GÖREME, TURKEY - I'm the type of international traveler who, after buying a guide book for my destination, turns first to the food and restaurant chapters. Those often are the most tattered pages of my guide books, dog-eared and marked as I read the information repeatedly – not only before I arrive at my destination, but equally as much while I am there.
I feel that if I don't know the cuisine of the place I'm visiting, I've failed in the universal travel experience. And I'm not talking just about finding a good restaurant for dinner. I'm talking about the deeper understanding of cuisine and culture. Sometimes, that means taking a cooking class in that country, which is what I did recently while spending a couple of weeks traveling through Turkey.
Pre-trip, I studied the culinary link between Turkey and Greece. Admittedly, I wanted most to know if I was going to find the best hummus or falafel that would cause me toss my passport into the Bosphorus River (I didn't, on either account). I wanted to know just how much baba ganoush (a Lebanese-created dish, but eaten mostly in Antakya, Turkey) would be available to me.
Eggplant, or aubergine, is widely used in Turkey. In a matter of minutes, a Turkish cook can name 40-some-odd dishes which incorporate the vegetable. Add that to the fact that Turkish cuisine is said to be one of the four global greats, alongside the cuisines of France, Italy and China. I had created an image in my head that Turkish cuisine would be so exotic and mysterious that I'd need to learn to cook a dish to really understand the food.
But what I soon found when I arrived in Turkey is that I was understanding the cuisine to be much more complicated than it is. It's not mystifying. In fact, its simplicity and commonality all ended up being the appeal. Time-worn traditional recipes, sometimes with a dozen variations by region or by cook, trump fancy dishes that require obscure ingredients not available in the United States.
Hayrunisa, a 60-something grandmother and lifelong resident of Göreme, was my cooking instructor. She explained to me that her country's cuisine stems from the Ottoman cuisine – a blend of the Far East and the Mediterranean. “You're looking too hard, expecting too much,” Hayrunisa told me when I explained why I wanted to learn to cook some Turkish dishes.
“I can tell you enjoy cooking, but don't (dismiss) the traditional foods you already know about. Turkish people prefer homemade food to eating at a restaurant,” she said. “Why do you think it's such a mystery?”
I didn't have the courage to tell Hayrunisa that I'd conjured up an image of a cooking class requiring us to slaughter a goat before we learned the recipes. Instead, I shifted my focus to learn classic dishes that are authentic yet easy to make and with ingredients accessible in the U.S.
Hayrunisa lives in Cappadocia, a region in central Turkey that is known for its other-wordly fairy chimney rock formations. The area is a tourist draw, and its climate is such that residents live off the abundance of potatoes, eggplants, tomatoes and mushrooms that grow there. A lifelong resident of Göreme, Hayrunisa has never traveled outside this region. She doesn't speak English, so the half day we spent cooking in her kitchen on a hillside of Goreme was facilitated by Arman, a 20-something woman who acted as my interpreter.
After picking up a few groceries, Arman and I walked up the hillside to Hayrunisa's home, where she keeps a spotless kitchen. Teaching cooking classes to foreigners is not a full-time job for her, but she does it often enough that she rarely sees only one person arrive to take the class. Usually, she says, she teaches a group of women – friends traveling together who want to do something apart from their male companions. Repeatedly through the class, Hayrunisa was struck by my willingness to come alone and learn dishes that she has perfected over the years of raising her children in rural Turkey.
I sensed Hayrunisa's self-imposed higher standard to help me perfect traditional dishes of Sarmas, Dolmas, Red Lentil Soup and the regional dessert Aside (more commonly known elsewhere as Halwa). These dishes are not difficult to prepare or stuff – unless you have grape-leaf-stuffing skills like mine. Hayrunisa repeatedly unrolled my leaves, chiding me for filling them too much.
I wondered aloud if my overstuffing was a sign of being American – more is better, we often think. She wouldn't say, but she insisted that I learn the right amount. I think it was as much aesthetics as it was technique. Hayrunisa told me that by the end of our time together, she wanted me to be able to stuff and roll a grape leaf with only one hand. I failed, and to assuage my guilt I turned the discussion toward the simplicity of Turkish cooking.
Its real beauty isn't in learning to slaughter a goat before a meal. Rather, it's in the affordability, fresh ingredients and ease of basic cooking techniques. There's nothing excessive in the presentation – no complex sauces to hide the foundation, no fancy foam in an attempt to dress up the dish.
Key among the ingredients is maras red pepper, a flavorful dried flake. Turkish cooks use it in virtually everything, dry and blended. It has a moderate amount of heat. In some uses, that heat comes off spicier than moderate. But when we added it to the lentil soup and stuffing for Dolmas and Sarmas, the heat dissipated quickly. Hayrunisa used it like salt. In fact, I rarely saw her use salt. I asked her if this was her personal preference or a national trend. Turns out, it is personal.
Last summer, Turkey's health minister launched an effort to make salt shakers on restaurant tables less accessible. This was to get Turks to lay off the seasoning. At the time, people in Turkey consumed three times as much salt as the worldwide average.
Even without salt, our stuffing for Dolmas and Sarmas had a savory appeal that is the hallmark of Turkish cuisine. And the recipe could not be easier.
Hayrunisa gave me wiser words than her special recipes: One of the world's great cuisines is also one of the simplest.