Feyzi, the chef at Cooking Alaturka, hoists a 5-liter can of olive oil over a pan of small eggplants stuffed heavy with a mixture of paper-thin sliced onions, tomatoes, garlic, and fresh dill, parsley, and mint. The liquid gold flows from the can, coating the eggplants with a shimmering layer. Feyzi pauses, scans the faces of his students crowded around the stove for signs of protest, then continues. A few of us chuckle, not sure if we’re shocked or pleased that our eggplants are bathing in a half liter of olive oil. There’s a reason this recipe is called “The Imam Fainted with Joy.”
Slow travel has its many benefits. My favorite is that once you’re done with all the sightseeing, you can enjoy your surroundings without having to follow a particular itinerary. There is time to get to know and enjoy a place. In Istanbul, that enjoyment has centered around food. Food permeates Turkish culture more than I ever imagined. To get a close look at how deeply Turks love their food and experience the love affair myself, I decided to take a cooking class in Istanbul with Cooking Alaturka, a cooking school that doubles as a restaurant in old-town Istanbul.
Our menu started with ezogelin çorbasi, a red lentil and bulgur soup with dried mint and chili. After cooking the lentils, we mixed in a dark roux of a little flour, pepper and tomato pastes and herbs. Then Feyze demonstrated how to correctly prepare and stuff eggplants for the imam bayildi, the dish of the faint-hearted imam. Next we made the simple but spectacular kabak mücveri, mini savory zucchini pancakes.
The highlight for me was learning how to roll perfect dolmas, as we call them, or etli yaprak sarmasi. (One secret: don’t use too much filling.)
The dessert was sweet sekerpare, a semolina cake topped with a hazelnut and swimming in syrup.
At the end of the meal, Feyzi showed the coffee lovers how to make traditional Turkish coffee.
Cooking A La Turka offers courses in English, usually held in the evenings ending in a five-course dinner with wine, and occasionally in the mornings for a lunch-time meze (appetizer) menu. Istanbul has numerous cooking courses designed for visitors: some, like Delicious Istanbul and Turkish Flavors add tours of local food markets or the Spice Bazaar.
I chose Cooking Alaturka because of the friendly price and great reviews. At approximately 180 TL ($90), you receive a lesson and a five-course meal with two glasses of wine or beer, or non-alcoholic beverages. The meal alone was worth the price, as you get a chance to relax and chat with other travelers after a few hours hard work in the kitchen. I was able to join small a community of fellow wanderers and world cuisine lovers for a meal we made together. It felt a lot like home.
Have you taken cooking classes, or other courses, while traveling? What do you love most about learning new skills abroad?