It was the hollow sounds of the call of the muezzin from the nearby Blue Mosque that woke me, but it was not the sunrise call and as I came to grips with this, John’s feeble, croaking voice entered my head from his place of repose on the far side of our palatial hotel room asking wasn’t it 10:30 and were we not supposed to be at our Turkish cookery class in 30 minutes.
We were, and we could not miss it, because the cookery class was how we justified our dereliction of duty and impulse in booking a three-day trip to Turkey. The severity of the situation shot like a roofing nail through the parched gray-matter contained in my skull.
In a fit of fumbling, we were up and showered and dressed and wrapped in black Wayfarer sunglasses and we had missed breakfast and so we were headed up the hill for the only thing that would help plant our feet on the ground after the revelry of last night; a fresh pressed pomegranate juice from the striped wagon at the top of the hill.
Last night had been typically Istanbul. It started with innocuous lager and Backgammon games followed by cold Raki and a grilled fish dinner and a blustery cruise across the Bosphorus. We were then lured like moths into a local bar by a blazing fire burning in an oil barrel out front. The bar played only gritty 70’s rock music and was adorned with black and white photos of the era. Debates about the music were peppered by louder debates about Backgammon punctuated with debates about lager, and then it was very, very well past bedtime.
The greatest lesson Istanbul taught me (besides the uncompromising bliss of grilled lamb) was the healing power of fresh pressed pomegranate juice. It takes about two and half of the giant red orbs to fill the tall paper cup. The slight bitter taste and the blood-thick consistency are convincing testament to its healing powers… And at two Turkish Lira, it is cheaper than lager, tea, coffee or water.
And so we drank the tart juice and were partially healed and we headed back down the hill - all the while squinting to fend off the searing Turkish sun – to the cook school called Cooking Alaturka. We walked in through the arched doorway and sat down in wooden chairs next to four Australian ladies and our hostess from America and we talked intensely and immediately about food at what seemed like a very early hour but what was in fact eleven o’clock.
Then we got to cooking. The kitchen belonged to a restaurant also called Cooking Alaturka and the head chef was a swarthy caricature of a Turkish man with giant hands. He overcame his limited command of English via a constant stream of stage humour related to the cooking. He poured golden olive oil directly from a massive 2 gallon can, he wielded a chopping knife roughly the size of a canoe paddle and he could carry a ten-litre stock-pot full of stewing tomatoes with one hand.
We cooked five dishes, two of which I will articulate here because they were so very good. The other three were good, but only just good.
The first of the very good dishes was soup; a red lentil soup, “Ezogelin Corbasi” it is called. It is very common in these parts, but in this preparation, possessed a flavour well into the territory of mystical and for good reason. The spirit of the soup seemed rooted in a base of roux, dried chilli and dried mint to which was added bright red paste of tomato and sweet red pepper. The whole affair, sautéing in a shallow lake of olive oil filled the kitchen with a sweet, smoky perfume that induced light hallucinations where one was floating a few inches off the ground in a dimly lit, brocaded tent belonging to an Ottoman Sultan. When the hallucination subsided the lentils were added and then a handful of bulgur wheat to give some tooth, and then it was ladled into clay bowls next to wedges of woodsy smelling meyer lemon to squeeze over the top.
The second very good dish was a cauldron packed high and tight with layers of mince stuffed vine leaves. “Etli Yaprak Dolmasi” it was titled. Constructing the shiny, vine leaf dolmasi was about as one would expect; stuffing each with lamb and beef mince, onion, garlic, rice and the like. The sorcery was in laying the cauldron with a ceremonial bed of herb stems – dill, mint, parsley – stems of the grape leaves, some sacrificial sliced carrot, sliced onion and garlic, and a pediment of marrow bones. The sacred offering provided a foundation that when steamed, punched fragrance through the tightly rolled dolmasi which were snugged tight in a single layer like piglets tucked under a duvet of loose vine leaves, tomato cubes, and heavy dinner plates. After a naptime worth of steaming (I dreamt of Saracens riding horseback dragging sledges of giant-sized Dolmasi across the Huzurlu high plateau) the Dolmasi were aroused from their hammam treatment and served in the rich, tangy broth that had inundated the pot.
Dining at the long wooden table, the conversation kept getting highjacked and forced to land at topics of global politics and social strife. My still-recovering mind was unable to implement its counter-hostility tactics to real the chat back to more soothing realms of food and travel, and so not being able to fathom a second glass of wine and wincing at the mere mention of Raki, soon after the warmth of the meal settled into my still shifting gullet, I excused myself, shook hands heartily with my cooking companions and walked out into the bright sun of the Sultanahmet with an intention of catching a horse-cab up to the covered bazaar to bargain for that pesky Bayonet that I had been dreaming of all night.
If you find yourself in Istanbul, you owe it to yourself to take a half-day cookery course at Cooking Alaturka. It is advisable to arm yourself with a good night’s sleep and a pressed pomegranate juice. It will be one of the best meals you have, and you will know how to faithfully recreate the dishes for when the Sultan arrives riding high on a gold-gilt litter to pay an honorary visit to your humble riad.