered to them on a tray. Turkey doesn’t import any vegetables, it’s all grown here. Vendors make it easy for buyers by preparing fish for you, and selling artichokes already peeled and cut.
We gazed at fresh vine leaves, a sign of the approaching summer; bunches of bright red cherries; white mulberries; shining vine tomatoes; sour green plums; apricots, peaches, and strawberries.
The market isn’t just about fresh produce; shops sell everything a Turkish cook needs—olives, white cheese, olive oil, spices, herb teas, yufka, the dough used for borek pastries, nuts, dried fruit, bulgur, lentils, and the Turkish ravioli called manti. Everything is sold loose in large sacks or tubs and you choose how much you’d like to buy.
We went into Olga’s favourite pickle shop where they pickle everything—carrots, beetroot, cauliflower, whole bulbs of garlic. They also sell a dozen varieties of tomato and pepper pastes which we learnt are the secret ingredients in Turkish cooking. Cooks wouldn’t dream of using the tinned stuff, here it’s pure—just tomatoes or peppers and salt, powerful and full of flavour. Pomegranate molasses, pomegranate juice simmered until it’s a syrup, is another important ingredient to add a sour note, and is used alongside olive oil as a salad dressing.
The best cooking classes include market visits and we loved seeing how Turks shop and learning about the ingredients that would go into the meal we’d be making. Many of the shops were adorned with attractive strings of dried chiles and peppers, and even okra and aubergine (eggplant) which we’d never seen dried before. We picked up some of the aubergines for our meal, a common ingredient in Turkey in the winter.
We didn’t just look and shop, we ate as we wandered—pomegranate and pistachio lokum (turkish delight) covered in dry rose petals, tart and sweet and delicious; tangy pickles; syrupy flaky baklava stuffed with walnuts, and with pistachio and cream; and fıstık ezmesi , a pistachio marzipan.
We visited a 91 year old coffee shop, where I had a wonderful lemonade with mint and ginger, and Simon had a small, strong Turkish coffee. We learnt that the coffee is boiled with sugar, so you have to choose your sweetness level when you order, and that strangely Turks consider it an afternoon or after-meal drink, not for mornings.
After a leisurely morning at the market we walked to Olga’s apartment in the historic neighbourhood Moda, where hipsters drink coffee in trendy coffee shops, and a few doors down old men play backgammon and sip glasses of sweet tea.
Olga doesn’t run a traditional cooking school with individual work stations and pre-prepared ingredients; instead we cooked family-style sitting around the counter of her lovely kitchen, sharing tasks as they do in multi-generation Turkish families where cooking is a communal experience, not something to be rushed or avoided. Turkish food is all about the preparation, and like home cooks, we spent most of our time chopping, and took turns at the stove.
Olga’s menu changes daily and she doesn’t just teach the obvious Turkish dishes. The cuisine uses a lot of vegetables so it’s easy to cater for vegetarians.
Starters or meze are an important part of a Turkish meal and most are meat-free. We made three of them: green beans slow cooked in olive oil until they are tender with a little onion, tomato, and the all important tomato and pepper pastes; purslane stew, a wild green cooked with onion, carrot, tomatoes and a little rice; and herb fritters with mint, spring onions, dill, parsley, white cheese (similar to feta), eggs, and flour.
Our main course used the dried aubergines we’d bought from the market. The insides had already been scooped out so after rehydrating them in hot water they were easy to stuff. Our vegetarian filling was a mix of red lentils, fine and coarse bulgur, onion, parsley, tomato and pepper pastes. We definitely started seeing a common theme with the ingredients.
Dessert was revani, a Turkish sponge cake made with semolina and yoghurt as the only fat. Of course, as we discovered in the pastry shop earlier, it wouldn’t be a Turkish dessert without soaking it in sugar syrup.
Once everything was ready we sat down to enjoy the feast with some Turkish wine. The green beans and purslane were flavourful but felt overcooked to my taste (this is how vegetables are eaten here); the fritters were addictive; and our favourite dish was the stuffed aubergines, so full of flavour, simple ingredients that had been transformed. The cake was wonderfully orangey and not as sickly sweet as I thought it would be with all that syrup. It was a delicious meal and we had no need of dinner that night.
It was a fantastic day, informal and relaxed, like cooking with friends. We loved the market visit and learning the principles of Turkish cooking—how layers of flavour are built up, the importance of real ingredients and of being proud of what you sell and make, and the joy of feeding a family. By shopping and cooking we learnt much more about Turkish cuisine and culture than we would have by eating in restaurants, and we were able to use the knowledge for the rest of our stay in Turkey.
Delicious Istanbul cooking classes cost US$125 and run from 9.30am to 4pm. This includes market tastings, lunch with wine, and recipes by email. The maximum number of people in a group is six. We’d also recommend checking out Olga’s food blog which we found helpful for planning our trip to Istanbul, especially her vegetarian friendly restaurant recommendations.
Many thanks to Olga who hosted us for the cooking class.
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